The Bizzle

"Saving your ass since 1999"

It’s not about the biscuits

Do you buy law firms, or lawyers? 

In house lawyers get asked that question quite a lot, by outhouse lawyers and by each other. To put it another way: which is more important in choosing your external legal advisers, the attributes of the firm as a whole, or the attributes of the individual lawyers that you deal with? 

For me, the answer is clear: I buy lawyers. The most important thing for me is having an adviser that understands my business, and in particular its commercial drivers and its appetite for risk. 

Of course, all of the big firms will say that this is what their lawyers deliver. “We are business advisers first, and lawyers second” is the slogan, and everyone prides themselves on their ‘commerciality’. 

But I’ve seen enough of private practice lawyers who sit back and say “that’s a commercial point” when any question of money or risk arises to know that those promises aren’t always, or even often, delivered on. And god help me if I ask an outhouse lawyer to venture anything so firm as a recommendation on any matter that is less than black or white. 

Why is this a problem? Well, there’s two reasons why I need to outsource legal work: lack of resource and lack of expertise. If it’s the former, then I have a limited amount of time to spend on supervision, and in the latter case the whole point is to get someone who can deal with a matter that I can’t. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that crucial decisions are turned over to external advisers. But in both cases, a lawyer that wants me to handle all of the commercial points, or who gives equivocal advice, isn’t delivering the value that I need. 

So when the standard of legal expertise is pretty much the same across a wide range of firms (and it is, despite the fetishisation of the city firms), what differentiates is a genuine understanding of non-legal considerations and a willingness to come down off the fence. And that is very much a matter of the individual lawyer’s own experience, skills and personality. 

Where does this leave the promise of great service that many firms would see as their great selling point? Well, that’s important, but for me it’s a hygiene factor – a reason to leave if it’s not there, but not a reason to buy in the first place. 

Let’s face it, pretty much any firm of a reasonable size offers speedy turnarounds and quality documents, and most will lay on half-yearly seminars for in house counsel to snooze through. Many even have nice biscuits (although quality pens seem to have disappeared in recent years). What differentiates in service terms is the ability, enthusiasm and likeability of individual lawyers – which comes back to my original point. 

But the larger firms seem to view their lawyers as interchangeable. For example, for many years we have instructed a large national firm on commercial matters, and have developed a relationship with two lawyers in particular. When they both left for partnership at smaller firms within a couple of months of each other, the national firm did nothing to maintain the overall relationship – and so we have continued to instruct those lawyers at their new firms. 

Why does this happen? In that case, we hadn’t spent a great deal on external advice for a couple of years, so I guess that they didn’t feel that we were worth the effort, But our spend has increased a fair bit recently, so that looks like a mistake from this end of the telescope. 

At the level of individual lawyers, I’m not sure why more don’t take the time to really understand their clients’ businesses, or even the individual transaction that they’re working on. Maybe it’s workload, or maybe it’s because the hours might not be billable. In some cases, I rather get the feeling that it’s because they don’t believe that they have anything to learn. 

Now, this is a personal view. There are clearly many other reasons for choosing external advisers, amongst which I would guess that (for commodity work and when setting up a panel) fee structure ranks foremost. And the city firms do offer something extra on those deals where time is important and money isn’t (specifically the abuse of trainees and support staff, but that’s for another time). 

But for me, it’s always the individual. Maybe I just want to be loved?

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16 responses to “It’s not about the biscuits

  1. MJ January 17, 2011 at 12:17 am

    Hi, in-house colleague.
    Just discovered your blog by chance, through a comment in Twitter. I really like it.
    I have ready several of your posts, because I felt so much sympathy with your comments and your words, that I wish many more in-house friends could read these and we could comment on them, share experiences, and laugh a bit together.
    Thank you for these posts, so sincere, so straightforward, and so well expressed.
    Great blog!

  2. legalbizzle January 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Wow, that’s very kind – thank you! Hope I can continue to inform and entertain, and I look forward to reading and discussing your comments.

  3. Linda Cheung January 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Hi LB,
    Flattered that our Twitter chat with @BrettTechLawyer et al inspired!
    Great post. Absolutely – if technical expertise and commerciality are assumed, personality becomes the USP. Judging by all the positive tweets about your blog, many agree. Hopefully more firms will wake up to this in attracting new business and retaining existing clients.
    It’s madness that the national firms who lost your business “did nothing to maintain the overall relationship” – I’d put money on their corporate literature, websites, etc. all making reference to how valuable clients are, and how they’re trusted advisors to their clients’ businesses… If that were true, they would have known that their fees were at risk when key relationships left, and that spend was due to increase “a fair bit recently”.
    We’re working on spotting and fixing scenarios such as these at Connectegrity. We think we can help make relationships broader and deeper, and ensure issues are shared and flagged appropriately. We’re always on the lookout for other pain points to solve – feel free to email info@connectegrity.com with any that are key to you.
    As for wanting to be loved LB, you get the thumbs up from all @connectegrity – cheers for the chat!
    Linda

  4. Richard Moorhead January 17, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Senor Bizzle,

    You touch on the question which always intrigues me about in-house out-house counsel. You say the, “standard of legal expertise is pretty much the same across a wide range of firms (and it is, despite the fetishisation of the city firms)”. You also say, one of the reasons for instructing ‘out’ is when in-house lacks the relevant expertise. My interest is, when you do that, how do you know what their standard of legal expertise is? (I’m not implying you don’t, I’m just wondering how you judge).

    Lovely blog as ever.

    Richard

    • legalbizzle January 17, 2011 at 11:31 pm

      Good question. It’s true that, if I don’t have expertise, it’s hard for me to judge the advice that I receive. But in my core areas (i.e. where I’m instructing out for resource reasons), or when I’m acting opposite outhouse lawyers, my experience is that expertise is fairly standard across firms. So I guess that I extrapolate from that – and, of course, that may not be valid.

      Thanks for your kind words, by the way.

  5. John Hellerman January 20, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    LB, Good afternoon. I wanted to comment to tell you how much I enjoyed your post. From the marketing perspective, I’ve been on a similar kick for a long time and wanted to share with you an article from October 2004 I wrote called, “Forget your Firm;- Market Your Partners!” It is available here: http://tinyurl.com/4w72f7t. We also just did a blog post on the importance of Content development to get your expertise in fornt of potencial buyers such as yourself. Check it out if you find some time.
    It has always struck me as odd that the firms do a lousy job branding their actual marketplace products — the lawyers — and just in the last quarter of 2010 and now in January 2011 we’ve picked up several individual clients – paying out of their own pockets – because their firms are too interested in the institution (with little pay off) and not enough on them. It is a growing trend.

    In any case, thanks for being one of the proponents. Let me know if you’re interested in doing something together on the subject.

    Best,
    John

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  8. Josh King January 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Brilliant post, and it rings just as true here in the States.

  9. Heather Morse (Milligan) January 21, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Great post, and I couldn’t agree more (even if we do call them cookies over here). Had to take it and run with it over at my blog: http://legalwatercoolerblog.com/2011/01/21/its-the-lawyer-stupid/.

  10. Betsy Munnell January 22, 2011 at 1:11 am

    Found you, your blog and this wonderful post thru Heather Milligan Morse. (http://legalwatercoolerblog.com/2011/01/21/its-the-lawyer-stupid/). Excellent. Brace for more retweets!
    And I’ll look forward to reading, and learning from, your blog. Just started my own a few months ago in connection with a move to coaching after 30 years of law practice.

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