2020 was the ultimate law firm relationship test

In a crisis, the value of law firm relationships became even more apparent, writes Tim Wilbur

Twenty-twenty was a career-defining year for most in-house counsel as the pandemic disrupted everything. As our annual corporate counsel survey shows , almost all respondents agreed that they are stretched too thinly at work. 

Genevieve Richard, director of legal affairs at VIA Rail Canada, calls this the “victim of our success” syndrome. “It’s the reality of any good in-house department because the better you are at what you do and the closer you are to your business units, the more work will trickle down your way,” says Richard.

While most in-house lawyers were able to demonstrate their value in such tumultuous times, they were not in it alone. External spend in 2020 increased from the previous year for 63 per cent of respondents. 

In a crisis, the value of law firm relationships became even more apparent. 

For some industries, such as life sciences, this was because demand went into overdrive. 

“One of the challenges but also an opportunity that I see for our clients in the industry is the expansion of domestic production capacity for pharmaceuticals, medical devices and personal protective equipment,” says Vanessa Grant at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP. “I think the real challenge will continue to be to supply sufficient products.” 

Other industries, such as restaurants, faced existential challenges.

“The Keg has been around for 50 years and we have enjoyed a lot of prosperity, so fiscal responsibility has not always been the first lens through which we evaluate ideas, but now, it is definitely one of our priorities,” says Catherine Chow, vice president, legal and general counsel at Keg Restaurants Ltd.

Despite the fiscal challenges, though, Chow says she regularly retains external counsel for securities, employment, trademark and liquor-licensing matters.

In-house counsel told us that a practical approach and a good understanding of the business were the most important attributes they look for in a law firm. For all legal departments, the law firms with these positive attributes in 2020 cemented their client relationship for years to come. 

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