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July/August 2021

Marketing: Getting to In-House Without Ending Up in the Outhouse

Micah Buchdahl

If you are trying to draw a crowd when putting together a program or conference for attorneys and legal professionals, there is no lower-hanging fruit than the “what do in-house counsel want” topic. Typically, a roundtable of attorneys from big-name corporations tells an eager audience—rapidly taking notes—what they need to do to get their business.

I’m just as guilty—both in planning these programs and attending them. But my takeaway over the years is that decision making is personal. I listened attentively last year to a general counsel (GC) from an automobile company tell everyone his “rules”—which I can assure you would go down in flames if tried with 90 percent of in-house practitioners. If the GC of Coca-Cola says, “This is what I look for in selecting outside counsel,” that is great advice if you are seeking work specifically from him or her, and perhaps Coke’s legal department. However, that singular perspective is just that—one person’s opinion. In reality, the opportunities for your firm are the opposite of shooting fish in a barrel; it is finding a needle in a haystack. And while my metaphors may be discouraging, all is not lost. There are still effective ways to shine a light on your law firm that might reflect onto corporate legal departments.

Benjamin Moore Doesn't Paint an Accurate Picture

The legal department is not always a favorite among executives in the corporate executive suite. We say “no” a lot. So it is not completely incomprehensible that a company might suggest an easier route to doing what you want—jettison all the lawyers.

Benjamin Moore & Co. received a lot of publicity in legal industry circles for dismissing its entire legal department last November. In relatively short time, there were follow-up articles already lamenting how the company was rationing requests to contact outside counsel, with frustrated employees needing special permission to speak with an attorney (because one will not be provided for you). As an in-house, you often take great pride in solving a legal matter without incurring the additional cost of going outside. But in a move I don’t see taking off, that was not the picture here.

In My Day...

While serving as an in-house in corporate positions earlier in my career, most work did go to Big Law in my (major metro) markets. How were those counsel selected? Often matters flowed right back to the law firms where the in-house counsel came from—a “duh” reminder that keeping those departed partners and associates in your good graces is important. In many cases, matters go to “friends” of varying degrees—with many companies sticking with the belief that legal services are generally fungible in the majority of matters. Sometimes, in certain industries, there is a need for some quid pro quo in distributing your legal budget among many firms in the local market. If you are a boutique or midsize firm, the chances for opportunities increase when there is a specific need for “local counsel” and in similar fashion when needing attorneys in a small market city.

What Has Changed?

In reviewing a similar topic I penned in 2008 for an in-house counsel-targeted publication, I thought about what had changed in approaches taken to gaining visibility with corporate legal departments between then and now. The topic of diversity—perhaps the biggest core differentiator for new opportunities today—was practically an afterthought. I’ve discussed the importance of diversity at length in previous Law Practice columns. There has been a significant drop in law firm advertising in print publications targeting in-house. While newsletters and client alerts are appreciated, they are often lost in a crowded inbox—and replaced by new forms and formats. There is still a great chance that in looking for counsel in a given market, a GC will do one of two or three things—(1) send a mass internal email (what I call the “Anyone know an employment lawyer in Sheboygan?”) approach, (2) ask the same to a network that can range from an Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) chapter to a law school alumni group or (3) do a Google search looking for a name or experience that resonates—“health care lawyer Philadelphia.”

What Does Your GC's Top 5 List Look Like?

I asked a few in-house colleagues to give me a top five list for selection of outside counsel. For the most part, the lists were quite similar. Courtney Fong, chief legal officer and chief privacy officer at CompTIA, provided one of the best:

  1. Practical experience and excellence with the subject matter.
  2. Diversity, equity and inclusion—efforts and proven results.
  3. Budget—will the fees work with our budget?
  4. Fit—will we have a good working relationship based on personality,  character, etc.?
  5. Breadth of other experience for potential future work.

In several casual conversations (and most in-house prefer not to chat on the record, as many prefer the under-the-radar approach to job security), there were definitely thoughts as to what impressed and what did not:

  • Don’t even think about cold calling.
  • Is your firm churning a matter? Or resolving it quickly and cheaply?
  • Are we subsidizing your firm’s lavish spending on real estate, sponsorships, entertainment?
  • Was your marketing effort appropriately tailored and targeted?
  • Is the content sophisticated and nuanced to the practice or dumbed down to someone who doesn’t understand what we need or what we do?

Feelings toward pro bono and charitable giving are mixed. Some clearly don’t care. Chatting it up with someone seated next to you on a nonprofit board can be quite shrewd. An area where “it depends” is whether there are benefits to having an industry focus. Do I need counsel that knows the automotive industry or simply a kick-butt litigator in Sacramento? Depending on the individual or matter, this can land as a positive or shoulder shrug.

Consistently never listed on anyone’s top five lists are various accolades that range from the credible to strictly vanity and ego-stroking. In 2008, I still listed Martindale-Hubbell as being relevant. Media exposure is never a bad thing, unless it is about you doing a bad thing.

Nobody referenced annual reports, client service “officers” or participation in client surveys. However, I love conducting client surveys for law firms—you get great data, a nice touch point and some feedback on performance and your place in the market.

Over the last year, in the land of Zoom, there were creative wine tastings, private concerts and stand-up comic performances, which managed to keep you and your law firm somewhat top of mind and not lost in the midst of the pandemic. Showing your face had definite value. But nothing replaced the opportunity for in-person, face-to-face time (as I noted in a recent Law Practice column). A return to breakfast briefings, CLEs and hosting someone in a suite for a playoff game or concert event (regardless of the suggestion that “we can’t accept that”) is still tough to beat.

I'm Tweeting at You

Either you tweet or you don’t. You listen to podcasts religiously or you don’t. Pay daily visits to LinkedIn or almost never. Again, there are in-house attorneys who use or ignore all of these communication channels. I’ve had success targeting specific corporations and executives through many of these, sometimes with great success; other times with crickets chirping.

While inviting a GC to a webinar is well and good, inviting them to speak on a credible association’s CLE panel (like, say, the ABA) is a better way to engage. The same might hold true for a podcast. I’ve also had client law firms generate very niche content in CLE or published work formats with one particular prospective client in mind—with the hopes that it will be seen and open up channels that did not exist before.

The ACC Route

At some point over the last decade or two, the ACC recognized that it was sitting on a gold mine. It was always a heavy financial investment to get quality exposure at the national level, making it very difficult for law firms outside of Big Law to afford it. So I’ve taken firms to local chapters, although in major metro markets that can still run upward of $50,000.

The Holy Grail

The bottom line is that most corporate-facing law firms count on business matters—transactional and litigation—to succeed. Think about the various in-house perspectives, remembering that one size does not fit all. Reaching a GC who does not know you is not impossible, so maximize your efforts in ways that will count.

Micah Buchdahl


Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on business development initiatives. Based in Moorestown, New Jersey, he is president of HTMLawyers, Inc., a law marketing consultancy. He is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. [email protected]

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