In-house counsel must tailor their work to best serve their clients

One size of service does not fit all

In a recent article for this publication, in order to take the first step in defining value, I stated that being risk-averse in nature, in-house attorneys may default to a large firm to ensure they do not subject themselves to Monday morning quarterbacking by their clients and other lawyers. I also said that this mentality does not “[protect] and serve our clients.” 

I received a few emails from fellow practitioners challenging me to define what it means to “protect and serve.” We learn to protect through our training and experience. To serve is far more complicated. It is facile to presume that any one person is an expert in this regard, which I did not do. It is truly “one size fits one.” However, I can’t think of any conversations I have had with in-house lawyers in which they said they were worse off for either truly embedding themselves within their business environments or reframing their client relationships as learning/teaching opportunities.

As for embedding, we can better educate clients on the items that matter by engaging in regularly scheduled “immersion therapy,” where we spend time in meetings that solely relate to our clients’ operations. Despite our grooming in the ivory-tower universe of legal academia, the education that can best define our value is our understanding of our clients and our willingness to meld that reality with advice, rather than seeing our counseling as an overlay under which the business must labor. Lunches with our clients and their employees rather than our legal counterparts builds bridges and understanding of one another’s universes that can be useful when situations get ugly down the road. Banding together at all times with our own kind does not necessarily generate results that matter to those who fund our paychecks.

It may seem similar to the approach outside counsel use when they try to develop their rapport with you. That’s not a bad thing. They know that the “getting to know your needs” part can be as important as actually addressing those needs. Try this out with your businesspeople. It certainly can’t hurt.

Regarding reframing relationships, there are fundamental differences between in-house lawyers and their clients that can get in the way. Not all of us are business-minded. Some are legal purists, in the sense that they enrolled in law school and reveled in the complexities found within laws, regulations, cases and briefs. The purists occasionally have confessed to me that they do not really like the day-to-day interaction with their key clients. When pressed, they admitted that a client’s lack of legal understanding is sometimes too frustrating to overcome, and over time, that frustration leads to an overarching philosophy that clients just don’t “get” lawyers, or, even more destructively, that business clients are simply not as smart as their counsel.

Instead of focusing on real or perceived differences and their negative effects on our client relationships, these gaps should be learning opportunities for both sides. This is not to say I don’t have a history of frustration in these same moments. We all do. But when judging our success, the ability to transmit why in-house lawyers care about an item and why it’s good for the company is as important as the content of the advice itself.

Let’s face it: These changes aren’t easy. We come into the in-house practice speaking vastly different languages than our clients, but with a little adjustment, we can hope to increase our effectiveness and the perception of our value. Even in the largest corporate legal departments, lawyers are vastly outnumbered by their business clients. By changing our worldview, opening ourselves up to learning and operating with a bit more patience, we might be able to change our clients’ perspectives of our practice, and even the departments as a whole.

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

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