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Seven Lessons Learned for Outside Counsel

Rachel P Raphael, Megan S Wynne, Tracie Chesterman, and Katherine Spicer


  • Build meaningful relationships with in-house counsel by going beyond legal matters and scheduling regular video calls.
  • Tailor your communication approach based on the size and structure of the legal department, offering assistance and timely updates.
  • Stay informed about competitors' business development strategies and consider in-person meetings when appropriate.
  • Highlight your expertise through industry engagement, personalized interactions, and showcasing depth of knowledge.
Seven Lessons Learned for Outside Counsel

In many respects, the world of remote work has leveled the playing field when it comes to developing business. Based on our experience in serving as in-house counsel or working closely with them, we suggest ways in which outside counsel can set themselves apart in the new normal.

1. Be Intentional about Relationships

Relationships, relationships, relationships. Take the time to develop a meaningful relationship with in-house counsel beyond just legal issues and pitches. The pandemic made video calls the norm. Video calls have leveled the playing field for women in a lot of ways. Schedule quarterly video calls with in-house counsel to talk more than business. Outside counsel who invest proactive time in personal relationships remain top-of-mind for every potentially relevant matter that can be pushed outside. Do not be afraid to ask your in-house counsel what else is going on in the business (besides the area or areas you work on). That is a way to know if your firm can help your client in other areas of expertise and with attorneys at the firm. It will also help you understand the bigger picture of your client’s business and how the issues and cases you are working on fit into the big picture.

2. Communicate Thoughtfully and Personalize Your Approach

Find out how big the legal department is and how it is structured. Many legal departments are deepening the bench of in-house talent, which may impact billable matters you can do for that team, given that a lot of work stays in-house. In this instance, figure out what novel issues you can master to help augment the day-to-day flow for the in-house team. For example, if independent contractor status is important to the client, stay abreast of all relevant trends and changes, and be prepared to provide timely updates if material changes happen or are about to happen. Being first in often means you get the first phone call if the client needs to outsource the issue.

Alternatively, if your in-house contact is the only attorney, there are lots of little ways you can help that might not be applicable to a legal department that has its own attorneys, paralegals, and secretaries. Also, be sure to give plenty of lead time when you send over documents that need reviewing, document requests for discovery, declarations that need signing, etc. If your client’s legal department is very small, the department will need lots of help in document and e-discovery, lots of lead time getting verifications and declarations signed, and a lot of advance notice if the department needs to schedule depositions of the business team.

These are questions and conversations that will show your in-house contact that you are mindful of that person’s time and want to understand how his or her particular legal department is structured and what the resources are so that you can save time as you work together on cases going forward.

3. Know How Competitors Are Trying to Get Business

Do not be afraid to ask how competitors are trying to win pitches and get business. Although video calls have leveled the playing field in ways, in-person pitch teams and business development trips are heavily male-dominated. Understand what other law firms are doing, and if it involves getting in front of potential clients in person, do the same. There is still a lot of value to sitting around a table in person. Understanding how your client approaches meetings is also important. Find out if your client’s team members are all back in the office, if they are flexible about remote work, or if certain functions are fully remote now. If everyone is back in the office, suggest an in-person meeting if you have not met the team in person yet.

4. Be Loud and Proud about Your Area of Expertise

When sourcing outside counsel, it is often necessary to find a specific area of expertise. Make sure you are showcasing your expertise through panels and industry engagement, as well as directly with in-house counsel. Recently, an outside counsel took time to learn a very specific issue that was relevant to the company where one of the authors is in-house counsel and produced a perfectly drafted legal memo on the issue free of charge. This memo has been circulated to the entire legal team and some members of executive team. Not only did this memo showcase depth of expertise on a narrow issue, but it also showed how invested the outside counsel was in learning the company’s business. That lawyer is now a household name with the in-house team.

5. Know Your Law Firm’s Capabilities

Take the time to understand all of the practice areas and industries your firm covers. Participate in your internal firm events that are designed to make you an expert on what your colleagues are doing and what the level of expertise is in each practice area. Many firms advertise having expertise across almost all practice areas, but the depth of experience varies widely. It is a good idea to do some diligence on the experience your practice groups have—your client will appreciate you being honest if you have to say, yes, we have employment lawyers in our office in France, but I’ve done some checking and the team there is new to us or not very experienced. At the same time, having an alternative option for your client to check into is a good idea. Do not be afraid to refer to a friend who is in a competitor firm if that is what is best for your client. Relationships matter across competitors, too. On the other hand, if your client has an issue or case in an area outside of your own, but you know your partner has that expertise, that’s a great resource for your client. Your client will be very happy to send your firm additional work (and different work) if you have the resources, are knowledgeable about them, and can make that introduction quickly.

If your firm circulates news flashes, newsletters, etc., on new laws, regulations, and court decisions, find out if your client would be interested in receiving these emails and in what areas, and then sign your client up at your firm. Some of your clients might get most of their legal updates from these law firm publications, so if your firm has a good system in place for these updates, your client will appreciate them and will become very familiar with the expertise of your firm in these areas. Further, if you know it is a top-of-mind issue that is being released, send it with a personal note to your client, which showcases that you understand your client’s immediate needs and are ready to support.

6. Get Smart about Your Clients’ Challenges and the Issues That Keep Your Client Up at Night

It is important to understand your client’s unique challenges. Not all clients in the same industry have the exact same challenges. Digging a little deeper into your client’s individual profile (even if this might be on the law firm’s own dollar) and understanding the issues that keep your client up at night will help your law firm become a long-term, strategic thought partner.

Similarly, it is extremely important to understand your client’s risk tolerance, especially when dealing with public companies rather than privately held companies. Most in-house attorneys are looking for law firms to provide business-friendly advice and realistic assessments of risk. Put yourself in the shoes of an in-house attorney who has to help his or her business achieve a goal or quickly come up with various alternatives to solve a problem and saying “no” is a last-resort answer. Finally, understand your client’s budget challenges. Providing alternative fee arrangements from time to time, including flat-fee quotes, can be extremely helpful.

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Think Outside the Box When It Comes to Business Development

Business development is all about building your brand, and building a brand takes creative thinking, intentional execution, and patience. Be strategic and take time to develop a business plan with milestones and metrics to help you determine what is effective. In building this plan, have the long game in mind because it is common to see outside counsel show up for an immediate pitch when a billable opportunity emerges instead of showing up for a pitch that has been tied to relationships and a strategy cultivated over months and years. For example, tie your brand to trade associations and other industry groups that will help you network, keep apprised of industry needs, and create meaningful speaking and panel opportunities. In short, be more than a blog author and reactive pitch presenter. Showcase your ability to build relationships through an intentional business plan. If you have “writer’s block,” ask your in-house connection to help you write your plan and align it to client’s and industry’s needs and contacts.