GPSOLO January/February 2009
I was sitting in my office in Boston when I received a telephone call from the Issue Editor of GPSolo. He told me that he was interested in having me pen an article about my experiences representing big clients. Obviously, we all strive to represent “big” clients, so I asked him what he meant by that phrase. The answer was large Fortune 1000 companies.
I am a commercial litigator and I have had the pleasure of representing and continuing to represent several Fortune 1000 companies. My comments in this article, therefore, relate to my experiences representing such companies in commercial litigation matters. Other lawyers, such as transactional attorneys, may have a different point of view.
Large companies, owing to the nature and breadth of their business interests, have a variety of needs for legal services, and litigation may be brought in a variety of contexts. It was not long ago that most Fortune 1000 companies would only retain the services of lawyers practicing in large firms. Of course there are always exceptions to a general rule, but it is my experience that within the last five to seven years, in-house counsel at Fortune 1000 companies are more willing and, I dare say, more interested in talking with solos and small firm practitioners. In fact, I believe that, in today’s legal market, solos and small firm attorneys are representing more Fortune 1000 companies than ever before.
One reason is that no matter the size of a law firm, the access to information has greatly improved over recent years, and many transactional costs have declined. The proliferation of online services to the legal community, for example, has made the playing field a bit more level. Legal research no longer requires a trip to the library; opinions of state and federal courts—and even extremely useful secondary sources—are accessible online at little or no cost. Further, thanks to the rapid development of personal handheld devices, the in-house counsel at large companies do not have to worry whether they will be able to contact a solo or small firm practitioner in the event of an emergency—our BlackBerrys are always on.
Cost pressures are also a factor. No in-house counsel wants to overspend his or her legal budget. Cost as a factor, however, only goes so far—quality is the bottom line. Smaller firms and sole practitioners generally have lower hourly rates than the firms with hundreds of attorneys, but an emphasis on costs can benefit smaller firms only so long as they demonstrate the competence and effectiveness to meet the client’s needs. Fortunately, as evidenced by so many of the members of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division, many solo and small firm attorneys have built extensive and exemplary records of representation that is of the highest quality—in addition to being cost effective.
This does not mean that a solo or small firm will be receiving “bet the company” litigation from a Fortune 1000 client. Additionally risk-averse in-house counsel will trend toward the larger firms. Even if a case goes poorly or has an unhappy result, few inside the company will question a decision to refer the case to the largest, most prestigious firm in the city. Many more questions might arise if the counsel selected a smaller firm, no matter how competent the representation provided. Nevertheless, depending on the nature of the company’s needs, there are a great many opportunities out there for solos and small firms.
Like most aspects of the business of practicing law, representing big clients has its ups and downs. Most lawyers believe that larger companies pay larger legal fees because they have the financial capacity to do so. This is not necessarily the case. Large companies often believe that they have the leverage to control legal fees. The legal departments in many large companies create approved lists of attorneys to represent them in various specific or general categories of legal issues.
For example, General Electric has established a much-discussed process by which the company solicits proposals from law firms to provide various types of legal services. The proposals are reviewed by in-house counsel, and lists of “preferred” attorneys are formulated for use by the company when there is the need to refer legal matters to outside counsel. The lists are not only an effort to control costs; they also operate to control the number of attorneys or firms that the company deals with as vendors. This process does alleviate a lot of the time that in-house counsel in the various divisions of the company would spend looking for outside counsel. Nevertheless, the company should renew its request for proposals every couple of years in an effort to ensure that it is getting the best possible legal representation.
Some aspects of the practice of law do not change no matter what type of client one has. Like all clients, big clients want competent and effective counsel. One of the best ways a solo or small firm attorney can demonstrate competence is by repetitive experience, whether that experience involves a particular type of case, a certain cause of action, or even frequent practice before a particular court in which the big company often finds itself. Effectiveness can be demonstrated by results, but also by the word of mouth generated by satisfied clients or by a positive reputation earned in the legal community. One of the highest compliments a practicing attorney can receive is when the reaction of other attorneys, upon mention of the name is, “He [or she] is a good attorney.” Reputation is absolutely critical.
Another “R” word is critical and goes hand in hand with reputation. How does a solo or small firm professional establish the relationships that generate work from big clients? It’s not done by sitting in your office. One of the better ways solos and small firm attorneys can find such relationship opportunities is to participate in the American Bar Association, as well as state and local bar associations and alumni associations. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Participation does not mean mere attendance at events; it means actively networking at events, working on committees, and letting others know of your skills and experience. Relationships must be cultivated. Even if an attorney manages to get on an approved counsel list, there is no guarantee that the attorney will be sent any cases. You will still need to actively seek these pieces of business.
For example, I have a friend who is high in the legal department of a major banking institution. I set up a meeting with him, explained the type of work that I do, my work for other institutions, and the types of cases on which I might be of service. After completing all the institution’s required forms, I managed to be added to the approved list. I did not just sit back and wait for my friend to call me with a case. I followed up with him with a call every now and then, asking him how the bank was doing, how his work was going, and what types of matters he was working on. After a short time, he called me up: “Bill, I think there is something you can help us on. . . .”
As a solo or small firm professional, once you do get an opportunity to represent a big client on a matter, make sure to work closely with the company’s in-house counsel, who are extremely knowledgeable about the law and bring a wealth of expertise to the table. In-house counsel also know about the business of their companies. In my experience, business factors can play as much a role as legal factors in terms of how you manage the matter for your big client. Staying attuned to these business factors demonstrates to the client that you understand what that client actually needs. This level of demonstrated understanding also may help you land the next matter from that client.
Interestingly, a quality job done on behalf of a large client in a multi-party case can translate into referrals from other attorneys you are working with or even from lawyers on the “other side.” For example, I did some work on behalf of one of my larger clients in a Massachusetts case while a related case involving my client was pending in another jurisdiction. The client’s at torneys in both jurisdictions regularly conferred. The attorney in the other jurisdiction came from a large law firm. We have since worked on another matter together for a different client.
In short, don’t think that “big clients” are out of your reach. A solo or small firm attorney has increasing opportunities to service Fortune 1000 clients, provided that he or she has proven competence and effectiveness, has honed his or her reputation and relationships in the legal community, and understands the business that he or she is seeking.
William T. Hogan III practices with Nelson Mullins et al. in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a former Chair of the GP|Solo Division. He may be reached at email@example.com.