How to Foster Beneficial Working Relationships Between In-House and External Counsel
Ideally, the relationship between internal and external counsel should be one of peers, and the evolving role of in-house counsel makes such partnerships increasingly common.
Over the years, in-house counsel positions have become far more sophisticated and demanding. Marrying up the organizational knowledge and judgment found in-house with the skill and expertise found externally make both sides look good and will result in seamless, value-added service for the client.
However, this is not where the relationship typically starts. Investing the necessary time to properly communicate business goals, explicitly discuss fees, and hold wrap-up discussions is a critical part to building an effective and mutually beneficial relationship between internal and external counsel.
Communication is the most important part of any relationship, and the relationship between in-house and external counsel is no exception. When dealing with members of your own profession, it can be easy to fall into the trap of presumed understanding that there is alignment on the issues, agreement regarding appropriate courses of action as well as appreciation of the value of services provided.
As any lawyer who has practiced either at a firm or in-house well knows, there is no shortage of places for communication between external and internal counsel to break down. It’s of paramount importance for both sides to approach the working relationship as a whole, as well as each distinct assignment of legal work, with an explicit and agreed set of goals.
Know Your Client
A large component of the in-house counsel’s role is that of translator. In-house counsel must be wholly familiar with their internal client’s business priorities, including the value they place or risk they Associate with any given piece of legal work, before being able to clearly brief and communicate goals and objectives to external counsel.
A client may prefer to keep costs to a minimum on one matter, while on another they will think more about the big picture — or even “bet the company.” Whatever the client’s specific aim, it is crucial for internal counsel to spend the necessary time at the outset of a file to thoroughly understand how it fits in with the business as a whole. Only then can in-house counsel properly communicate that information to external counsel arming them with the tools necessary to ensure they are best serving the business’s needs and expectations.
At the outset of every file, even for small jobs, in-house counsel should initiate a discussion with their external counterpart about fees and the approximate time to be spent on the matter. This exercise will help crystallize expectations on both sides and bring to the front any misunderstandings over the scope of the assignment.
The more frank and precise the conversation, the farther it will go to prevent that all too common scenario of an in-house counsel receiving a bill from external counsel that is some multiple larger than expected. Conversations around fees need not be tense nor complicated. Its business and ultimately, it is in everyone’s best interests to have a clear understanding.
Set a clear understanding with external counsel about proactive notification – especially when it comes to scope creep or any changes midstream on a file. If there is any question whether a task falls within scope, or not – there should be a discussion.
Hold Post-Game Debriefs
Although forward-looking file assessment is the stock and trade of most lawyers, it is far less common for a team to sit down after a project has been completed and look back. But even the briefest wrap-up discussion can be a huge benefit as an efficiency tool with respect to time and money. And although some external counsel may seem resistant to hearing your feedback, find a tactful way of providing it anyway. The relationship between internal and external counsel is no different than any other in that matters you avoid discussing will fester and grow. The more internal and external counsel can openly discuss what went right and wrong on each file, the better they can apply to the next file.
Sameera Sereda is the Managing Partner and Chair, In-House Counsel Division at The Counsel Network a Canadian legal recruitment firm specializing in legal talent management strategies covering all levels of lawyers and practices for both corporate legal departments and law firms. Sameera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 403.444.1763.
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