Top Five Ways to Become a Hit as Outside Counsel – From Those Who Have Lived in Both Sets of Shoes

External counsel sometimes find themselves facing upset and annoyed in-house counsel. What could they possibly have done to anger in-house counsel so badly? Conversely, what can they do to set themselves apart from those falling behind and perpetually stuck in yesteryear?


We decided to do some digging around, and after speaking with lawyers, attending conferences with in-house counsel and researching the issue further, we discovered that pet peeves (aka future opportunities for those practising law in the “new way”) can range from little acts of thoughtlessness to the bigger acts of betrayal by external counsel. The following is our list of the Top 5 suggestions from current and former in-house counsel:


1) Make Their Lives Easier


In-house counsel expect external counsel to help make their lives easier. Why else would they be willing to pay the legal fees that they do?


The matters that in-house counsel hand-off are important, and urgent and anything that can be done to relieve their anxiety will make their lives that much easier. In-house counsel don’t like waiting for a response from external counsel. The longer they wait the more anxious and unhappy they become. The reality is that in today’s world many consider an email message as a conversation. If I ask you a question in a conversation and you ignore me for a day or even several hours, that’s just rude and offensive. Even if all you can say is, “I got your email and will get something back to you by Tuesday”, that’s so much better than the cold shoulder.


Another good example here is email subject lines. In-house counsel are looking to external counsel to help them stay organized. So, when they receive emails from external counsel with generic subject lines (or better yet, no subject lines at all), it drives them crazy later when they attempt to find an email on a particular issue but can’t.


2) Billing Practices


Nothing upsets in-house counsel more than receiving a legal bill filled with meals, photocopying and legal research (or practice – quite literally “practice”…) by junior lawyers. Inefficiencies and costs that don’t provide any real value should not be passed on. Below are some items that external counsel should leave off the bill, lest they want to feel the wrath of that person on the other side (sometimes known as their client):


• Excessive billings by junior lawyers, especially for legal research! In fact, any billing by junior lawyers that could reasonably be seen as training on the client’s dime.

• Billings for short voicemails, emails and other tasks that take significantly less than six minutes.

• Meals, photocopying , secretarial services and other miscellaneous charges that in any other industry would be part of the costs of doing business (I once had an external counsel who billed me for the cost of turning the air conditioning on at night when he had to work late – that went over really well…)

• Multiple billers in the same conversation or meeting. Otherwise known as fifteen yards for “piling on”. The firm is getting paid several hundreds of dollars per hour (now sometimes thousands) presumably because of the lawyers’ brilliance, expertise and specialization. There’s no shame in not knowing the answer to everything right away, but please don’t bill for running it by someone else (who of course is also going to bill) or for getting five people in a room to talk about it which, to the bill, is like getting the pinball stuck in the bonus hole for a few minutes.


3) Make Them Look Good in Front of the Business Team


In-house counsel are irate when external counsel embarrass them in front of their business colleagues. How does this happen? Here are just a few of the ways…

• Delivering budget surprises. If the client even hints at wanting some kind of estimate or budget, you can assume that in today’s world he or sheis thinking of it as a fixed price for a certain scope whether your engagement letter says that or not. Don’t slough it off, and manage the file so that if it’s going over you have a good explanation/conversation before the fact.

• Legal bills three to six months after the work is complete. It’s like Jason in the Friday the 13th movies. You think it’s over but now he’s back… Guess what? When the corporate counsel thinks the matter is done, he or she will close it off and hopefully brag to superiors about the result and the proportionality to the fees. Now you’re going to shove in another bill doubling the total much later? Not good.

• Selling them out. Believe it or not, this happens all the time – where outside counsel somehow partly believe they’re competing with in-house counsel for the love and admiration of the executive team and the board. Remember who reaches out to you 95% of the time and who has the most vested interest in your specific relationship. You’re there to make them look good – period. Budget-wise, work product wise, result wise and the mix of the above. And if something goes wrong, don’t put it on them and their team (even if it’s true). Act as part of a unified company team taking each other’s backs – it will be remembered and valued.


4) Get the Instructions/Needs Right


Why do external counsel write such long email responses? In the eyes of in-house counsel, the longer the emails, the bigger the legal bills that they will have to pay. Using a sledgehammer to kill an ant isn’t the worst thing in the world if it weren’t for the delays and costs associated with using that approach. Clarify ahead of time with great care what the issue is, what the importance is the client and what kind of solution/response is desired. Most of the time the answer will be “give it me straight and practically and don’t over CYA yourself.”


And by all means be proactive and provide extra client value through business introductions, legal industry and content updates, and the like. But don’t you dare bill for it or the whole effort will be reversed.


5) Give 100% Effort and Stay True to Them


How would you feel if someone pursued you and claimed that they loved you with all their heart and then all of a sudden treated you as yesterday’s news after a few dates? Well, in-house counsel feel the same way when external counsel promise the sun and the moon to win their business, only to treat them as a low priority a few months after they become a client. In such cases, external counsel become less responsive, less flexible, less value-oriented and more prone to swapping existing resources out to other “shinier” clients.


Corporate counsel clients and business teams need to feel that you’re one of them. When you cut through it, that’s the reality of why they hired you in the first place – because they needed to extend the depth and breadth of their own in-house department’s services. Your goal is to make them feel like they’re your only client. It’s not true, but make them feel that way. Recognize that to them and their clients their work is all that matters, and that frankly they likely won’t care if you have had a pressing matter or deal come up on the part of one of your other clients that is going to cause delay for them. That just makes them feel like you’re cheating on them.


In the end, it comes down to following the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In your work, you should strive to make life easier for in-house counsel, bill fairly, have their backs, seek and follow instructions and give 100% of their effort to a client’s issue regardless of payment arrangement.


Did we miss any pet peeves that you think should be included? If so, share them with us in the comments below or tweet your thoughts to us at @Caravel LawLLP. We’d be happy to expand the list and help external counsel become more attuned to clients’ needs!

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