Partnering with dozens of law firms throughout my 20 years on the inside of an industry that uses a fair amount of legal services has taught me a thing or two about how inside and outside counsel can forge successful and lasting relationships.
At my company, Synopsys, where I run a 34-plus member legal and corporate affairs department, I realized early on that expanding our attorneys’ skill sets to prepare them for the global business world that Synopsys inhabits would go a long way toward improving their effectiveness and efficiency. To that end we developed and implemented an in-house cross-training program to improve employees’ business, legal, finance and accounting acumen for all legal counsel and infrastructure staff and a global resource network to respond to the challenges of a growing international business. At the same time, we regularly collaborate with outside counsel to make certain that we get the benefit of their extensive insights while conveying to them the types of problems we expect them to solve for us. In fact, we even introduced a “professional vendor of the year award” to honor outside firms/business partners every year. Law firms receiving the award appreciate the public acknowledgement of their efforts.
The results have been dramatic—increasingly successful litigation outcomes, streamlined mergers and acquisitions practices, development of the leading patent program in our industry and the implementation of world-class compliance and governance programs. These results couldn’t have occurred without remarkable partnerships with our outside counsel.
Every legal department and law firm is different, but I am confident that the guidelines we have developed at Synopsys can help anyone pave the way for smoother, stronger collaborations. Here are a few of those guidelines.
Think Long-Term Relationship
Good law firms think strategically about the relationship. They learn in advance what issues our company is dealing with today and how they can help us reach our goals and avoid pitfalls in the future. They would also be well advised to learn about the challenges the General Counsel faces and how they can help transform those challenges into opportunities.
Make Yourself Useful
The first question every law firm should ask is: “What am I doing to be a solutions provider and business partner to the company?” It’s not simply about researching or reciting the law, but about applying legal principals to the situations we face and coming up with innovative, sensible, creative, implementable solutions that we can use. Put simply, how can the firm help us get from Point A to Point B? Positive results are how you make yourself useful inside the company; the law firm’s focus needs to be the same.
I’m continually surprised that so few firms employ the technique of mirroring me and my group. If I were running a law firm, and wanted to develop a relationship with our company, I’d make sure we had a team in place that matched up with everyone on the in-house team in terms of background or specialty, or even a skill-set they are looking to augment. If an in-house IP team, say, is comprised of patent prosecution and litigation hotshots but lacks IP licensing skills, why not consider bringing in the firm’s IP licensing guru?
I used to talk about diversity solely in terms of how it’s the right thing to do from a moral perspective. I don’t anymore. Instead, I talk about how it’s the smart thing to do. Law firms that are not focused on diversity appear woefully out-of-date in today’s increasingly multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-threaded and multi-jurisdictional business world. Rarely today do I face a problem that doesn’t have an international component as part of the answer. If your team isn’t diverse, look for ways to change this—or risk losing business.
Rethink the Meaning of “Presentation”
People assume that lawyers are a particularly well-spoken breed of professional, but speaking articulately and conveying information effectively are two different things. We currently live in a world in which presentations are done in PDF format or in PowerPoint. From the Board level on down, providing information in a meaningful way means pulling it together into a thoughtful, yet streamlined, whole.
These presentations are not tomes filled with paragraph after paragraph: They’re bulleted and accompanied by charts and pictures, by Web pages and videos. An attorney should never merely recite paragraphs from a projection when sharing. Think new media, not law firm memorandum—and think outside the box. A few hours of media or presentation training with an expert can go a long way.
As the world has become more networked and complex, so too have the issues with which we grapple. Today, virtually every legal issue has other implications. For instance, a legal issue may implicate a tax or foreign subsidiary issue, relate to a research and development or product issue, or have some revenue recognition or budget impact. Presentations must take into account multiple perspectives and potential implications. If our outside lawyers have not factored this reality into the assignment they are working on, they will not be able completely address the issues.
Get to the Point
The executives in our company are constantly hopping on and off planes and sprinting between meetings. Chances are that any email messages I send will be read on a smart phone. When I send emails, I aim to be short and effective. I often use bullets and get to the point early on. If I include an attachment, I cut and paste a key excerpt or include a summary. We expect our lawyers to do the same. Also, keep in mind that email gets more immediate attention than voicemail. Be sure to keep your audience in mind.
Know My Business
I’ve known attorneys who, when asked about a corporate client, replied, “I’m just the attorney. I have no idea what they do!” That is not the kind of response that would come from any of our outside lawyers. Our lawyers need to know as much as possible about our enterprise, from the market and product strategies and yearly business objectives to its sales and financial models and operational execution. If you don’t know what we do, you should find out or you won’t be able to provide value to us. Read our 10-K, peruse our Proxy Statement and catch up with me or my colleagues over breakfast.
Be Creative and Innovative
I specifically call this out because I think both creativity and innovation often get lost in the practice of law. As a profession, we tend to focus on precedent and what has been done before. But in the business world, it is essential to look forward to find new opportunities and new ways of doing things. I expect our lawyers to look for creative ways to support our efforts to find opportunities and gain efficiencies and effectiveness.
Many legal services have become commoditized. Everyone is talking about law firm pricing. For firms, this means it is more important than ever to be competitive on pricing, but it also means finding ways to differentiate yourselves with clients. Before you ask for our business, make sure that you have thought about how you can differentiate your services from those of your competitors.