The big dumb case: How a seemingly simple matter can be worth a whole lot

How can inside counsel and outside counsel overcome the communication gap?

A friend of mine recently asked me to comment on a conversation he had about business development. During an afternoon on the golf course, one of my friend’s neighbors, a CFO at a public company, was expressing concern about an exchange he just had with the SEC. He was worried. My friend, a transactional lawyer, offered to connect him with a securities specialist at his firm who could help review the filings. Yet the CFO hadn’t called. In fact, my friend just found out his neighbor had opted to hire a competitor instead—one who, according to my friend, charged 200 percent more. “Why?” is what he wanted to know from me, “What did I do wrong?”

After years of interviewing corporate clients about why they hire—and keep working with—law firms, it was clear to me: “You answered the wrong question,” I told my friend. Let’s look at this from both sides:

The remedy to overcoming this inside counsel (client)/outside counsel gap is twofold: 1) ask the right questions and 2) key into the business factors driving premium work. Whether formally or informally, taking the time to inquire about the business issues behind a client’s legal problem not only deepens your understanding of the client’s need but also provides a competitive edge.

According to clients, understanding of their business is one of the rarest characteristics they see in their outside counsel. To get at core drivers, ask open-ended questions such as: What motivated you to address this issue now? What is your ideal outcome? Are there others invested in the outcome of this matter? What do you think they will find most helpful? How will they be measuring your success? If you could change any one aspect of this situation, which would you pick first?

Marcie Borgal Shunk

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