In-house counsel explain what they really want from law firms

What do in-house counsel really want – and don’t want – from law firms? That was the topic of the 5th Annual General Counsel Panel yesterday in Toronto, put on by the Legal Marketing Association.

The panelists included Kerry O’Reilly, Head of Legal, Corporate, and Corporate Secretary at ValeSteven Trumper, General Counsel at Build Toronto Inc. and Paolo Berard, Head of Legal at Direct Energy Services.

Lexpert’s Editor-in-Chief, Jean Cumming, moderated the panel.

The general counsel covered a number of areas – explaining what works and what doesn’t.

Pitching to in-house counsel

What in-house counsel want when they are being pitched by firms, at least initially, can be summed up in one word: relevance. As O’Reilly puts it:

If we are looking for a pitch, one of the key things we are going to look for are examples of very similar deals in the same context that the firm has done before, so it is really key to work hard to try to pull those out in your sample transactions.

And, as O’Reilly points out, relevance is both about what work the firm has done in the past, as well as the person that the pitch is being sent to:

Do your diligence about who you are pitching. Find out what you can about that person.

And although both of these points may seem obvious, that doesn’t mean firms do it even though it may take only an little bit more time to prepare, as Berard points out:

You would be surprised how may firms will come in an make impressive presentations that have very little to do with our business, or in particular for the assignment in which we are seeking to retain counsel. That goes to the very core. I would really recommend that people spend an extra half an hour or an hour with some of the key people in the organization before preparing your pitch to really understand what it is that the organization is looking for.

Emotional Intelligence

Once the firm has been identified as one that is able to do the work, the final choice often comes down to something a little less tangible, but equally important. As Trumper explains, the written material for a pitch helps, but:

The most critical part of the entire process it the in-person meeting, the beauty contest, and the reason that is so important is that I will bring my deal people into those meetings, and I will say we are down to a short list of three, and the chemistry is what is going to make the difference. Do the deal people, and myself, like the people who have been presented as the team from the law firm and do we think we could enjoy working with those people and develop a long term relationship with them? To me that is the critical component.

Without the key people skills, or “emotional intelligence,” a firm’s expertise may not be enough. And for O’Reilly, firms are not focussing on these skills enough:

Emotional intelligence is the piece that really needs to be worked on in coaching legal professionals that you send out to do these deals.

Relationship partners

Once a firm is on the file, the key to getting repeat business is not just doing the job well, but providing a “relationship partner”. This means having a lawyer at the firm who will be there when things go awry and will help in-house counsel beyond just giving legal advice. O’Reilly recounted a situation where a law firm lawyer helped her in a serious bind by allowing her company to have a number of partners, associates and secretaries seconded to her company at short notice:

All the lunches and the seminars are great but it is also really very much your really big moments of need that you really need to think twice before you automatically say no.


No discussion of firm/company relations would  be complete without a discussion of fees. But there was no consensus about what is the best arrangement. Firms that bill more per hour may act more efficiently and flat fees may sound great until the inevitable unforeseen event arises.

For Vale, though, alternative fees are now the norm, says O’Reilly:

We focus a lot on alternative fee structures. I think the US firms are doing excellent on that front but I think that the Toronto firms are still getting up the courage.

And although Berard thinks fixed fee arrangements are good in theory, he finds the reality is it is usually very difficult to predict what kind of legal work a deal is going to require:

I am a bit uncomfortable trying to shoe-horn a firm into a particular number when we don’t know what the outcome is going to be.

And outside of the actual number on a bill, one of the surprisingly common mistake that firms make is submitting bills riddled with errors and inconsistencies. As Trumper recounts:

We get a lot of invoices that are clearly prepared by the lawyer’s assistant and have not been reviewed by the lawyer that have …mistakes…I think it is critical that the billing partner reviews every account before it is sent just to out to eliminate those kinds of obvious errors.

And unpredictability, although invitable to some extent, does not mean unforseen fee increases come out of nowhere, says Trumper:

Effective management of a legal bill is critical by the partner in charge and that means flagging where there might be cost overruns or indicating where the project has moved out of scope and the fees may increase. All of those types of fee management tools are very important for the firms.

Project management

Although project management has been a buzz word in the marketing department of some firms, in-house counsel seem unimpressed. As O’Reilly points out:

We pride ourselves in managing our projects internally; I think that we just assume that our partner or our team that we are partnering with to support us in the firm is going to do that as well.

Berard explains that is also really depends on the work. If his company is in very new territory (such as a major IT outsourcing initiative his company recently worked on):

In that circumstance it is very helpful for us to have a senior partner at a firm basically to pick it up from a project management perspective and walk us through what to expect. I think even though that may be strictly outside of her role as a lawyer, it is incredibly value additive to us an organization to have somebody willing to help us manage a project.

Do In-House Counsel read your brochures and website?

In-House counsel were blunt on this topic – drop the boilerplate. Trumper says he looks at lawyers’ bios but otherwise:

You could probably do away with every brochure that you have in your inventory. Generally speaking, I don’t find those very helpful in terms of helping to understand the firm anymore.

In the age customized media, expectations are high. Berard was impressed when a firm website allowed him to self-select publications that will come to him based on very targeted areas of the law:

 I thought was a very helpful approach and that is very different from what we have seen from other firms.

Client feedback

One area where most firms are failing, it seems, is in seeking client feedback. O’Reilly says she is open to have a form for feedback after every deal that she does, but Trumper says what surprises him is how rarely feedback requests happen.

Berard recalled having fired a firm which then didn’t even call his company to ask why:

I was a bit astounded by that.


So after all that candid feedback, the message is clear: in-house counsel know what works and what doesn’t work. If you are a law firm lawyer, do you? If not, ask them. They are more than happy to tell you…

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