Reader questions have been received throughout the year; this month, I’ll address two of the most common inquiries.
The Law Firm Crystal Ball
Q. If you were to pinpoint one major change that may be on the horizon for law firms that has escaped a lot of attention, what would it be?
A.Firms, especially large ones, are going to need less space as we move forward. In fact, I forecast that the amount of space per lawyer will significantly decline and I will explain why.
It has been well chronicled that, apart from compensation, space is typically the next largest component of overhead for law firms. Firms have done a good job during the recession of reducing overhead expenses, especially as the hunt for revenue has become increasingly more difficult. With challenges on the revenue side likely to continue, firms will need to search for ways to further reduce overhead if they hope to maintain or grow profits.
At this point in time, most firms are close to maxing out cost-saving opportunities. While there may be some tweaking that can be done on the margins, the heavy lifting has been completed except in one crucial area, which just so happens to be a major overhead component: space.
The reality is that the millennials and the generation that will be coming behind them simply do not need as much space as their predecessors. Younger lawyers are much more comfortable working on the fly and in more flexible space, whether that is in a coffee house or in open or semiprivate areas. When you couple that development with the increasing amount of flexibility lawyers are given to work from home on occasion (which I believe will become more frequent), the amount of space per lawyer is decreasing, and likely should continue to do so moving forward.
I would not be surprised if more junior lawyers are “housed” in shared or common offices where they can simply plug in their laptops on days when they are in the office. If it is necessary to have quiet space to think or make more private client calls, it is foreseeable that they can use such areas just as conference rooms are reserved today.
If this comes to pass, it is going to put pressure on more senior lawyers to adapt, as firms will want to avoid having a caste system in place that radically divides its younger and elder constituencies. Change among the more senior group will surely be incremental and will come with more grumbling, which is understandable. Nevertheless, as the younger lawyers eventually become the more dominant group, the odds are high that the issue will become moot, as the changes will become permanent and a major portion of overhead will have been significantly reduced.
What Do Clients Really Want?
Q. As a former general counsel, can you cut through all the gobbledygook and simply lay out the most important things that in-house lawyers want from their outside counsel?
A. I will do my best and appreciate the direct question. Here goes:
• In-house lawyers value outside counsel who listen to their needs and instructions.
This, of course, seems overly simplistic, and it is. Although many lawyers excel at this, quite a few do not. Some outside lawyers bring their own agendas to the table and seem to think that they already know what a client needs and wants. In some cases, they may be right, but even so, they would be better served by offering such advice after they have carefully listened and thought through what their client has explained to them.
• In-house lawyers want outside counsel to produce work product that is commensurate with their needs (and budget).
It is a given that clients want and have a right to expect high-quality work product. This is especially the case with appellate and other pivotal briefs, high-stakes opinion letters and similar documents. However, particularly in this era of tight budgets, there are many other situations in which clients neither need nor want lengthy (and expensive) work product that far exceeds expectations. This is often a struggle for many lawyers, as producing thorough documents is so well ingrained.
• In-house lawyers want results.
This, too, is a truism, but it cannot be emphasized more strongly that results matter. In-house counsel are wielding a mighty hammer these days as it relates to costs, which has put heavy pressure on outside law firms. Despite this, the pressure is still on in-house lawyers to get excellent results. I can recall the first general counsel for whom I worked opining that he never wanted to walk into the boardroom to announce that our company had lost an important case but had saved a few hundred thousand dollars of legal fees in the process. While the times during which one can win at any cost are few and far between, it still is important to succeed and not to just get the lowest-cost deal from an outside lawyer.
• In-house lawyers do not want surprises.
Unless someone has been in-house, he or she may not appreciate the chain of command in most companies and the concomitant need to keep others fully apprised of important developments. General counsel often report to CEOs, who, in turn, report to boards of directors that continually request updates.
If trouble is looming, or could arise down the line, it is crucial that an outside lawyer let his or her inside counsel know as soon as possible. This notification enables the in-house lawyer to lay the internal groundwork to at least prepare for the impact. While some developments truly occur out of the blue, many others (such as bills that are tracking well above budget) can have their impact blunted, and a surprise avoided, by early communication with a client.
• In-house lawyers want outside counsel who make them look good.
While very few, if any, in-house counsel will openly say this, they want to look good in front of others in their companies, especially superiors. After all, they have careers and reputations of their own that are on the line every day. Astute outside counsel, especially those who excel at business development, realize this and look for situations where they can help to position their clients well.
Sometimes, this entails taking a backseat when it comes to claiming credit for an achievement and allowing the in-house lawyer to bask in the spotlight of a big win. Other times, this involves offering free or low-cost training to lawyers or executives who permit the law department to shine in the eyes of senior management. The best way to accomplish this objective, of course, is to consistently get great results — you’ll have a friend and client for life if you do. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney CareerCatalysts, a Pennsylvania basedl egal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.