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Getting in Under Corporate Counsel Radar
Some More Lessons From In-House
by Michael Harrison

This article was originally published on the LawMarketing Portal, www.LawMarketing.com.

Legal marketers and many lawyers know it is very hard for law firms to get the attention of in-house attorneys, executive management and business owners when the firm is not already doing business with the organization. But at a recent presentation by the New Jersey Corporate Counsel Association, five in-house attorneys provided some tips that may just help outside attorneys get in under the radar.

Speaking at the presentation were:

  • Lucinda Long, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Valley National Bank
  • Patrick J. Murphy, Vice President and General Counsel, Sarnoff Corporation
  • Taysen Van Itallie, Associate General Counsel, Johnson & Johnson Company
  • H. Katherine White, General Counsel, Sealed Air Corporation
  • Bruce J. Hector, Associate General Counsel for Becton Dickinson and Company and the president of NJCCA, moderated the program.
The speakers are from law departments with as few as five lawyers and as many as 130.

What Corporate Counsel Look for in Law Firms

Technical Ability. Early in the program the in-house attorneys discussed the characteristics they look for in the firms they retain. Van Itallie of Johnson & Johnson provided several. "Obviously, we want technical facility. We want not only to see experience and familiarity with the issues of the case, but the ability of the firm to demonstrate this experience and familiarity convincingly."

Teamwork. Van Itallie also looks for firms that understand teamwork. "We want lawyers who can team with in-house lawyers and who have the ability to work comfortably with other outside counsel." Excessive territoriality and an unwillingness to share appropriate information, on the other hand, were characteristics to be avoided.

Respect. Van Itallie stressed the importance of working with lawyers who respected the ideas and suggestions of in-house counsel. Long of Valley National repeated this sentiment, saying bluntly, "Weíre not stupid, and we donít want to be spoken to or treated like we are."

Creativity. Emphasizing that his department is not afraid to take risks, Van Itallie pointed out that he is also interested in firms that are willing to take new approaches to matters and that think outside the box.

Value. Murphy of Sarnoff Corp. looks for his firms to add value. "Above all, add value. If you are going to touch a matter, add value."

Understand Your Client and His/Her Business

Objectives. Several of the attorneys expressed the desire for client-focused representation. They want their law firms to understand their clientís business and their law departmentís approach.

White of Sealed Air stressed the importance of knowing the clientís objectives when taking on a matter. Regarding litigation, she said, "We may want to win in court or get rid of it cheaply. We may have a business relationship that it is important for us to preserve." Murphy remarked that for him, "A good month is one in which I have no new litigation." He also looks for his firms to provide him with the shortest distance between two points and to provide the right amount of work to get there.

Budgets. Hector of Becton Dickinson remarked that many things that law firms think are not a big deal, actually are a big deal to the client. He noted that for publicly traded companies budgets and forecasting were extremely important, and he commented on the pressure he feels when unexpected costs impact on his budget. Murphy agreed. He noted that his company does a serious review of budget overruns to determine whether they were controllable or uncontrollable, and he indicated that controllable cost overruns were a serious issue at his company.

Van Itallie explained that for a large company like his, the costs for litigation are projected to the appropriate J&J operating company. Those individual companies often have considerable differences in profitability and budget pressures.

It was clear from the discussion that unexpected costs were more problematic than high expected costs.

Red Flags. A question from the audience turned the discussion to items that would be seen as "red flags" on bills. Hector suggested these red flags include:

  • Lengthy discussions among the senior outside attorneys about a case
  • Large amounts of research that is unapproved and or that results in no end product
  • Word processing charges and such that were not agreed to
  • New names on bills that were not mentioned
  • Individual attorneys that consistently bill high
  • Too many senior people on a case

Van Itallie noted that it was often a struggle to completely understand law firm bills and that his company was adding new billing software to address this issue.

Marketing

Be Targeted and Timely. There also was considerable discussion about law firm marketing. The panel admitted in several instances that they were far more interested in newsletters (electronic or otherwise), seminars and marketing events provided by the firms they are currently doing business with or already know.

At the same time they admitted to appreciating information that was highly relevant to their interests and reaching them in a timely manner. Van Itallie gave the example of receiving email alerts of important circuit court decisions within 24 hours of the decision. Long echoed the need for timeliness. "Be first," she stressed. Murphy agreed, "Itís of no value to me to hear from another firm in a long line of firms writing on fairly routine stuff."

Be Good. In addition to being timely and targeted, law firms also need to provide a good product. Long spoke of attending too many seminars that were not done well, where the attorneys obviously had walked in the room with little advanced planning.

She also spoke of the value of websites that were not "skimpy" or otherwise just advertising, but that provided substantive research that could be useful to an in-house lawyer. One of the corporate attorneys from the audience chimed in with a similar sentiment about newsletters. After collecting them, he quickly weeded out those that were obviously done poorly.

Be Creative. The in-house attorneys also provided some suggestions for ways to get their attention. Van Itallie suggested that litigators invite a corporate counsel to their opening statement or other court appearances when they are trying relevant specialized matters. He also recommended law firms send a team of lawyers to give 60-90 minute private seminars on topics of importance to client and prospect law departments.

Hector noted that firms should offer CLE seminars even in states where there is not a CLE requirement. "There are many in-house attorneys that are admitted in states where there is a CLE requirement, even if they are not currently resident in those states." He added that there is frequently a need for ethics credits.

New Trend?. Van Itallie mentioned one recent development at his company that may suggest a developing trend in the way corporate law departments go about selecting outside counsel. For recent major litigation J&J is now facing, he retained an outside consultant to help provide a more thorough and systematic selection process. He says he is very pleased with the results of this process.

This would appear to be another step in the movement of businesses toward closer scrutiny of their business partners, such as outside counsel, and suggests a new market segment that legal marketers might now need to consider.

Closing Thoughts

Itís no news to legal marketers and many lawyers that it is a tough marketplace. Law firms compete with a growing number of lawyers and law firms for business from law departments that are under considerable pressure to control costs. But as long as these law departments continue to take the time to suggest ways law firms can improve their opportunities to work with them, we have a productive working atmosphere that only the foolhardy would ignore.


Michael F. Harrison is director of business development at Lindabury, McCormick & Estabrook, P.A., Westfield, NJ. He can be reached at 908-233-6800 x 306 and mharrison@lindabury.com.
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