This post is part of our series on some of the informative sessions at this year’s CLOC Global Institute.
The working relationship with outside counsel firms is at the heart of a successful corporate legal department, making the question of how to build good relationships extremely important. A panel consisting of three corporate legal professionals and a law firm partner explored this question and offered practical advice to CLOC attendees.
Communication and collaboration
The session’s presenters identified communication as one of the pillars of a good client-firm relationship but cited statistics that demonstrate challenges in this are common. For example, according to a study, 88% of clients think that responsiveness is the most important reason to hire a firm. However, 42% also indicated that it often takes three to four days for outside counsel to respond to their voicemail.
To ensure that the relationship remains positive, it is important for clients and law firms to engage in proactive and regular communication. This allows them to stay informed about each other’s needs, goals, and challenges while helping to build trust. Trust is critical because there will be a negative impact on the relationship if the client is consistently concerned about issues, such as how a case is being presented and whether bills are fair.
With communication and trust well established, outside counsel and in-house attorneys should work together to build a shared culture that promotes innovation. This means creating space to try new ideas and creative approaches to problem-solving. Legal teams should engage firms willing to come to the table with innovative solutions, then foster that creativity.
Stacy Walsh, the presenter from Travelers, shared one of that company’s practices to spark and encourage creativity. Travelers hosts “innovation sprints” in which several firms – at times as many as 40 – brainstorm ideas to address various legal challenges that Travelers faces.
On the internal side, companies can seek to identify innovation champions – individuals within the legal department who are open to novel ideas and approaches. Connecting them with firms helps to promote an atmosphere where innovation is not just acceptable but welcome and expected.
Change management is a critical part of successful collaboration between corporate legal departments and firms. Clients want to be kept updated on what firms are doing with respect to project management, design thinking, and use of technology. In turn, as clients, in-house staff should always be open and clear in their communications with outside counsel when they are implementing changes to technologies or processes that affect firms. The presenters suggest that legal departments should do the following when implementing changes:
- Be clear with firms about the reasons for any changes. This helps keep firms aware of and aligned with organizational goals. It also helps morale by making it clear that the effort associated with change is in service of specific objectives.
- Test new ideas by executing pilots. These provide the opportunity to experiment using an incremental, phased approach. Be sure to get feedback from those on both sides who are involved in the pilot – and make refinements based on that feedback – before implementing the changes on a larger scale.
- Be aware that the culture at outside counsel firms may not encourage innovation or allow for potential failures when new ideas are tested. It is important for clients to be clear that they are creating a safe space where those things are encouraged.
Keep in mind that communication and alignment are valuable across all points of contact beyond the attorney role. Operations roles that exist in both organizations, including billing and pricing, should be included in the strategy for establishing a strong working relationship. When collaboration and transparency are the core of legal department/outside counsel interactions, colleagues on both sides can be confident that they are working toward shared goals and successes.