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In-House Counsel Perspective on Business Development

Oran F Whiting


  • This article is intended to assist potential outside counsel seeking to initiate or expand existing attorney/client business relationships with corporate law departments.
  • Practitioners must identify and understand their targeted market or entity.
  • When considering corporate legal departments, lawyers must familiarize themselves with the structure with which they are dealing.
In-House Counsel Perspective on Business Development
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Business development is a continuing obligation for lawyers in private practice. In-house counsel, the objects of attorneys' business development efforts, understand this obligation, and many have strong opinions about the methods and techniques private practitioners employ to secure or expand legal business.

This article explores business development from the perspective of in-house attorneys. It is intended to assist potential outside counsel seeking to initiate or expand existing attorney/client business relationships with corporate law departments.

Prior to undertaking business development efforts, practitioners must identify and understand their targeted market or entity and pinpoint the individual in-house with an interest in initiating or expanding a relationship. When considering corporate legal departments, lawyers must familiarize themselves with the structure with which they are dealing.

General counsel philosophies, views, and opinions regarding the assignment of outside counsel and solicitations by prospective counsel for legal work vary. Some general counsel, regardless of the size of their legal departments, control the selection of all outside counsel for all matters and have their own standards, contacts, and firms. Some are interested in diversity; some do not factor diversity into their assessment of outside counsel. Some do not ever want to be approached by private practitioners for business. Some are more tolerant. Some allow their lieutenants and assistants to select outside counsel based on their own independent criteria. Regardless of philosophy, all counsel agree the initial approach is critical.

You Had Me at Hello—Or Did You?

"It's a turn-off to inside counsel to be pounced upon," admits Countess W. Price, St. Louis, MO, co-director of the ABA Section of Litigation's Division VI. "As in-house counsel, I understand I will be approached by lawyers for business and that conferences provide a wonderful opportunity for networking, but overt behavior is inappropriate."

Price serves as in-house counsel at Monsanto and is candid about solicitations from strangers. "If I do not know the person, treat me like a normal person. Let's engage in a normal, casual conversation. Do not pounce and immediately try to get business. Establish a rapport." If Price feels a connection, she will pursue a relationship and be more likely to consider the possibility of retention by learning more about the practitioner and his or her firm.

Naturally, a certain comfort level exists with friends and acquaintances, but boundaries remain. "If I do know a person, then that person can bring up things like his or her firm, and subtly ask to be kept in mind if I ever need assistance in a certain area," Price says.

The key is to strike a balance between zealousness and aggression without being perceived as rude. Counsel are aware they will be approached; however, using effective methods and techniques is important. As resources are limited, in-house counsel are focused on efficiency. Practitioner offers of free CLEs, webinars, and client alerts by industry, not just for lawyers, can be beneficial, and will be endearing to in-house attorneys.

General counsel tend to read general counsel and industry association focused publications rather than magazines targeted to lawyers in general. They have no consistent preference between electronic and hard copy methods of receiving newsletters and client alerts. Some in-house lawyers prefer the ability to take the hard copy home with them. Others value electronic versions to facilitate forwarding to other interested parties in the company. Interestingly, most will read only the first newsletter or client alert they receive on a particular topic, regardless of the format.

Getting, Keeping, and Expanding Business

General and in-house counsel emphasize the need for practitioners seeking work to know the environment in which they are operating to forge successful and lasting relationships. They note several issues critical to success.

Long-term relationships should be the goal. Preferred law firms think strategically about their relationships. They learn in advance the issues with which the prospective company is dealing and how they can help the company reach its goals and avoid future pitfalls. Lawyers must know as much as possible about their client, including its market and product strategies, yearly business objectives, sales and financial models, and operational execution.

Every practitioner should strive to be a solutions provider and business partner to the company. Lawyers should apply legal principals to the situations companies face and derive innovative, sensible, creative, implementable solutions the company can use. If possible, firms should construct a team that matches up with the in-house team's background or specialty, or provides a skill set they are looking to augment.

Some but unfortunately not all in-house counsel believe fostering diversity is not only the right thing but the smart thing to do. These enlightened counsel understand that eclectic representatives, by definition, provide their companies with better, more creative, and enhanced representation. As companies expand operations to new and non-traditional areas and locations, diversifying representation is a good business decision.

The pressure on in-house counsel to increase effectiveness and efficiency is paramount, so effective communication is crucial. Outside counsel should use new media, not law firm memoranda, and think outside the box. Lawyers must also differentiate themselves by being creative and innovative. They must look forward to find new opportunities and new ways of doing things.

As the world has become more networked and complex, so too have the issues with which in-house counsel grapple. Virtually every legal issue has other implications. Outside counsel must factor this reality into their assignments.

Being attentive, responsive, and cost-effective is critical, as is achieving successful results for the client. "Do a good job. Keep me informed on a real time basis. Consult me on strategy and major issues and substantive motions," Price suggests.

Many of the suggestions and opinions expressed by in-house counsel are common sense, but the pressures of private practice sometimes cause practitioners to develop a type of tunnel vision. They think more of their needs rather than those of their clients. The best advice is to put yourself in the position of your client. How would you like to be treated when you have a problem? To paraphrase a political campaign slogan, who would you want to answer the phone, and what would you want to hear when or if you called at three in the morning?