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How do the best law firms stay ahead of the pack?

Marriott Asia Pacific’s Law Department offers an in-house view on what external counsel can do better to become trusted, long-term business partners

External counsels often face the question: ‘What do in-house lawyers really want from their external counsel?’ In-house teams act as gatekeepers who deliver legal advice to their colleagues in various practice areas around the clock. Due to the huge work volume, external counsel can become a significant ally in helping to alleviate work pressure, provide specialty advice, and improve efficiency. Therefore, what do we want and how can law firms become a trusted business partner?

Know your client

Care and attention to our business is crucial to firms’ success. There are many ways to understand the realities of our business, as well as the opportunities and challenges we face. For example, online research of company press releases, annual reports, and regular filings with government authorities, as well as regular meetings and networking events with in-house lawyers. However, secondments are one of the best methods. Through secondments, external lawyers work alongside in-house counsel, which gives them a first-hand view of the day-to-day work we do and builds a foundation of trust and familiarity that will extend well beyond the secondment.

External counsel should also take the initiative to keep us up-to-date on industry specific developments, as well as regulatory and market changes. Firm newsletters are useful, but often go unread because of other work pressures. Therefore, we would prefer innovative and targeted ways to keep us up-to-date, e.g. customised training programmes and regular contact with a relationship partner.

Value-added services are also always welcomed, such as conference/panel discussion invitations, marketing support, and making available useful tools developed or used by firms.

Be proactive

When we engage external counsel, we expect expertise in the relevant practice area. Therefore, when external lawyers work on a project, it is important for them to focus on the business objective, listen to our priorities, and deliver with timeliness and quality. We encourage external counsel to ask questions and consider the ‘big picture’ before jumping into legal research or providing advice. In addition, business objectives may evolve over time so we recommend that you engage with us throughout the process to ensure that everyone is ‘on the same page’.

However, don’t be overzealous and respect the internal protocol. External counsel are instructed by in-house counsel, so it is important to check with us before acting on discussions with business clients and always keep us ‘in the loop’.

Clear, concise, and practical

We want more than just a lawyer, we want an advisor. Firms often provide conservative legalistic reviews, with many options but no answer. We are seeking a more practical and commercial approach, that highlights the options and risks, but also provides a recommendation.

Presentation is also important. Your in-house contact does not generally have time to read a ten-page memo. Therefore, it is important to provide a clear and concise summary of the key findings, assumptions, risks, and recommendations at the front of any advice (or agreement drafted). If necessary, include the detailed analysis and other information as an attachment.

The real value of external counsel comes from their ability to understand and apply the law to facts, identify risks, and provide a solution that can be implemented.

Safe pair of hands

External counsel should be a safe pair of hands and the simplest things can often make the biggest difference, e.g. a brief acknowledgement that you have received our email and provide a timeframe when we can expect your response. In most circumstances, we can work within your timeframe. Therefore, be realistic, don’t ‘over promise’ and deliver on time, so that we can deliver on time to our internal clients. If there is a delay, let us know as soon as possible.

Costs are always a pressure point for in-house teams. We look for counsel that provide clear, transparent, reasonable, and innovative fee arrangements. To that end, we recommend that firms thoroughly review their invoices to ensure the work being invoiced is valuable, narrations are clear, and the fee arrangements and/or policies agreed are being followed. Reducing the time spent on invoicing issues will benefit both in-house and external counsels. Also, invest in relationships with in-house teams by not charging us the excess time spent by the junior attorneys so that they are not learning on our dime.

In-house teams have many competing demands. Therefore, the best way for external counsels to stay ahead of the pack is to partner with their in-house clients to help them deliver on their objectives. To achieve this, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask us for our thoughts. n

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