The law firm/client relationship: Your team is our team

There is one big checklist item firms are forgetting as they decide who is in and who is out: their clients

We are once again facing a potential rash of layoffs from law firms. Litigation is down just about everywhere and firms are starting to let those lined up at the equity partner door know that it's only open a crack. When the initial shock is absorbed, these well-trained, talented lawyers will be on the prowl for new opportunities and will most likely find something somewhere. For those without a book of business, the search for a new big firm opportunity might be tougher. Coupled with the slide in litigation, clients have deliberate mandates from their boards and C-team to cut costs. This may also cause a few more folks to be pushed out the door. There is one big checklist item firms are forgetting as they decide who is in and who is out: their clients.

Clients view their outside counsel's team as part of their own. A well-known Silicon Valley GC and member of the patent bar stated it this way: “The patent bar is a tight network. I heard about a young lawyer who worked with us for quite a while who was asked to leave one firm and then joined a large global firm well ahead of when he called to tell me about it.”

He added, “And the firm he left never let me know about it at all—that's arrogance on their part. As soon as I convinced our chief financial officer to switch firms we did. It's arrogant to think we don't care about our outside counsel team so much to the point that a firm would not think of calling us ahead of time to let us know about their decision. I would not interfere or tell them how to run their firm; but, I don't expect to learn about an important team member being let go and to start receiving emails and updates from someone I’ve never even been introduced to.”

In short, this GC's view underscores the fact that the law firm's team is the client's team. That's worth underscoring.

An East Coast tech giant's GC agrees: “Our primary outside counsel forgot to let us know about a team member who was laid off. I felt as though I walked down my hall and the lights were out in someone's office who I’ve known for a long time and he left without saying goodbye. We need to be informed; we view these folks as extended members of our team. And why wouldn't we give consideration to them at their new firm? Of course we would for the right opportunity. If our relationship partner at the firm is proactive about letting us know there will be a change on our outside counsel team, we may even be able to assist with helping the individual find a new opportunity. This is another example of why it's important to communicate with your clients and to be proactive about that communication.”

He added, “I came from a firm, a while ago now, and I do recall from that experience there are partners who believe their clients belong to them. This attitude may be what's behind the lack of communication from the perspective of it's my client and they only care about me. That's an incorrect assumption that needs to change. While we are on this topic, please do pick up the phone and talk with me about this; try not to email an important message like this—or at the very least do both.”

The bottom line: Inside counsel care about their relationships with outside counsel and their team. It makes good sense to keep them informed about any upcoming changes.

Silvia Coulter

Silvia Coulter is a principal consultant with LawVision Group LLC. Reach her at scoulter@lawvisiongroup.com.

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