Inside Experts: Evolution of the firm/client relationship

The first step in evolving firm/client relationships is defining value.

This series focuses on evolution of the firm/client relationship. The first step in the evolution is a foundational one. What do the parties need/want to define such a relationship as successful?

As emphasized in the ACC Value Challenge, value is not “one size fits all.” In-house counsel would be well served to define value on a company-by-company basis, and sometimes even on an in-house lawyer by in-house lawyer basis. Why? Because, like every other service business, law firms exist to serve a need. Your personal business need, and the need of your corporate client. 

Before you explore the concept of value with your outside firms, you must ask yourself the question: “Am I working with the right firms?” Give yourself an honest answer. We take this for granted. Those at the top of the pecking order with the giant budgets may not be required at all times to shop for value (though we are all being pressed more than ever before). Those with smaller budgets may feel shunned or mistreated by their current firms because they are not viewed as “big fish.” Viewing these relationships in the same vein as dating may yield some interesting results. Start with the assumption that the right outside lawyer is out there for each matter you seek to outsource.

The problem is that many in-house attorneys attack this problem solving with a flawed worldview:  We feel that the best lawyers for our problem are the ones at the biggest firms. The old in-house axiom: “No one ever got fired for hiring [insert AmLaw 100 firm name here]” has been prevalent for quite some time. That concept is outdated. It presumes all you care about is protecting your own flank. This is not the mission statement of the in-house lawyer. We must focus on protecting and serving our clients. It is not difficult to see that the profession has never been more diverse than it is right this second. For nearly every matter, you have choices. When you were dating, had you assumed that the only person worth seeking was the prom queen/prom king, the odds were quite strong your myopia would have borne no fruit. You would have never talked to anyone else to gauge their worth. You would have missed all of the other people who were worth your time.

Talented lawyers are in firms of every shape and size. It is incumbent on you to find them, in order to best serve your client. When you find the right firm, you will be able to have open and honest conversations about what each of you want from the relationship. The right lawyer will be sensitive to your wants and needs (and those of your clients). They will want to deepen and maximize the relationship. Even if you may be a small fish now, they will see your long-term potential, and that of your company. If you have the big budget, they should be laser-focused on retaining you and broadening the relationship. When you find the right ‘partner,’ the dialogue flows. It is only at that moment that you can broach the topic of value. Value is giving you what you need to fulfill your mission statement in the best way possible.

Maybe, when you find the right ‘partner,’ value for you will be flat fee work.  Perhaps it means gain sharing/gain loss arrangements. Are you an early adopter on offshoring some of the firm’s load? To each of us the term carries a different meaning. Value is not a difficult concept; it is simply a subjective and specialized one. When you choose the firm, and they become vested in your success, work with them to help define what it means to you, and if they are the right fit, they will work with you. If they do not rest assured, others will. As in dating, you are unlikely to find the right partner until you truly know yourself and what drives you. It is no different here. Figure the needs of you and your client, then define value internally, and only then should you go test the market for suitors. And remember, while the firm technically maintains the vendor status in the vendor/client relationship, what they need matters as well. Trying to shoehorn your work into their universe against either Party’s better judgment is usually a sure-fire way to ensure relationship failure. Establish the dialogue, get to know each other, and who knows, you may have a match made in heaven* (or the lawyer’s reasonable facsimile thereof).


*The author does not make any representations or warranties that an actual match will be created, nor that any match will be heavenly.’ Stores, participation, and your mileage may vary.

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Stephen Kaplan

Stephen Kaplan is senior vice president and general counsel of Connextions, Inc.

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