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When dealing with outside firms, an in-house lawyer often wants a single, trusted lawyer he can call at the firm — someone to guide the company to the right lawyers at the firm to do work for the company. Firms have their own reasons for having relationship partners as the primary contacts for in-housers. Firms and in-housers alike often refer to such lawyers as “relationship partners,” “responsible partners,” or “client partners.” For this article, they will be referred to as relationship partners. Utilizing relationship partners as points of contact between a firm and a corporate client is not new or unusual. Most, if not all, firms have partners filling such roles. However, an in-house lawyer’s perceptions about the relationship partner’s role can differ from the outside firm’s perceptions about the relationship partner’s role. The decision regarding who serves as a relationship partner is important to the outside firm and the in-house client, even though a person often becomes a relationship partner without any real decision making. In other words, frequently, the choice of relationship partner is purely accidental. For example, the relationship partner might be the one who took the original call from the client, had the best contact, made the sale, or was the first to perform legal work for the client. There is nothing wrong with this; countless successful outside-in relationships develop from these roots. However, some firms seek client input and, then, a partner is appointed to fulfill the role of the relationship partner who is accountable to firm management for meeting business goals with the corporate client. The methods of relationship partner selection and evaluation often depend on firm culture, compensation systems, and the client relationship management philosophy. The relationship partner’s interaction with the client, especially the in-house legal staff, must be effective to meet overall expectations of the client. The relationship partner must understand the client’s business and strategies and be committed to the relationship. In other words, relationship partners must be able to put themselves in the in-house lawyer’s shoes and advise accordingly. It is healthy for the relationship partner to meet regularly with the general counsel, other in-house attorneys, and company officials to discuss the status of various legal issues. It also is healthy to visit the company on a regular basis to learn about its operation. The relationship partner should schedule joint training initiatives and regular social events to include in-house lawyers and the firm’s lawyers. Regular client feedback is critical to success, and the client will expect the relationship partner to address all issues the company raises and be able to make needed adjustments to the firm’s team of lawyers, support systems, or methods of communication. TWO SETS OF OBJECTIVES The most client-friendly relationship partner will not succeed unless he functions effectively within the firm. From the firm’s perspective, the relationship partner is responsible for bonding with the in-house counsel so that the firm will attract the type of work and generate income consistent with the firm’s objectives. To do this, the relationship partner must set goals, implement client-focused strategies, and be accountable to firm management for achieving such goals. Consequently, the relationship partner should be responsible for the team of lawyers performing work forthe client and oversee cross-practice group coordination for the client’s benefit and to expand representation. The relationship partner must make sure that the team of outside lawyers understands client expectations, stays on top of client projects, and coordinates firm resources to accomplish client tasks. The relationship partner also must effectively communicate critical information to firm lawyers and support personnel who work on client matters. To satisfy the needs and demands of the in-house client and outside firm, a relationship partner should be a real “people person” — in other words, be approachable. But the best people skills in the world don’t make up for shortcomings when it comes to good lawyering. In general, the successful relationship partner must have the ability and willingness to foster an efficient, results-oriented, collaborative working relationship that will help the corporate client succeed. This means that the relationship partner must truly listen to the client and make sure that the firm’s lawyers performing client legal work are responsive, available, and committed. Additionally, the relationship partner must understand the client’s objectives and effectively communicate them to the firm. The relationship partner also must manage each project to achieve cost-effectiveness and to avoid duplicating legal work. The best relationship partners do not treat client relationships as proprietary. These relationships often are the source of a partner’s power and influence within the firm. Firms that have been successful in building and managing relationships with large clients have tended to adopt the culture that a client is the client of the firm and the relationship partner is not a gatekeeper or portal into the firm. Rather the best relationship partner is the trustee of the client and enabler for the client to accomplish its objectives with the firm’s assistance. As the point person from the firm to the in-house client and the client to the firm, the relationship partner’s ability to balance the needs and objectives of the client with the goals and strategies of the firm is a delicate task. However, effective relationship partners know that excellent client service is the deciding factor when clients choose firms for projects — or change law firms. For the client relationship to be successful, therefore, one firm lawyer cannot act alone. Client satisfaction and confidence are earned when the entire firm delivers client service that meets or exceeds expectations. Consequently, clients deserve the most from their relationship partners and from their firms. Brian D. Barnard is a partner in the corporate law section of Haynes and Boone in the Fort Worth, Texas, office. This article first appeared in Texas Lawyer , an American Lawyer Media newspaper.

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