NEW YORK — One of the most important panels of the recent Legal Executive Institute Law Firm Leaders Forum gave those titular entities everything they needed to know about how to forge a lasting and beneficial relationship with their clients. Hopefully, many of those law firm leaders were listening.
The panel, entitled “The Meaning of Client Relationships in the 21st Century” offered keen insight into the client-mind from a handful of corporate legal officers and general counsels — not surprisingly, predictability and sensitivity drew high marks.
“Predictability is a key component,” said David Cambria, Global Director of Operations at Archer Daniels Midland Co., adding that firms need to understand that law is a non-core function at most corporations and is treated as such. “Some firms think coming in lower [in price] than predicted is good news — but to my executive board, it means that money could have been invested elsewhere and wasn’t.”
“If you can’t manage the people at your own firm, how can you manage complex litigation for us?”
Indeed, many panelists agreed that estimates from law firms of legal spend on certain matters that come in either too high or too low can play havoc with a company’s planning, investment and accounting. “Predictability is not a nicety, but is extraordinarily important,” said Chaim A. Levin, Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel for the Americas at Tradition Group.
At times, the panel’s insight turned saturnine as corporate counsel recalled horror stories of exactly how they did not want their outside law firms to act. One story concerned a law clerk at an outside firm calling the CFO of a client company directly about an unpaid bill of several hundred dollars. The client’s legal spend was often a 1,000-times that. Another story concerned a GC on a conference call with his company’s outside firm and having to listen to the partners on the line argue over who was going to provide coverage and who was going to get credit.
Incidents like those plant the seed of doubt about the firm/client relationship in the mind of many legal officers, panelists said. “If you can’t manage the people at your own firm, how can you manage complex litigation for us?” asked Cambria.
Others on the panel agreed, saying one of the most important factors for an outside law firm was to invest in the client with a commitment made up of time and personnel that demonstrates that the firm is looking to establish a relationship of trust and partnership. “The law firm/client relationship has changed over the years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for the firm to be sensitive to the clients’ needs,” said Levin.
It’s vitally important for a law firm to get ahead of the issues a client faces and anticipate the client’s needs before a catastrophic issue arises, Levin explained. “Talk to them, show you’re interested in their business,” he said, adding that companies themselves understand the importance of this in dealing with their own clients. “And if businesses understand that, why don’t law firms?”
Jennifer M. Daniels, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary at Colgate-Palmolive Co., said she wondered how many law firms are actually educating themselves about their clients’ businesses and how their clients operate, adding that only once has an outside lawyer contacted Colgate about visiting its manufacturing facilities. “Once they do that, I know they’re invested in our business and our relationship,” she said.
Tradition’s Levin concurred, offering final sage advice: “Perks don’t matter — the Yankees’ tickets, the dinners — what matters is that when I go to sleep I know my lawyer is still awake and thinking about our problems. The more matters I don’t have to think about makes my life better.”
And you couldn’t ask more from a relationship than that.