It a well-known phenomenon that unlike every other business and profession, lawyers avoid asking what their clients think of the services they have provided like the plaque. It’s almost like we fear the answer. And maybe we should.
Now, at least, thanks to Ari Kaplan, Relativity, and FTI, there are answers to questions about what clients want from lawyers and whether lawyers are providing it. And these answers are a little scary.
Relativity and FTI recently partnered with Ari Kaplan Advisors to interview 32 general counsel from corporations of all sizes between March and June of this year. The results of the interviews were then compiled in a report entitled The General Counsel Report: Corporate Legal Departments in 2020.
At the outset, I admit I often read reports like this with some skepticism: often, surveys and reports sponsored by big companies find things they hope will fuel sales more than report anything what’s true and revealing. But this survey was done by Ari Kaplan and his company, Ari Kaplan Advisors. I’ve known Ari for several years and know he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em, giving this Report instant credibility in my eyes.
Want to succeed as an outside lawyer? Understand your clients’ values and what they want. And then provide it
And for those who want to better serve their clients, make a good impression, or are just wondering about the impact of technology on the practice of law, the Report is illuminating. Here’s the key findings:
- The GC role is changing. More and more, GCs must evaluate and assess business—not just legal— risk; no longer can they afford to be the department of no.
- The biggest concerns of GC? Compliance, data privacy, reputational risk.
- GCs are embracing the cloud and SaaS. GCs have a broader and more robust views of technology and apps than their outside brethren.
- Due to increased data and the demand for data analytics, GCs are interested in and turning to AI.
- What do GCs want from their outside counsel? Know their business, provide different billing methods, and focus on the practical. Oh yeah, it also helps to be responsive
Want to succeed as an outside lawyer? Understand your clients’ values and what they want. And then provide it. Rocket science, right?
The New General Counsel Role
A closer look at these factors individually provides essential clues for outside counsel. First, GCs think of themselves not just as lawyers but more “business strategists”. They see data analysts and project managers as essential components of the in-house legal departments. They strive to become value-added components to the business, not a net cost. According to the Report, “The legal department is, in essence, operating more like its peers across the organization.” In-house legal is part of the business and is being called on to treat legal problems within the broader context of business problems.
This is a subtle change for outside counsel to understand and, as reported, something the Big Four accounting firms have long figured out. More than anything else, it means understanding that–just as in-house counsel are called to do more than just practice law and focus on legal issues–outside counsel will need to invest more in learning about their clients so they too can be a value add.
You have to understand what the relevant areas of law are (with respect to any problem) but also what are the relevant business issues
It also means looking at legal problems differently. Outside lawyers would do well to approach problems like Rutger Lambriex, head of the EW Legal (EW is one of the Big Four accounting firms), described during a panel discussion at ALM Legalweek earlier this year (which I wrote about): “we approach problems as business issues that require legal attention.” He continued, “you have to understand what the relevant areas of law are (with respect to any problem) but also what are the relevant business issues.” To EW, cybersecurity is not just about data breach litigation to use one of Lambriex’s examples, it’s a fundamental business problem that EY is poised to holistically and synergistically solve. Legal plays a role, but it is the desire and ability of accounting firms to help clients through the entirety of the business issues that will ultimately enable the Big Four to make inroads.
Legal ability and acumen are now table stakes: the standout outside lawyers to GCs are those who provide excellent client service and business acumen.
This means looking at things like process, project management, and AI. It means looking at alternatives to the billable hour since, it is antithetical to the way business works. It means using data and data analytics and trying to generate more value from data. It means understanding that legal ability and acumen are now table stakes: the standout outside lawyers to GCs are those who provide excellent client service and business acumen.
GCs strongly believe—as do I —that, eventually a small group of high-end lawyers that do these things will provide the advice and skills in house legal wants. The rest of the work will be considered commodity work and will either done by lower cost providers or even machines. Outside lawyers need to know and understand that GCs are already expecting more and more that time-intensive, redundant tasks will be done by AI.
What Keeps In-House Counsel Up at Night?
GCs think that data, privacy, and compliance issues are in play in virtually every corporate decision they must make and the legal matters they handle
According to the Report, GCs think that data, privacy, and compliance issues are in play in virtually every corporate decision they must make and the legal matters they handle. Global trade also creates risk under the GDPR that outside counsel should at least be sensitive to.
Want to be a go-to lawyer? Have and provide expertise and advice in these areas. Understand a company’s data and compliance issues and touchpoints. As one of the surveyed GCs put it, the ability to de-risk the business in areas like these is critical.
GCs are also increasingly concerned about repetitional risks from vocal consumers and customers, presumably from social media. Good lawyers will consider the impact on reputation even as they prepare such mundane things as pleadings. For example, lawyers will often prepare answers with boilerplate defenses like contributory negligence. But in certain situations, particularly high-profile matters, that would suggest certain heartlessness that could damage in company’s reputation. That’s not necessarily a reason not to plead a specific defense, but it does indicate the topic needs to be discussed with in-house counsel concerned about business reputation.
In-house counsel are embracing technology at a rate faster than many of their outside brethren. They understand and are using things like AI and data analytics. They know what SaaS is and how to use it.
But when they look at outside counsel, they see a lack of technological competence: 52% of the GCs Kaplan interviewed see a lack of even adequate technological capability among lawyers.
If you really want to help your client, then go beyond competence and figure out ways to use technology to provide innovative solutions to your clients’ problems.
And if you really want to help your client, then go beyond competence and figure out ways to use technology to provide innovative solutions to your clients’ problems.
Gone are the days when outside counsel should boast about a lack of technological competence, thinking it somehow impresses or shows how important they are. Today, that boast just might get you fired. As one GC surveyed put it, “Technological competence used to be a key differentiator and now it’s just table stakes.”
What Do GCs Want from Their Law Firms?
Kaplan also asked what GCs actually want from their outside lawyers. The top three answers in order: Know the client’s business better, consider alternative billing, and focus on the practical.
Want to impress your in-house clients: take time to know their business and pain points
Want to impress your in-house clients: take time to know their business and pain points. Provide value: give value that exceeds what you charge. Spend time with your client that is not billable: I used to have a partner that refused to let anyone work on his clients’ files unless that lawyer had met the client in person and spent the with them.
GCs want their lawyers to consider efficient workflows. They want to be billed based not so much on time but on value. They want their lawyers to be empathetic: to place themselves in the shoes of in-house counsel. And they want proactive lawyers.
Another thing the Report revealed: be responsive. In house counsel of big companies want their lawyers to be responsive. Why is something so simply seemingly so hard for outside lawyers to do? (It’s interesting that the recent Legal Trends Report issued by Clio showed that what most clients of small firms also want is also responsiveness).
A Roadmap for Outside Counsel
Bottom line: as Kaplan put it in the Report, “Ultimately, general counsel want their outside counsel to be willing to offer greater value, provide practical solutions, disrupt the business model, communicate better, put themselves in their shoes, know their business, set realistic budgets, understand the objectives, and be creative in their representation.
A great roadmap provided by the very people outside lawyers want to represent.