A couple of weeks ago I wrote about biscuits. Well, that, and how some firms appear to get relationships with in house counsel wrong.
Since then a few other people have written about this issue, from a variety of perspectives. Some are listed and linked to in @BrettTechLawyer’s guest post below, and others include Heather Morse at The Legal Watercooler and (my personal favourite) @MagicCircleMinx on the semiotics of biscwits.
As this debate has developed, I’ve become slightly concerned that my piece might be misunderstood as being against private practice lawyers in general. So I’ve decided to return to the scene of the crime, in the hope of putting over a more positive view.
The intended targets of my original piece were law firms that don’t acknowledge the importance of individual lawyers to client relationships and, to a lesser extent, private practice lawyers who don’t deliver on their firms’ promises. But it was implicit in my argument that some private practice lawyers do get it.
I mentioned that I had instructed two lawyers at their new firms, in part as a result of their previous firm’s failure to do anything pro-active to maintain the relationship when they left. The other side of that coin is that those two lawyers had built relationships with me that made me happy to do that.
There’s a number of reasons for that. The first, and most obvious, is their expertise in the areas that I need. But, as I said in the original piece, that’s not the main differentiator.
The second reason is trivial, but I wonder if insufficient attention is paid to it as a business skill – they’re likeable. They’re happy to have a chat, they don’t patronise me, and they don’t try to get me off the phone as quickly as they can so they can get on to something more billable.
This isn’t about taking me out to lunch, because neither of them ever have. Sometimes it’s talking about trivia, legal or otherwise, and sometimes it’s about listening to me as I ramble on about how rubbish 400 page contracts are (they are both remarkably patient).
What these lawyers are doing is building a rapport with their client, not because it’s relevant today but because it might build and sustain a longer term relationship. I can remember being taught this when I worked in a call centre, but never in my legal training.
That thing about listening brings me to the third and most important reason (to me, anyway). My employer has particular ways of doing things, and both these lawyers understand them and are happy to work with them.
That extends to big things like our approach to commercial and legal risk, and to small things like our house style and our contract approval process. The point is that they don’t try to substitute their view for ours (or their font, for that matter), and they engage fully with our way of doing things.
That saves me time, because I don’t have to double team negotiations or spend time persuading them why I’m sometimes happy to accept an agreement to agree. And it means that the non-lawyers in my business are impressed as well, because there’s less friction and more value in the process.
That all seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? But it takes humility, and a lot of lawyers (many would say the author included) are, um, challenged in that area.
In particular, the view that work is outsourced because it’s too technical for the in-house team seems widespread even in core commercial practices. I would argue that the result is a failure to listen properly to what their clients are telling them.
My two lawyers show that it doesn’t have to be like that. They are just examples, of course, and I am sure that there are many great lawyers who do just what I’ve described in this post – I worked opposite one last year, a partner in a national firm who put the instructing in-houser sat beside him to shame with his pragmatism and his understanding of his client’s business.
And we in-housers should acknowledge that last point – some in-house lawyers aren’t great at delivering value to their clients either. More on that another time.
But, to reiterate the theme of this post: lots of private practice lawyers do know how to deliver good relationships and good value for in-house teams. But I’m sticking to my original argument – that it’s down to individual lawyers, rather than firms, and that the latter need to recognise that.