3 ways how clients can help their lawyers to change – for mutual benefit

Altman Weil´s fresh Chief Legal Officer Survey 2016 focuses on the relationship between in-house legal department and external law firms. Some trends are continuing: legal departments cut costs by focusing on greater internal efficiency and by reducing the costs for external legal advisors. However, there is still a sizable chunk of legal work to be done by external law firms and when I speak to in-house and law firm lawyers, both often express their dependency on each other, so the quality of that relationship is well worth looking at.

Each relationship with mutual dependency comes with many sources of frustration and one of the most challenging ones can be described as “I really need you to change regarding this issue, but I do not see change happening.” The Chief Legal Officer Survey has since 2009 kept track of this issue by asking law departments to assess law firms´ seriousness about changing their legal service delivery model. On a scale from zero (not serious at all) to ten (doing everything they can), law departments still rank law firms´ efforts on a median of three. The survey also asked why in-house lawyers do not put more pressures on law firms to change, with very interesting replies:

In a series of comments about this question, Chief Legal Officers expressed their frustration with outside law firms that are slow, reluctant or ill-equipped to change. Law department leaders who have learned to marry their legal training with a pragmatic business mindset would like to see the same evolution in the law firms that represent them. But – at least for now – in-house lawyers are outpacing their law firm colleagues as agents of change in the profession.

In my view, in-house lawyers would do well to help their external legal advisors to change their service model, in their own best interest. Here are three suggestions how to go about it:

  • If you want to invest less than one hour and already have a clear understanding of what your business needs, how to measure what you get and how to give feedback: Read Anthony Smith´s blog post about how clients can help their lawyers deliver value and apply the three action points in the middle section: “ Explain clearly what it is they really value from their legal service providers, including what their particular needs are; 2. Monitor the services received, to see if what they value is being delivered; 3. Provide feedback to their lawyers about how they are doing and how they can improve.”
  • If you want to invest a couple of hours and are willing to experiment with different approaches: Read Unless You Ask: A Guide For Law Departments To Get More From External Relationships, a 80-page guidebook sponsored by the US Association of Corporate Counsel, get inspired by it and apply your learning to your work. Bear in mind that your personal approach, just as the guidebook, is a work in progress. In other words: try out a lot of ideas, keep up what is working for you and skip the rest.
  • If you want to invest two days in order to lay the groundwork for good cooperation and establish an on-going dialogue about service improvements: Organize a workshop where you bring both the in-house legal team and the individual external lawyers working for you together. Learn together about adding real value to the business, different pricing models, efficient legal project management etc. Do a follow-up as needed to keep everyone on track and on their toes.
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