What do in-house counsels expect from lawyers?

Last week, I had a detailed conversation with one of my friends who works as an in-house counsel about the professional relationship which an external counsel and an in-house counsel share. During the conversation, he also mentioned a few things which the external counsels could improve upon. So based upon that conversation and inputs from other in-house counsels, I decided to write this post which will focus on key expectations of an in-house counsel from a lawyer.

Be responsive
Do not make the in-house counsel chase for updates; reply to every e-mail and phone call and acknowledge every message. Ask the preferred method of communication and if possible follow that strictly. A 12-24 hour response time should be maintained for every communication. Update the in-house counsel of every deadline and important development from time to time, this will also help in building an effective professional relationship with your client. While in-person meetings are incomparable however, if you are an outstation external counsel, use video chat tools (Google Hangout, Skype, etc.) to connect with your clients regularly.

Communicate succinctly
Often lawyers are tempted to impress in-house counsels with their legal knowledge and in the process overload them with information. Provide to-the-point information and recommend a feasible solution to an issue with a rationale, rather than just suggesting different options. As Justice Anton Scalia said- “The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of everything he touches.”
If you are communicating through e-mail, always follow the principle of Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) and summarise the recommendations at the beginning, rather than the end, in order to facilitate quick decision making. Do not spam their inbox with award announcements, newsletters or press releases; send only relevant e-mails concerning their focus areas.

Encourage inputs
You need to remember that an in-house counsel is also a law graduate, who might not be an expert in a particular subject area, but understands the application of laws coupled with business and commercial aspects of the organisation. Henceforth, instead of ignoring their inputs, work as a team; collaboration is crucial. You should also seek feedback on your services from time to time, in order to know what is on their mind.

Provide a realistic billing structure
Most lawyers have sworn allegiance to the billing by the hour structure. However, it has numerous inherent flaws, to an extent that it would need a separate post to cover the major ones. (Let me know in the comments if you are interested to read a post on that). Recently, I have noticed a major shift towards alternative billing structures, which is a welcome change as law firms are facing more competition than they used to. Flat fee structures are being provided by newer law firms as a method to compete against established law firms. Whichever billing structure you may decide, keep in mind to keep the fees accurate, realistic and transparent. If you want to survive in the cut-throat competition, make them feel they are getting more than they are paying for.

Understand client’s business
It is of utmost importance to understand the business of your client as well as maintaining a general know-how of the competitors and the industry trends. This knowledge will help you in identifying challenges and issues your client has to deal with, or yet to deal with. As an external counsel, you should be always proactive to the needs of in-house counsels. It is important to understand that you need to create a business partner relationship rather than a consumer-vendor relationship with the in-house counsel.

Straight from the horses’ mouth

“Lawyers should truly partner with their clients. This goes beyond just doing the contracted job and necessitates flexibility on payment, the scope of work as well as thorough understanding of the industry and business of their clients.”
Nikhil Patel, Senior Legal Counsel, DSM Sinochem Pharmaceuticals


“The external lawyer should appreciate and understand commercial nuances of the business and commerce and tailor legal solutions in a manner to ensure the commercial blend of law and business.”
Rajinder Sharma, Former General Counsel, Flipkart Internet Private Limited


“Watch (or re-watch) ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’. Pay attention to Moses (Bill Cobbs) the clock man. Every company needs someone who understands the inner workings of the business. Strive to understand what every metaphorical lever, gear, or switch does. Figure out how to make each mechanism glide effortlessly and keep time. Occasionally, you’ll need to intervene, and you’ll know what to and how because you’re in sync with the machine. That’s your goal.”
Simon Seidler, Associate General Counsel, GoPro Inc.

Are you an in-house counsel reading this post? If you have other points to add to this list, please share in the comments below.


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