Value add: What it means and how to provide it

Value add is often determined by service providers deciding what will be valuable to their clients

A week, and sometimes a day, doesn't go by without those of us in the legal industry hearing about adding value. Value add is often determined by service providers deciding what will be valuable to their clients. To find out what's truly valued by clients, one must ask the client. And every individual with whom the firm has a relationship at any given organization may have a different answer.

Defining value isn't easy for in-house counsel either. During a recent round of client surveys, we asked 18 in-house counsel this question: “What does ‘value add’ mean to you?” We received a range of responses from these GCs and senior litigation counsel, including:

From a global insurer: “Value is a function of how satisfied I am with the representation overall. If the firm is providing competent, relevant, appropriate legal advice that is consistent with the company's strategy and objectives, I’m not going to shop around.”

From a technology giant: “It should speak volumes that we fired a lower-cost national firm and hired this firm. If you don't understand our business and we have to spend time going through things like our CEO's tolerance for risk or our distribution channels or our suppliers and the industry challenges, then we’re not interested in your firm no matter how good the lawyers are. There are a lot of good lawyers. You can't provide value if you don't understand our business as well as we do.”

Snell & Wilmer's litigation head Barbara Dawson knows alignment with clients is critical and seeks out ways to listen and add value. Her perspective: “I like to try to understand client internal priorities. Organizations have unique personalities based upon what is most important to them. Being able to see legal issues within the framework of an organization's own priorities helps outside counsel to add value, as the client would define it.”

One partner who asked not to be identified provided this thought: “We value our clients and work diligently at understanding what they value and how we may better align with their goals and expectations. We do this on our own clock and do not charge the client for any time we spend learning about their business and what will be of value to them. That said, there are times in-house counsel could provide their outside counsel with guidelines and suggestions on how to best add value, how to meet the business people behind the deal/case, and how to retain clients. This is a two-way street after all.”

Some may see these comments as arrogant; they were said with good intent and sincerity. These challenging times for the industry affect both in-house and outside counsel. And as inside counsel know well, their company's customers are also demanding more value, so it's a circle that continues on through their service providers and vendors.

One senior IP litigation counsel from a larger financial institution suggested: “One of the ways in which outside counsel might add value from my perspective is to show you care about the relationship. For example, I am a Miami Heat fan even though I live in San Francisco. Call me for a few minutes and talk about the game. …Our days as in-house counsel are very busy; our time is scheduled for us and we are in many meetings. Sometimes it's a welcome break to know someone is thinking of me even if I only have a few minutes for the call. It's an interesting way to show you care and that is valuable to me.”

Whether it's in-house counsel or outside counsel, it's wise to ask clients how the firm or the department may add value. Client input, after all, is invaluable.

Silvia Coulter

Silvia Coulter is a principal consultant with LawVision Group LLC. Reach her at

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