Is it innovation or a good relationship GC really, really want?

Innovation means different things to different people but Angela Nikolakakos, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary with Natixis Global Asset Management Canada, says for her it means the “openness to doing something differently.”

“It’s about doing things faster, cheaper and changing the way I do things so that I get more results for my efforts, and external law firms help with that at every turn, or at least they can if they listen,” said Nikolakakos, speaking last week along with two other general counsel at a Toronto Legal Marketing Association luncheon panel “Legal Innovation . . . Our Clients Expect It” moderated by Lexpert editor-in-chief Jean Cumming.

Nikolakakos recently moved to be the solo in-house lawyer at Natixis from the large legal team at BMO’s asset management group. She pointed out that now she is a legal department of one, innovation “doesn’t have to be fancy or techy; it just has to help me get the things I need done quicker and perhaps cheaper.”

Fellow panel member Marni Dicker, senior vice president and general counsel for Infrastructure Ontario, said that it doesn’t always have to be about faster and cheaper. For her, it’s about the law firm relationship and how that evolves to suit her needs.

“I don’t necessarily want change or innovation, I want law firms to be my partners. I want the lawyers I work with to understand my changing needs. We are innovating inside Infrastructure Ontario and if I am operating in a new way it makes sense absolutely that they do, too,” she said.

“If I am now operating on a fixed-price contract and can only spend X on legal services, I am not going to be interested in an hourly rate fee structure because I might blow my budget before I ever get to the 50-yard line,” she said. “So if I have an extraordinarily fixed budget, as I often do, what I want to do is speak with the relationship manager at the law firm and explain the predicament I’m in, then get some sort of fixed fee or guaranteed maximum fee so we can operate inside of that fee.”

But while Dicker has been able to establish good relationships with firms over time, it seems small departments aren’t always seeing the love from their external partners.

Peter Nguyen, general counsel and corporate secretary with software company Resolver Inc. said the company’s slogan is “Aim big, be great, be loved by customers.” He says in 15 years he hasn’t seen much of that from law firms — it has a one-way relationship. He calls a firm when he has a problem and then doesn’t hear again until the next problem arises.

“We are constantly out engaging our customers on a monthly basis, talking to them and asking ‘What is it you need and what can we do better for you?” he said. “In my last six years as general counsel, in a couple of companies I have yet to have any lawyer sit down and call me in advance and say ‘What can we do for you?’”

Nguyen says Resolver is in its strategic planning phase for the coming year, but the firms he works with aren’t asking about what’s in his playbook for next year for things such as potential acquisitions or financing deals.

“I’m sure the lawyers don’t know that, but if they did they could pull me aside and ask where we plan to be next year. They have no line of sight. I don’t see that interest from external counsel coming to me and pulling that information from me. It’s still all one way,” he said. “With our customers it’s all about two-way conversations.”

Nikolakakos said firms should initiate a visit with her to understand some of the challenges of being solo in-house and in the business she operates in.

“It helps you become a better adviser to me by seeing where I work,” she said.

Nguyen said he and a group of like-minded general counsel are part of a group called the AceTech Legal Roundtable who get together once a month to exchange ideas.

“None of us have seen that kind of thing from external law firms. I would love the opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals. That’s a great opportunity for firms to show some value for their clients and help them in other ways other than pure legal work,” he said.

“Offer us suggestions based on what you see with other clients. It’s lonely out there for general counsel in small departments. I want to know what other organizations are doing for best practices,” he said.

Dicker did call out McCarthy Tétrault LLP for a program it has called Pitch Perfect in which they invited a group of women general counsel and created a professional development session in which the associates and partners practice pitched to the general counsel and general counsel provided feedback on whether they would have won the business in a real scenario.

“That was a great venue for getting lawyers and clients together in a room. We weren’t playing golf or at a hockey game; we were doing professional development that was helping everybody,” said Dicker.

When it comes to pricing, Nikolakakos said the lowest price is not always what she is trying to get to — a fair price with certainty of cost and happy result for both parties is what she really has in mind.

“I want you to keep answering the phone. If you feel I have shafted you or you have taken a loss and are angry about it you’ll stop answering the phone. There has to be overall trust,” she said. “And if you know my business you will be able to price something better.”

Nguyen said that while he is a “low purchaser” of legal services compared to larger companies, it would be nice to have firms approach him with alternatives or ways of adding value.

“I think about how we treat our customers when we go into pitch new customers. We have our traditional licensing model with services and we give away a lot of things for free that are low cost to us and high value for the customer,” he said. “And I think of what law firms can do. It would be great if I could have access to a repository of standard precedents and corporate resolutions that I could access at any time.”

He is considering a yearly subscription for access to “curated and maintained” precedents at about $4,000 for the year (Practical Law).

“If a law firm came and said we will give that to you for free, I would be more inclined to send more complex work their way,” he said. “That’s the kind of stuff I need day to day and I think a lot of tech companies have the same challenges. I think firms would be well served to say ‘You can have this for free.’ It’s low cost to the firm but high value to the general counsel who need it on a daily basis.”

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