In-house counsel are constantly challenged to find the right legal providers for the problem at hand, and at the same time the solution also has to fit the always-under-pressure budget.
For many corporate counsel, seeking the advice of lawyers in boutique law firms has proven successful for many areas of law including intellectual property, labour and employment, corporate and litigation matters whether it’s dealing with domestic or foreign issues around the globe.
Sandeep Gill is legal counsel with Volaris Group, an operating group of Constellation Software Inc. The legal team supports 60 business units. Gill does commercial work for those units and they use a broad range of law firms — often boutiques around the world.
Gill was previously general counsel at a software company before moving to Volaris. She has used boutique firms locally and internationally for certain kinds of work.
“We used a number of boutique firms and in particular a small HR boutique in Mississauga for labour and employment issues,” she says. “They really cared about their clients and were supportive and engaged.
We used them for the specialization more than anything.”
While the depth and breadth of a full-service firm can be effective, Gill says using a specialized boutique firm can get to the heart of a matter quickly.
“There are definitely benefits with full-service firms,” she says. “I started in a full-service firm and you’re able to leverage all the different practice areas, but with [boutiques], if you have a particular issue and you need a focused response, it’s a good way to go.”
The company also used a boutique in Ottawa for trademark issues; however, Gill did discover that the firm didn’t cover patent issues. “Sometimes, you think a boutique will cover all your issues, but I was surprised they didn’t — patent work wasn’t covered so we had to use a Bay Street firm for that area.”
Gennady Ferenbok, general manager, Canada and general counsel of the World Fishing Network, says ever since he moved in-house he has developed a good relationship with employment boutique firms.
“You find they have lawyers who are very skilled who charge slightly more reasonable rates but provide high-quality, fantastic service,” he says.
“Employment law is a specialized area and there are a lot of experts who have developed fantastic skills in the area but have chosen to leave large firms and set up shop on their own and provide good service at reasonable rates.”
Ferenbok says if you’re looking for a specialist in an area of law such as employment and regulatory issues then boutiques work well. “If you’re doing large corporate transactions, it’s still useful to use the larger, more expensive but well-resourced firms.”
Even large companies have found the value of seeking advice from smaller, specialized entities.
Loreto Grimaldi, former general counsel with Progressive Waste Solutions, had a budget of between $3 million and $4 million in Canada and about $7 million in the U.S. but a small legal department — five lawyers in the entire company.
“You’d think a big company would be using a large, full-service firm, but, in fact, when I started I saw what we were being billed for stuff by the big Bay Street firms and we decided to think outside the box,” he says. “There were three or four firms we used for stuff where big firms just don’t have the kind of nimble employment law practice where you can just phone someone up and say ‘for $2,000 a month I want this much time available a month to call and kick stuff around.’”
Grimaldi says even though big firms promised they could provide fee arrangements there was still the “big firm mentality.
“We were looking for people who would think more like a GC would think, which is let me solve the business problem with a creative legal solution versus a standard white-shoe answer, which is there are three ways to do it and it doesn’t look like you’re going to be able to do what you’re planning on doing,” he says.
So Grimaldi and his team looked for creativity and entrepreneurial billing and found it in the labour and employment space with a boutique firm on a block-fee arrangement.
“We were trying to update a lot of old paperwork around things like harassment polices. They knew how big we were and how complex our business was and I don’t think the quality of advice took a hit,” he says.
“In a niche market, I don’t think it matters how big or small your legal department is — it’s systemic in the market that the big firms can’t be all things to all people. The right ones are going to refer you and the wrong ones are going to claim they are all things to all people.”