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Straight From the Horse’s Mouth – GCs Say What They Want From Outside Firms

Posted in General Counsel


We recently attended a private meeting held in Panama with the General Counsel of 35 global corporations. Given the differences in their businesses, geography, cultures and operational envelopes, one would surmise that they saw their practices, priorities and peeves quite differently.  Not so: it would be fair to say that there were more areas of concordance in their thinking as there were differences and disagreements.  Plain speaking was the order of the day.

Their responses were particularly telling – and particularly outspoken – when we propounded a broad meta-question: What do legal departments want from their law firms?  

We then sat back, listening intently, typing on our iPads as fast as our fingers could fly. Here, verbatim and unedited, were some of their responses:


Tending the Relationship

  • You would do well to understand your place in our universe.  Your role is to serve us, not vice-versa.
  • We want to work with firms that really understand our business.
  • Treat clients as partners, not as customers.
  • We would appreciate less arrogance.  A lot less arrogance.
  • Spell our company and executive names correctly.  At least pretend that you care.
  • You are not unique.  You may think you are, but from the client’s viewpoint, law firms have more things in common than things that distinguish them.
  • Above all, communicate better. No surprises, no excuses. Keep us constantly in the loop.
  • And communicate more efficiently.  Get to the point and spare us the 10-page memos.  We want the answer, not a ton of irrelevant legal analysis.
  • Make the effort to get to know our Legal Department: our goals, priorities, our constraints and pressures, our initiatives, and yes, our lawyers and our culture. Work harder at learning to work with us.
  • Want to win our trust? Skip the tickets to ball games and provide some unbilled legal advice that shows you’re really invested in us.
  • We would prefer to work with one partner only – one who really understands our business.
  • Also, please understand that our CEO is not available at your whim. Respect our time.
  • You should run our matters like they are a business and like your own money is at stake for the results and fees.
  • If you don’t know the answer, admit it. Don’t BS us, don’t hem and haw.  Just go and find out the right answer.
  • You should view our in-house attorneys as intelligent resources, not pains in the backside. We’re tired of being patronized by people we pay money to.
  • Firms should match our genuine commitment to diversity, not just pay lip service.
  • Make training available to us that is practical and really useful. We don’t need abstract theory or generic legal summaries.
  • Don’t gild your lily on our dime.  We don’t fly first-class; you shouldn’t either.

Service Delivery Issues

  • Do the right legal work for the risk at issue.  This should be so basic, but we still see a lot of overlawyering.
  • Provide strategy alternatives, and be sure to tie them to associated fees and risks. We don’t operate carte blanche any more.
  • Deadlines and budgets are hugely important to us.  Teach your lawyers to work on-time and on-budget. If you see you’ll blow through a deadline or budget, let us now immediately; don’t wait until damage is done.
  • Send over a budget before we have to ask, and give us timely updates without having to be asked 10 times.
  • Interoffice conferences should be billed, if at all, to the single lowest billing rate of the attendees.
  • Use the right attorney – in terms of level and expertise – on our matter. Don’t just throw the work to someone who needs hours or happens to be available.

About Those Fees and Fee Arrangements

  • Good idea:  offer alternative fee arrangements right off the bat, before we have to ask.
  • We really liked it when a firm proactively suggested special billing arrangements for a large document review.
  • Please re-use previous work product and then only charge us for updating or changing it.
  • Do not charge us a geographic fee penalty.

About Those Associates

  • Stop training your associates on our dime.
  • We don’t want to use first and second year associates, much less pay for them.  Their work is immature and their judgment poor.
  • Associate work should be evaluated on our satisfaction with the work product, not on how many hours they spend on it. Billable hours do not correlate with work quality.

For these 35 chief legal officers, their dominant priorities seem clear:

1) Walk a mile in our shoes.

2) Treat the law firm-client relationship as a partnership. To team with us, really get to know us and don’t demean us or take advantage of us. Collaborate better. Try harder.  Show respect – to everyone, at all times, in all situations.

3) Expend more effort – much more effort — on better communication.

4) Think and act proactively; don’t make us do all the heavy lifting.

5) Work efficiently, mind the deadlines and respect the budget.


© 2014, Pam Woldow, Doug Richardson & Legal Leadership, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.