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10 Commandments for External Counsel (from an In-House Counsel)

by Submitted Post on November 18, 2014

by Tig Pocock, Guest Contributor

While technical skill is important in selecting an external lawyer, in most cases there will be a number who can do the work. So how to stand out?

1. Understand my business and goals This is the most important. It’s all very well to be able to recite the law, but unless you can make it relevant to my business, you’re wasting my time and money. Be an active listener to ensure you understand my goals – I am not a subject expert and may not have asked the right questions.

2. Communicate clearly Be concise. Think Powerpoint, not Word. Use pictures. Give me a summary I can understand at a glance, and that answers my questions. Give me something I can hand straight to my senior management without having to translate it. Unless I ask for it, I don’t want 60 pages of analysis of cases and legal theory – I assume you know your stuff.

3. Make a call Don’t tell me “on the one hand this, on the other hand that”. Your judgment and ability to make the right call is what I am paying for, and is what makes a really good lawyer stand out from a merely competent one.

4. Be practical and open to challenging your conclusions I’m not saying roll over and change your advice because I don’t like it. I am saying don’t be dogmatic, and work with me to find practical solutions for addressing the issues.

5. Be honest and forthright Tell me what I need to hear, not what you think I want to hear. If I have asked you to do something stupid, tell me (politely). If you think I don’t have a case, tell me – even if you could make a lot of fees running it. I will respect you for it and use you next time I have a good one.

6. No surprises There are many examples of this, but the same principle, eg: – Let me know up-front if you think there might be an issue – don’t wait until you have a fully polished advice. Better minor embarrassment if it turns out ok, than me finding out there is a big problem which you sat on for a week. – Be realistic with your timing and fee estimates, and don’t promise something you can’t deliver. If you commit to a time or cost, stick to it. If you can’t, let me know (and why) as soon as possible – don’t just let the deadline pass. Tell me when your WIP is at 50% and at 80% of your estimate – not at 120%.

7. Keep calm and carry on Especially if I am freaking out. This is critical if my company is being sued, prosecuted, or is subject to an investigation. A cool, clinical level-head in this context will calm the situation down, produce better outcomes, and make me grateful for life. Guess who I will call if it happens again?

8. Think long term client relationship, and invest in it You might be able to make more money today by milking a matter – but I won’t use you next time. Think what you can do to ‘add value’ – give me a heads-up about a development that could impact my business, call me for a cup of coffee to talk about how business is going, make yourself available to take brief calls to bounce around issues without charging me – next time I have a matter I will think of you.

9. Respect my rules If I say “don’t take instructions from my internal clients unless you come through me”, then then don’t do it. If I say “bill every month”, then do it.

10. Be ethical You could ruin my business as well as yours if you are not. At a lesser level, ‘point scoring’ and taking unreasonable positions in a commercial negotiation may make you feel big, but it is not in my interest as it rarely helps parties reach a practical, commercial outcome.

Finally, while not a “commandment” – be pleasant and be yourself. Clients can smell used-car salesmen types a mile off. If I have a choice of being locked up for months on a matter with someone I like and someone I don’t, guess which I will pick. Of course, for most of these points, there is a direct counterpoint for what in-house counsel should do to effectively engage with external counsel. Be interested to hear your thoughts!

Tig Pocock is an in-house counsel for BHP Billiton in the Brisbane Area of Australia. Tig’s opinions are his own and made in his personal capacity.

 Note: This post was originally published in February of 2013.

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