Tyler Adkins is an in-house attorney within Fortune 150, multinational corporation ArcelorMittal (MT). Currently, he serves roles within two subsidiaries of ArcelorMittal: general counsel, compliance officer, and corporate secretary for ArcelorMittal Princeton; and senior counsel for ArcelorMittal USA. Adkins’s experience in both private practice and in-house capacities provides him with a holistic view of the challenges facing attorneys on both sides of the attorney-client relationship.
What are the most challenging issues you face managing outside counsel?
This is a great question because if you ask five in-house attorneys, you likely will get five different answers. To me, ensuring outside counsel understands my expectations of how I want a matter managed is the most difficult issue I face simply because, since I encounter different areas of the law daily, I need each matter treated differently. For example, when I am faced with an area of law I understand well, I want to be more intimately involved in discussing strategy. When I am not as familiar, I need outside counsel to take on a teaching role so that I can learn the area well enough to make a competent and informed decision on strategy—not to mention be able to explain the reasoning behind the decision to management. Both strategies require patience and understanding by outside counsel. Simply put, each matter is different, so always take the time up front to see how in-house counsel wants the matter handled. This strategy will make the matter go more smoothly and make the relationship stronger.
What characteristics cause outside lawyers to stand out or to have a competitive advantage compared to others?
The easy answer is outside counsel must possess excellent legal knowledge and perform great work for the client—and this is true. However, I would never hire an attorney I did not believe would provide this level of work, so, to me, a competitive advantage comes from three words: communication, communication, communication. If I am shocked by a deadline, missed filing, motion to compel, a filing you made on our behalf, or any other type of “surprise,” both my job and yours becomes much more difficult. There are very few issues that cause an attorney to be removed from consideration for future matters faster than an avoidable surprise. There are always situations outside counsel cannot predict, but if you are communicating with me consistently, rarely does an issue completely catch me off guard. In the rare occasion it does, I am much more understanding if we are communicating regularly. If you want a competitive advantage, consistently communicate throughout a matter so I do not need to ask for the update.
What are the most consistent mistakes you see made by retained counsel?
We have great attorneys and firms representing us, so we encounter very few consistent “mistakes,” but one pet peeve of mine is not receiving information until we are up against a hard deadline. In my role, there are many moving parts at all times, so outside counsel and I have to approach a matter as a team with an understanding that the matter you are working on is not the only matter that is consuming my time. This requires outside counsel to ensure I have adequate time to review the information, comment, and make a decision. There are also times when multiple people in different offices or countries need to weigh in on a decision. There are certainly times when presenting a last-minute filing or decision is unavoidable, and I understand that well, but it should be avoided whenever possible.
What are some of the issues that dictate how you manage litigation that may not be readily apparent to retained counsel?
An important point to remember is we both work for the company. Thus, the company expects me to accomplish their goals the same as outside counsel; the difference is we are often viewing the same matter through different lenses. As outside counsel, advice is typically based on established case law and what you believe gives the client the best chance at success in that case—with some references to how it may impact other cases of which you may have some knowledge. My job is to balance how to best manage the specific litigation while accomplishing the goals of management, understanding the impact on the company, and a plethora of other considerations. One irrefutable fact I have learned after transitioning in-house is outside counsel should never believe they know as much about the company’s inner workings and preferences as does the in-house attorney—no matter how long they have worked with the company. The best outside attorneys, to me, understand this reality and accept that while they may not completely agree with each particular decision, there are reasons behind the decision of which they may not be aware.
Do you see any emerging trends or issues in the legal profession that may alter the way you retain or manage outside counsel?
One trend I see is the increase in alternative fee arrangements. There are times when I request these arrangements and receive pushback, whether I request a fee cap, flat fee arrangement, or some other type of arrangement different than hourly billing. The world of legal fees is changing; and, at least in my opinion, companies want more control over the total cost of a matter compared with solely focusing on the hourly rate. One piece of advice on this topic: if you are asked to provide an alternative fee proposal, you should figure out how to make it work because if you do not, the relationship will likely be limited moving forward.
Nick Preservati is an energy executive and cochair of Spilman Thomas & Battle’s Energy Practice Group in Charleston, West Virginia.
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