In-House Counsel Guidance to TWLL Rising Stars: “Differentiate Yourself by Knowing My Business”

Topics: Client Relations, Diversity, Law Firms, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

Rising Stars

NEW YORK — The Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) “Rising Star” Cohort held its first of two leadership sessions with general counsels as part of the launch of the second year of this program.

During the evening, Jill Centella, Managing Director and Global Head of Litigation at JP Morgan Chase & Co., and Conni Gibson, Associate General Counsel and Managing Director of Capital Markets at BMO Financial, shared their preferences for how partners can best build business connections with them, as well as their perspectives on the current state of the business of law.

The evening started off with Centella and Gibson discussing both of their commitments to diversity. Centella talked about a new initiative at JP Morgan Chase that pledged that 50% of women and diverse lawyers will hold leadership positions on the bank’s litigation matters. The move came in response to a growing number of voices within the judiciary about wanting to see greater diversity in first chair in courtrooms. More specifically, she stated, “we want to help women and diverse lawyers establish relationships that they have not had a chance to establish.” For her part, Gibson discussed BMO’s long-standing commitment to diversity within legal and financial services. Indeed, its own Bindu Dhaliwal sits on the TWLL advisory board.

Next, the conversation shifted to business development and how Centella and Gibson, as the in-house counsel leaders, would react when to a situation where a personal friend at the law firm approached them about giving her firm a chance to pitch business on the next matter. Both women had several key suggestions:

Step Outside of your Comfort Zone — Centella advised female partners to get out of their comfort zone and to be more forward. Gibson advised women to do the same, further adding that she happily gives an opportunity to a firm to meet with her if the external counsel reaches out to learn about her legal department.

Do Your Homework – Learn the Language — A “must” for both in-house counsel leaders was to know the client and the client’s business. Both Gibson and Centella underscored that they will not give a matter to a firm without that firm demonstrating knowledge of the bank’s business. More specifically, the in-house counsel leaders suggested to always make sure the partner and her team of experts come to the meeting already knowing about the in-house counsel leader and her business. Gibson shared that she appreciates law firms that differentiate themselves by using her language. In her words, her whole job is “assessing [risk], mitigation and helping make risk-based decisions.”

Meet New Outside Counsel — Both Gibson and Centella are always open to meeting with new firms, but they had differing approaches. One advised for the partner to come in with a team of experts who can share their knowledge about an important issue related to the company’s business or offer a new perspective about an issue related to that business the in-house leader may not have heard about. In addition, she said she’s always looking for outside counsel to advise her on where the risk is grey. Centella offered two ways to get a meeting with outside counsel or to expand a relationship with an outside firm: i) use CLEs as a way to get to know a new firm, because it’s “much more effective to come in and show your skill to us”; and ii) use secondments and secondees to expand a relationship. Centella said she sees big value in secondees because she is able to get to know the associate and her areas of expertise. Finally, both in-house leaders recommended creating events that gather multiple clients together to facilitate networking among them all.

Then, the conversation shifted to how both leaders try to advocate for women at their outside law firms. Centella indicated that she tries to pull women aside to request their input and leadership when she senses that they need more confidence and courage.

To underscore the importance of the outside counsel understanding this and how it can be career-changing for a woman lawyer, one member of the Rising Star cohort shared her experience. Earlier in her career as an associate, she had done all of the legwork for a pitch, including the research and drafting, but at the meeting with the client, she was the one carrying the binders and did not speak up, she explained. Finally, a client representative asked her to speak up, saying, “I want to hear from you.” Being invited by the client to contribute changed the course of her career.

The dialogue over dinner rounded out with a focus on the billable hour as a key influencer in the success or failure of developing business and about how much of the work within law firms is still billed hourly. Both in-house counsel leaders stated a preference towards fixed fees because of the certainty of costs. Most of the cohort members from law firms stated that they are measured by the billable hour even when the matters are fixed fee.

“A fixed fee means you have to stick to a budget,” said one cohort member.

Learning how to budget for a matter using professional actuaries in the firm was a key skill for partners today, and this brought up another complicating factor about pay rate ratios between partners and associates being much closer now — 2:1 today, compared to 4:1 historically.

Centella underscored the importance of getting the budget right. “We want to pay for the stuff we need to use your brain for, and that is the stuff you want to do anyway,” she said.