Law department and law firm leaders have a lot in common. They must face ongoing challenges that a mature and quickly changing industry presents. Their goals mesh: to lead their teams to face these challenges while managing the expectations of their larger organizations, all while keeping costs down and profits up. At a recent meeting, general counsel and managing partners shared insights about building stronger relationships, addressing challenges and planning for the future.
When asked about their greatest expected challenges over the next five years, inside and outside counsel agreed that it was finding and retaining the best talent. GCs felt that staying abreast of the regulatory issues impacting their businesses also tops their list, along with globalization of business (finding the right international expertise, FCPA and data privacy issues).
Law firm leaders stated that retention and growth of business are top priorities. This may appear diametrically opposite the GC’s challenge to contain costs while maintaining high quality of work. GCs seek firms that are able to provide services efficiently and cost-effectively with as much cost-certainty as possible. This creates a challenge for managing partners who struggle to facilitate change at their firms with partners slow to adapt new business models. Axiom and other pacesetter firms were mentioned as taking on the challenge to do things differently. Most GCs believe there is relatively little work that is considered “bet the company”—something many law firms are hoping to grab their share of. Yet, the clients agreed that some answers to important legal issues were worth more than the billable hours firms may charge.
GCs in the group suggested that firms have to know with some certainty what something will cost and urged firms to consider using some tools businesses use to customize their work product and deliverables. Clearly, finding balance between cost containment and law firm profitability remains a challenge.
Managing partners were pleased to learn that GCs welcome their calls and visits. While GCs cautioned about not “pitching,” they emphasized that meeting with managing partners, hearing about the industry from the law firm leader perspective and sharing insights was of value to them. In fact, they invite it, whether they know the managing partner or not. These are messages business professionals in law firms hear often, so it was refreshing to see managing partners as recipients of the reminders to keep in touch and that relationships trump all. It’s important these days to stay connected no matter your position.
Most general counsel mentioned that many U.S.-based law firms still face challenges when it comes to providing sound advice in local jurisdictions. Germany and China in particular were highlighted, but all foreign jurisdictions were included in the comments. Finding the right talent that really understands local law, companies’ regulatory challenges as well as the industry, is extremely difficult.
For law firms, the cost can be very high to open offices in jurisdictions where clients require ongoing assistance. Developing strong relationships with local firms on the ground has its own challenges when it comes to managing the quality of the work product, a challenge that both firms and companies face when it comes to international legal needs. This perhaps provides another good opportunity to have these discussions with your outside counsel well in advance of when you require international assistance. And managing partners, this provides an opportunity to dialog with your in-house counterparts to learn about their goals and international challenges.
GCs also suggested other ways to add value: people; access to databases and other information resources; and training in-house staff and business people on the latest regulatory and other key issues the company may face.
After some candid discussion and agreement about the different landscape we’ll all face in 10 years, the interaction yielded valuable, good old-fashioned advice: stay connected, offer value and strengthen existing relationships with an emphasis by the GCs to come visit and share insights.