Our modern times are defined by an abundance of information and a scarcity of attention. Constant increases in technology, globalization, and regulation dictate that this is not going to change.
The challenges presented by COVID-19 and the resulting aftermath only add fuel to this fire and make the do-more-with-less challenge of modern legal services more acute, especially for the corporate legal teams tasked with this mandate. In this environment, it will be impossible to for in-house teams to acquire all the capabilities necessary for success within their own organizations. Indeed, success of failure in the legal services industry will depend on the ability of these teams to leverage resources and relationships in a cooperative manner.
Certainly, legal knowledge is merely table stakes for being a successful lawyer in today’s legal market. In order to thrive in the modern delivery of legal services, this core foundation must be supplemented with business acumen, project management, data analysis, and personal effectiveness. And all of that must be supplemented through quality relationship management, emotional intelligence, and communication skills.
Suggestions for the pre-relationship phase
There are some key actions that corporate law department leaders should take in the pre-relationship phase in order to better develop law firm and vendor relationships that ultimately improve transparency and reward value and innovation.
Invest in people
Teams exist to accomplish together what could not be accomplished individually. Therefore, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and empowering them is key to operational success.
By starting the relationship with some focus on what will make the outside counsel’s practice group or the product manager’s software more successful, you will better align purpose while better positioning yourself for long-term success. While it may sound counter-intuitive to not lead with the ten things you are seeking to accomplish, the answers and solutions come naturally and faster when it’s dependent on the legal provider’s strong desire to provide them to you.
Remember, winning teams are built on shared purpose, trust, and accountability while dysfunctional teams can have the most advanced technology fine-tuned for the problem they are solving and still struggle. The time for demos and competitive bids will come in due time. By coming to the table with purpose and a plan, you will stand out from the pack and make it much more likely that your potential partners are engaged to work with you, giving your their full attention and their best work.
Using due diligence to build credibility
For healthy interdependence to be achieved in any relationship, individuals must first know themselves and their purpose. Building relationships and credibility are the only way you can put the right answer on the table, making this a critical endeavor.
Think strategically about the problem, the current and future state of capabilities and talent, team roles and responsibilities, and any conflicts or ethical issues in need of discussion. For software solutions, begin preliminary discussions with other key business unit stakeholders such as procurement and information security to identify potential obstacles, bottlenecks, and competing priorities. By doing so, you will be ready for a meaningful, constructive, and strategic dialogue from the outset; and you also will have positioned yourself for the quick and efficient on-boarding of your new business partner.
Avoid the typical product demo or laundry list RFP for law firms until you have had some actual conversations around the problem to solve. Based on my experience giving and sitting through many product demos, they are too technology- and feature-focused rather than people- and solution-focused. They rarely are conversational in nature, and result in little memory of differentiation between products.
By focusing the two steps above, you can create an environment for all to succeed and grow. Do not sabotage this key determinant of long-term success by treating the ensuing contract negotiation as a zero-sum game. Come to the table with enthusiasm for the journey ahead and the ensuing collaboration. Spend some serious time and thought on creating rates and pricing models that enable positive incentives for all involved. By doing so, you will avoid the status quo of defaulting to traditional pricing and staffing models that often deliver less accountability and value.
Dealing with post-transaction changes
Here are some suggestions on how to cast vendor and firm relationships in the post-deal signing phase that are built to survive the inevitable challenges that will come.
Give as much as you get
In the legal services industry, the output — whether it be legal work product in the form of an opinion, advice, litigation, or transactional success from a law firm; process improvement from an alternative legal service provider; or technology augmentation from a legal software vendor — is paramount to success. However, this is not the sole criteria for creating and sustaining a legal operations function that is fully competent in firm and vendor management.
Too many times, team members move on to the next case without conducting a retrospective where feedback is given and received, and which more importantly lays the groundwork for continuous improvement.
Recognizing that all outside law firms or vendors also have many competing demands, busy schedules, and potentially better opportunities, high-performing legal operations teams focus a considerable amount of time on the relationship inputs as well as outputs. Investing in the relationship post-signing better ensures that the outside party will continue to invest more in your relationship when given the choice amongst its plethora of opportunities.
At a bare minimum, hold periodic business reviews. Get to know business partners on a personal or professional level with regular, more casual check-ins. Offer to jointly present at events, co-author white papers, and provide testimonials. All of these activities are of mutual benefit and will ensure your trusted partner’s success, which will only strengthen the relationship and your function’s competency in the long-term.
Strategically partner, don’t just buy
Any in-house counsel or head of legal ops can purchase legal services from an AmLaw 100 firm or complete the basic on-boarding of legal software. Many can negotiate a fee agreement or dictate arbitrary service level agreements that benefit the department without paying due concern to the business relationship or the partner’s goals.
The truly great ones, however, enter the relationship with not only intellectual horsepower but with humility and vulnerability that leads to trust and mutual gain.
In the law firm realm, go beyond mere convergence and preferred panel exercises and create true knowledge sharing by attending law firm/client summits and inviting your preferred legal panel members to campus or regular meetings to share lessons learned with each other.
In the legal software space, go beyond the basic implementation phase and truly engage in product design, development, and management by testing and measuring new features and functions. Engaging in this way — rather than solely transmitting your desires — leads to a co-created legal ecosystem that is adaptable to any future challenge.
Today, corporate law department leaders find themselves in turbulent times where visibility will rarely be clear and far from perfect, and the demand on their time and attention from a myriad of challenges is not expected to lift soon. Indeed, it is an environment that demands the strength of teams and the knowledge and ability to best manage the relationships with partners and team members that will lead to success.