Managing the Relationship Between Inside and Outside Counsel
Miriam Bamberger, CPCC, and Heather Bradley, CPCC, are the co-founders of The Flourishing Company, which helps emerging professionals sharpen their leadership skills to generate immediate and lasting changes in their ability to successfully manage complex work relationships. For additional information, visit: www.TheFlourishingCompany.com.
All relationships have a natural cycle, and the interaction between a corporate law department and a law firm is no exception.
The Relationship Cycle
In their simplest form, relationships begin, run their course, and end. Some have long arcs with many cycles, while others are short with only one. Some move seamlessly from one phase to another; others go through fits and starts. While the cycle is inevitable, how each stage unfolds is not. You and every member of your team can influence the length and quality of your shared work experience through careful attention and management.
"Firms must have an awareness of the fact that company/law firm relationships are dynamic; continuous improvement is necessary to stay competitive," says Debra Hunter Johnson, vice president-human resources operations support for American Airlines.
It Takes Two to Tango
Maintaining good relationships between client and law firm is a two-way street. While corporations certainly hold the power of the purse, they also have a responsibility to contribute positively by providing clear expectations and relevant feedback. Conversely, while law firms want to secure and retain a book of business, they also have a responsibility to meet client standards and deliver what they promise.
To start off on the right foot, "Ask the client what they need, how they measure success, and how they would like to communicate. Then, listen and deliver accordingly," advises Julie Mazza, director of legal expense control at Citigroup Inc. and former corporate counsel and manager of law firm program, DuPont Company. "Be frank in the assessment of matters and potential outcomes; think of the client's interests first."
Starting Off on the Right Foot
In the beginning, everyone is excited and optimistic. The law firm basks in the glow of winning the business; the legal department is relieved, anticipating its new firm will solve its problems easily and effortlessly. However, once the courting ritual is complete, the work—the relationship work as opposed to the legal work—is just beginning.
In the proposal and negotiation stages, you probably addressed what would take place, such as fee arrangements and project staffing. Once the deal is sealed, schedule a Relationship Design Session™ to design how you will work together.
Most of us have similar expectations and assumptions: professional quality work, responsive customer service, and cost containment. However, the way we define and prioritize each expectation or assumption is dramatically different. To one general counsel, responsive customer service might mean returning a telephone call within 24 hours. To another, responsive might mean returning the call within the hour. Expect each party—and each member of each party—to have expectations you would never have anticipated. Name each one and discuss how each party will know when it is meeting expectations.
The demands of everyday reality can easily push aside the initial vision. In the Relationship Design Session, be sure to listen not only for the work-related answers, but also for subtle clues to what kind of experience both parties want. Probe for important values and critical assumptions.
After a strong setup through the Relationship Design Session, it is easy to become complacent about the relationship, focusing on urgent deadlines or other pressing issues, and letting things run on autopilot. However, this can be a costly approach for both parties.
Observable changes, such as new staff or new regulations, should trigger a redesign session, to make sure all parties are on the same page.
Even without a discernible external stimulus, be attentive as things change even if "things don't change." "Clients live in the real world, which is dynamic—their needs and goals change frequently," says Mazza.
Without continuous tending, little, excusable, and ignorable details can ferment into big issues. One way to minimize this risk is to encourage interactions at all levels of both organizations. Information flows differently at various levels, so a junior attorney or paralegal might pick up an important seed that could blossom into additional work—or head off disaster—down the road.
Winding Things Up
Eventually, all work arrangements end. The original matter is complete, the billing partner retires, a merger creates unnecessary overlap, new needs arise. At this point, parties may choose to refresh their relationship with new work or renewed commitment, or they may choose to end the relationship.
A thoughtful, planned transition is the first step of starting a new type of relationship. The legal universe is very small, and word will spread about how you handled the change. Whether you hope to renew this particular association at the completion of work assignment or begin anew with other organizations, how you complete the current cycle will set the stage for the future.
The Flourishing Process