At its 2016 general counsel panel, the Legal Marketing Association chapter in South Florida presented findings of a flash survey of law firms with 50-plus attorneys. The Altman Weil study found that 40 percent of general counsel were spending less on outside attorneys and employing in-house attorneys and even full practice groups.

The survey results and panel discussion concluded that chief legal officers are honing in on the value outside firms provide. That trend has forced firms to rethink how they operate and how they market themselves to existing and potential clients.

General counsel hire outside attorneys who understand their company’s business and industry, share bad news immediately and practice sound project management, the survey found. They want a hybrid or fixed-fee structure that’s evident in easy-to-read bills. In essence, those officers want the ability to manage outside counsel costs and excise services they don’t need or want.

An outside firm’s worth is based on more than expense, the study found. Outside counsel can enhance its perceived value by offering in-house training and continuing legal education credits.

“Absolutely, that helps if it is at no charge,” said one general counsel at the LMA meeting. “We like attorneys to get to know us better and offer services that make us better.”

While interaction is appreciated, it needs to be on urgent matters and strictly for business. Feedback from the general counsel panelists indicated that they are overwhelmed with emails and tight on time. They want to know about new laws, regulations, litigation trends and hot stories in business and trade media on their schedule. Thus, they prefer printed newsletters and legal advisories sent by U.S. mail instead of email blasts or webinars.

A consensus of the general counsel at the session showed they will take phone calls from attorneys, but they need to be brief and to the point. They should be preceded by a letter detailing the issue at hand.

“Have a purpose, make me better at what I do, and be efficient,” said one of the panelists.

Investment Strategy

The emphasis on streamlining engagement has strong implications for firms that derive much of their revenue from outside counsel services. The survey found that those firms were protecting relationships by renegotiating fees and were adding clients by hiring more laterals with books of business. To save money, law firms were merging, reducing the number of equity partners, renting less office space and moving back-office operations to less expensive locations.

Firm partners realize that they can’t cut their way to success, so they are increasing investments in marketing, pubic relations, business development and Internet presence. Those efforts include in-house seminars, participation in key industry conferences and publication of articles that establish them as highly knowledgeable.

The increased importance of building and maintaining relationships with general counsel requires firms to invest in professional, experienced in-house or outside legal marketing and new business development professionals. Employees and outside firms should be tasked with proposing and executing plans that target companies, industries and legal talent that can improve a firm’s bottom line. Marketing and public relations specialists must improve a firm’s brand, client relationships and new business development efforts to justify the time and money invested in them.