Good to Great: Five Things External Counsel Can Do

An in-house lawyer’s wish list

Good to Great: Five Things External Counsel Can Do

Clio CEO Jack Newton’s book, The Client-Centered Law Firm, asks law firms to consider ways in which they can provide a client-centered experience while driving efficiency and profitability. This article builds on that theme by highlighting often overlooked aspects of in-house counsel (“Internals”) practice that external counsel (“Externals”) can draw on to tweak service delivery — all while dazzling clients and attracting new business.

1. Internals Face a Nearly Limitless Demand for Legal Services

Particularly in organizations where Internals are freely available as a corporate resource, there’s virtually no end of work competing for Internals’ time and attention. Internals’ productivity is measured not by time spent on a problem, but by the problems they solve within the time available. Rather than needing to drum up business, Internals must constantly triage legal requests based on relative risk exposure, transaction value, and their impact on corporate priorities. This means there is always more legal work waiting to be done, some of which might be outsourced. Each Internal will naturally prefer or be expected to handle certain aspects of that work more directly than others. The takeaway for Externals: seek out opportunities to assist with the important but not necessarily urgent work that remains.

2. Internals Often Lack Administrative Support

While it may be common at firms for a legal assistant to be shared between two or three Externals, headcount pressures faced by Internals’ organizations often mean administrative assistants are scarce or non-existent. Internals are thus more likely to be responsible for clerical tasks such filing, copying, scanning, and scheduling. Leveraging a firm’s administrative support infrastructure to lighten Internals’ load frees up their time to do more of the work they enjoy. It also gives Internals an additional reason to use Externals beyond excellent legal work product. For example, Externals can save immense duplication of effort by giving Internals access to the curated file content and meeting notes — for which, after all, the client has already been billed.

3. Know your client’s strategic plan

Many institutional clients set specific strategic objectives that signal corporate priorities for a given time frame. Finite budgets are allocated accordingly. By proactively seeking out a client’s song sheet, Externals can gain a significant advantage in identifying opportunities to provide legal services and even suggest solutions for which a client hasn’t yet thought to ask.

4. Know your ultimate audience

A request from an Internal for legal advice might serve one of several purposes: validating or course-correcting an Internal’s initial take on an issue, educating the Internal on a legal issue outside their usual areas of practice, responding to an internal client’s legal question, or “papering” a file with an externally validated legal analysis. Knowing the intended use of the advice allows an External to tailor the response accordingly. An academic treatise might fit the bill if the purpose is to educate the Internal or substantiate a business decision informed by legal considerations. But the same encyclopaedic response might be counterproductive if intended to answer a question from a non-lawyer internal client. In the latter context, the most client-friendly work product is an email message or memo that can be forwarded without any accompanying translation.

5. Ask directly for feedback before it comes indirectly

Externals can be shy about asking clients for candid feedback, while Internals may be reluctant to provide unsolicited constructive criticism. Mere payment of a bill and the absence of overt displeasure, therefore, do not connote client satisfaction. Internals and their internal clients are constantly making mental notes of which External behaviours they wish others would emulate, and which they’d prefer to avoid going forward. Absent a specific ask for direct client feedback, an External may not even detect the more common form of indirect feedback: a drop in new work.