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As the business world grows increasingly complex, and information is transmitted more easily and rapidly than ever, a company and its general counsel face a true dilemma in hiring outside counsel: how to sift through the mass of referrals, advertisements, recommendations, cold calls and unsolicited e-mails by lawyers trying to get work. How does a GC choose outside counsel when the company is faced with trouble in a potential dispute or suit? The temptation is to hire a specialist — a lawyer who is or claims to be an expert in only the narrow field of law in which the dispute has arisen. In this approach there is a natural inclination for a GC to rely on secondhand information by referral, published credentials or advertisement) about counsel with whom the GC has no personal knowledge but who is known — even if by self-design — for being a specialist. There are many problems with this approach. Most significantly, it overlooks the most important ingredient in problem-solving. Achieving an economic and efficient resolution of a dispute has more to do with good judgment, tempered by broad experience, than with knowledge of the specialty area of law involved. In short, a great lawyer can quickly learn specialized rules of law. But a great technician may not possess the judgment and depth of experience necessary to be a great lawyer. It is easy to prove this case in the litigation context. I know excellent lawyers who have spent years representing plaintiffs or defendants in specialized areas — be it products liability, personal injury, antitrust, or oil and gas — but who have mastered a skill set that is transferable to most any form of complex litigation. A renowned business consultant makes a strong case that the best adviser is a deep generalist — not a hyper-specialist with overly specialized knowledge about a narrow area of business or the law. In complex litigation, this is the case. The most effective advocate is a skilled generalist, perhaps with expertise in a variety of subjects, because he or she is known as a skilled advocate and as someone who can achieve results without undue expense. A CRITICAL EYE So, much like the basics in grammar school, there are three R’s to use as guideposts in hiring a lawyer for a particular dispute: relationships, reputation and results. � Relationships. As the GC, hire a lawyer with whom you or someone you trust has a prior relationship (meaning someone that your company or someone you know has retained). Remember, the GC’s relationship with outside counsel is the quintessential relationship of trust and confidence. If the GC has the right relationship with the company’s outside lawyer, he will sleep better, and save time and money. A GC will know his company’s work is being handled properly and that he is not overpaying for the services provided. There is no substitute for this first criterion. � Reputation. What does the legal community think of this potential outside lawyer? This is critical, in terms of the ability to handle a specific problem or area of legal expertise and in terms of the ability of the potential outside lawyer to navigate the sometimes rough seas of litigation. In the litigation business, judges and other lawyers know who acts fairly, has integrity and has a reputation for working well in resolving disputes — either by trial or a reasonable settlement. The same holds true in transaction work. To work effectively and efficiently, lawyers on opposite sides of complicated business deals must have some degree of trust in the lawyer on the other side. Henry Ford once said: “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” In the end, reputation is everything. If a lawyer has a good reputation in the legal community, it is because he or she has achieved the third R — results — for previous clients. � Results. Some lawyers can endlessly negotiate or litigate but never learn how to successfully conclude a matter. A GC needs to find an outside lawyer who can achieve the company’s objectives effectively and efficiently. And the GC should find an outside counsel who has a proven track record of doing so — not just someone who advertises or holds himself out as a specialist with knowledge of a narrow subject of law. If the outside lawyer achieves results for the company, stick with him; that is the most cost-effective means of developing a strong relationship with outside counsel. The end result will be an outside attorney who knows the ins and outs of the GC’s business and, when problems arise, can help the GC resolve matters more quickly and efficiently than if the GC continues to hire a myriad of specialists on each different case with no true knowledge of how the GC’s company works. There are abundant resources that can assist a GC when choosing a lawyer. The first step is to check with other trusted attorneys, those that are in-house at the company and at trusted firms. Colleagues in the company may have hired outside counsel they trust; transactional lawyers and law firms can also tell a GC the names of good litigators to handle dispute resolution. Sometimes, with good reason, they may try to sell the GC on one of their partners who has expertise in the field, has an excellent track record and meets the three R’s. The GC should evaluate these lawyers, and lawyers at other firms that colleagues might recommend, with the same critical eye as the GC would an unknown lawyer. Review firm Web sites, individual attorney biographies and specifically ask about their experience in handling disputes similar to the one the company faces. Ask how it was resolved, what was the result and what methods did they employ to achieve that result? The truth is this: Inside these legal war stories may be clues for the GC about how suitable a particular firm or lawyer may be in handling a suit against the company. Lastly, consider how the potential outside counsel will interact with your colleagues at the company — in other words, your client. Is the potential outside lawyer attentive to the most important goals of management in handling the dispute, whether it is result-driven, budget consciousness or any other goal? Consider this factor as well, and discuss all of these issues with the potential outside counsel. Any outside lawyer who is worthy of a GC’s attention is always willing to discuss these issues up front; in fact, it will establish firm ground for the GC’s relationship with the outside counsel throughout the conduct of the arbitration or litigation. In a recent assessment of our times, historian Jacques Barzun laments that the financial scandals suffered by American business in recent years were due in part to the overuse of scores “of consultants, strong minds who had mastered one set of intricacies.” As the general counsel, don’t let this happen in the selection of outside counsel. It is always a plus to have background in the specific area of law involved. But there is no substitute for the fundamentals. Bill Maines is a partner in Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston. He has practiced trial law for 20 years.

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