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Practice Management

How to Manage the Critical Relationship Between Local and National Counsel

Peter Estall

Summary

  • The most effective local/national counsel relationships all have one thing in common: a clearly defined relationship where each is aware of the expectations of the other. They work in harmony to achieve their common goals.
  • For national counsel, make sure local counsel is aware of the limits of their role and what you expect of them.
  • For local counsel, let national counsel know if you have limitations on staff arising, when you will need documents to make sure they are timely filed, what documents you will need to file, and ensure that national counsel is aware of upcoming court and filing dates.
How to Manage the Critical Relationship Between Local and National Counsel
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The relationship between national and local counsel is a critical aspect of practice for any lawyer who has, works within, or is interested in having a national practice. Defining that relationship and ensuring that both sides perform their expected roles will ensure that you and your national counsel partner can smoothly, effectively, and cost-efficiently represent your clients.

Businesses with operations across the country (e.g., Target, The Home Depot) are often sued in jurisdictions where their regular or “national” counsel do not have an office or where national counsel does not have attorneys admitted to practice. National counsel often hires local counsel to fill this gap and satisfy common rules that local attorneys be a part of cases pending before courts. Local counsel are usually located in the same state/county where the lawsuit is pending and are familiar with practices and procedures, the bench, etc., in their jurisdiction.

Junior lawyers are more likely to serve as local counsel rather than national counsel for various reasons, not least because their time costs less—and paying lots of money for local counsel is not high on many clients’ wish lists. It is possible to find yourself serving as national counsel as a junior lawyer. If you do, seeing the relationship from both sides can help both parties do their jobs effectively.

My own practice is focused on products liability. In that space, we have clients who are sued across the country in various state and federal courts, and I serve as national counsel. In addition, I work for a firm with national practices that sometimes take out-of-state colleagues into my home jurisdiction. Through this work, I’ve had valuable experience that can help other attorneys stepping into roles as local and national counsel for the first time.

Defining the Local/National Counsel Relationship

The relationship between national and local counsel is important. The most effective local/national counsel relationships all have one thing in common: a clearly defined relationship where each is aware of the expectations of the other. They work in harmony to achieve their common goals. Although many see this as national counsel dictating to local counsel, local counsel also has a critical role in this process.

National counsel needs to communicate their expectations clearly and effectively: is local counsel simply taking care of filing and providing advice on compliance with local rules, or will they take on a more substantive role—advising on strategy, drafting motions and pleadings, trial roles, etc.? Inherent in this is a discussion over how much work local counsel is expected (or permitted) to do. It is incumbent on national counsel to tell local counsel their expectations on the file. But this is a two-way street: local counsel should make sure they are confining their efforts to within the expected scope of the relationship and that they know what that scope is. If the role isn’t defined, local counsel may work the file more than national counsel desires, incurring unnecessary or duplicative expenses.

Preparing to Be Local Counsel

Local counsel is not always an easy role, but here are some steps that you can take as local counsel to improve your ability to perform the role effectively:

Know Your Jurisdiction

You’ll be expected to know the local rules and practices, as well as the bench of your jurisdiction, inside and out. National counsel is unlikely to be familiar with the rules and the style of practice in your jurisdiction. It’s the local counsel’s role to make sure that national counsel doesn’t step into it in the legal community or—particularly—in front of a judge. When you think national counsel is straying from the rules, speak up! Good national counsel will consider your input even if they don’t ultimately follow your recommendation.

  • Be familiar with your jurisdiction’s rules for who must be present for hearings. Some jurisdictions require that a local lawyer always be present.
  • Understand who has to file motions for admission pro hac vice. The two district courts in which I clerked had different rules—one required the applicant to make the motion, and the second required someone to make the motion on behalf of the applicant.

Have Your Ear Close to the Ground

Consider getting involved with committees that revise and amend the local rules of your jurisdiction. If you can explain recent changes to national counsel, you will give them more confidence in your advice.

Get Your Name Out There

National counsel may rely on you to serve as a bridge between them and counsel for the other side, particularly if the opposing counsel is local to your jurisdiction. Your relationships with those opponents (or co-counsel) can be extremely valuable to national counsel as the case is litigated. To that end, network. Go to bar association events and talk to people with whom you might wind up on the other side of the v.

Know Your Jurisdiction’s Tendencies

Has your county recently hit defendants with nuclear verdicts on similar issues? Does the judge have a particular leaning that may affect the client? National counsel needs to know this, and so do you.

These points are not intended simply for local counsel, however. They can also serve as guideposts for what national counsel should expect of local counsel. There is no question that every time I serve as local counsel, I am reminded of things that I should apply going forward in my practice as national counsel: I ask myself, “What information can I provide local counsel to help them perform their role more effectively?” My work as local counsel makes me more sensitive to the needs of local counsel when I serve as national counsel.

Communication Is Key

The key to any successful local/national counsel relationship is simple: communicate, communicate, communicate. For national counsel, make sure local counsel is aware of the limits of their role and what you expect of them. For local counsel, let national counsel know if you have limitations on staff arising, when you will need documents to make sure they are timely filed, what documents you will need to file, and ensure that national counsel is aware of upcoming court and filing dates. The list goes on, but the key is to remember that it is a relationship of give and take, and communication between the sides is essential. You can learn a lot by serving as local counsel; it will serve you well in your practice going forward.

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