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Well, the clients have spoken. And the word is that corporate legal departments are not happy with their outside counsel, says a recent study. More and more, large law firms have become indistinguishable from one another. With so many firms able to provide sound legal advice, how do in-house attorneys choose? It all comes down to one simple thing — personal attention. A recent survey of high-level lawyers at Fortune 1000 companies, conducted by Boston-based management and market research outfit The BTI Consulting Group Inc., shows that only a quarter of those in-house are happy with their current outside counsel. There’s even more bad news for law firms. Almost half of the 170 companies surveyed (44 percent) look to cut back — by approximately a third — on their outside counsel. Most of the companies surveyed said they do plan to keep the number of primary firms steady at two, so the firms that stay in their clients’ good graces will win more business than ever. But what will they have to do to get it? Not so long ago, law firms could thrive on legal expertise alone. But no more. Clients today assume that a major law firm is competent enough to handle the work they give them, according to Joel Henning, senior vice president and general counsel of legal consulting firm Hildebrandt International. So they want more: “There was a time when outside counsel were bad at service, and businesses couldn’t do anything about it,” says Henning. “But today the mystique is gone, and businesses expect the same level of service from law firms that they get from other outside vendors.” Of course, good service means many different things in today’s legal marketplace. According to the BTI survey, with service comes the attention of senior attorneys; proactive advice and insight; ongoing and responsive communication; an understanding of client business, and, most importantly, good value. Successful law firm partners know they have to go beyond “lawyering” and see the world as their clients see it, says Jon Lindsey, managing partner and GC at recruiter Major, Hagen & Africa. In so doing, they “will move heaven and earth to get the ball over the goal line” for their clients, he says. Giving legal advice consistent with a company’s overall business strategy is a key element in accomplishing this, says Henning. To do this, lawyers need to understand the mind-set of their more daring biz-side counterparts. Rarely can they wait for the 100 percent perfect ‘legal’ approach,” says Henning of business people. “And lawyers tend to be risk-averse.” Some firms already get the message. Fran Milone, chairman of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, one firm cited for premier client service, drums the service mantra into associates’ ears as soon as they step through the door. In fact, in-house lawyers come in periodically to speak about what clients expect from the firm. Other firms that rated highly for service in the survey are Haynes and Boone; Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue; and Sullivan & Cromwell. Communication matters most, says Milone: “You need to understand that the legal advice fits into the business goals.” By discussing the business objectives, lawyers can put the legal aspect into context and give their clients the best value, he adds. Good service transcends feel-good rhetoric and survey results; it also means job security. Henning has seen legal departments fire “major Wall Street firms” they used for decades because of service deficiencies. With most new business coming from existing clients, law firms have even more reason to keep their clients happy. As for the provenance of new client business? According to the BTI survey (with 42 percent of the respondents), the first place that a corporate counsel looks, in retaining a new firm, is a referral from his or her peers. But with three-quarters of in-house attorneys unimpressed with current outside counsel, referrals can only go so far.

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