Firoz Dattu is CEO of AdvanceLaw, an organization committed to improving the legal market by collaborating with more than 100 general counsel to measure and improve law firm performance, as well as vet lawyers and firms for quality, innovation and client service. Firoz is also leading a panel at this week’s inaugural Corporate Counsel Leadership Forum, sponsored by Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute. Firoz’s panel, “From Cost Center to Collaborator: Aligning Legal Department Functions with the Greater Enterprise” will discuss how corporate legal departments can become a synergistic business unit that adds value to the corporation as a whole.
As in-house counsel engaging an outside lawyer, we often need just two things: email and a phone. “Thanks” to technology — whether it’s responding to new litigation in California, re-doing the company’s credit agreement, or identifying key risks under new regulations — we operate remotely. We check out a lawyer’s credentials, have an introductory call to engage, and jump to issue-spotting, due diligence, drafting and the ordinary course, all from afar. Especially as a relationship with outside counsel develops, it’s a rarity that we need to make an in-person visit to see one another, face-to-face. Yet, we often cite law firms’ inability to understand our business (and us on personal level) as a key source of frustration and dysfunction.
Maybe this is why, at a recent AdvanceLaw meeting of 20 chief legal officers and a handful of managing partners, one topic drew so much interest: annual summits for outside counsel that are hosted by a client. We’ve all heard of other companies doing this — DuPont famously comes to mind — yet it’s apparent that this is the exception, not the rule. One of our GCs of a Fortune 500 company brought up the topic. He’s been hosting an annual summit for roughly 150 lawyers across 30 firms, and told all of us in the room that “it’s the most difficult, yet most rewarding” part of his job.
His summit runs for 2½ days and includes a company and law department update, a strategic review delivered by business executives, tours in the field to experience the company’s facilities or products, and ample social time for bonding. In-house counsel also present on key developments in their areas of expertise, and the GC addresses risk management, budgets, culture and law firm expectations. According to this GC, one of the best moments of each summit is the “law firm of the year” award, recognizing exemplary service.
Especially as a relationship with outside counsel develops, it’s a rarity that we need to make an in-person visit to see one another, face-to-face. Yet, we often cite law firms’ inability to understand our business (and us on personal level) as a key source of frustration and dysfunction.
Summits like these have a clear and obvious benefit in the face of our over-reliance on email and phone: our law firms get to know our business and our expectations, and this makes them much more valuable partners.
But there are two overlooked benefits that make a law firm summit compelling. The first has to do with the fact that firms can’t serve each client equally well. There’s an inherent war for talent within every firm, with the best partners and associates pulled in every direction imaginable, serving a large number of clients. And whether firms admit it or not, a partner who has spent time getting to know, and presumably like, a given client, will try a whole lot harder to excel personally, as well as find the best talent at the firm to handle the client’s additional needs. It’s simple human nature: law firm partners, in an era of automation and efficiency, are hungry for fulfilling client relationships.
The second overlooked (or underestimated) benefit is that clients who host these summits (assuming they’re not limited to a small handful of firms), are more effectively tapping the wider talent market. A key challenge for us, and for every client, is to identify the best lawyer for our work. And getting to know on a personal level our entire firm network on a national, or even international level (not just the firms down the street), can really help. Summits allow us to assess, and learn about, more lawyers and firms (through meaningful interaction), and thus give us more and better options for our complex, and quickly changing legal needs.
We all know summits are a fairly simple and well-known idea, but that shouldn’t detract from their appeal. After the Fortune 500 GC discussed his law firm summit at our own meeting, other GCs in the room were inspired to start convening their own summits, and the managing partners were universally in favor too. Maybe this is one of those bona fide win-wins we’re all so intent on finding. We’ll certainly report back on what else we hear, but we have a strong suspicion the result will be this: it’s one of the hardest but most rewarding things a general counsel can do.
Bart Goldstein contributed to this blog post. Bart is an Executive Advisor at AdvanceLaw. Prior to that he was Senior Associate General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at MasterCard.