Shifting tide

Historically it’s been the norm for in-house counsel to bash the law firms they deal with when it comes to issues around billing or how they feel firm resources are managed on a file. Seminars and panel discussions at association functions for the in-house bar often feature in-house counsel telling tales of being billed too much for photocopies, junior lawyers, or any number of items they now consider off limits.

But in two instances recently I witnessed how the tide is turning, at least with some progressive in-house counsel, who have decided the onus should really be on them to change the relationship with their law firms and they aren’t waiting for the firms to come to them with a magic prescription for alternative billing.

It started with our annual Canadian Lawyer Corporate Counsel Survey results (see page 35). When I spoke with Kate Chisholm, GC with Capital Power in Calgary, and asked her if she thought it odd that 81 per cent of respondents said they had never been asked to participate in a client feedback survey she was blunt in saying no, but she doesn’t wait for her law firms to be in touch with her. In fact, Chisholm has initiated surveys herself with the top five firms she works with for the last 10 years. She says the surveys have become extremely valuable to her — beyond where most firms or general counsel might see the potential. “I’m held accountable for the quality of the legal services the corporation gets so I’m interested even when they’re not, and my surveys are getting better and better,” she told me.

Her surveys are not just a way to highlight problems but also a way to improve good existing relationships. She also asks external lawyers about how Capital Power can become a better client and get better results. This speaks to a common desire to have law firms help general counsel achieve their own business goals. It should not be just about budgets — it’s about strategy.

A piece of feedback Chisholm got from several firms a few years back was they wanted to know about the company’s strategy and where the business was heading. “We took the time to invest in a workshop and I did find the advice that was coming to me after that was much less generic and much more geared toward our business specifically.”

The other example I witnessed was when I wrote about a panel of GCs who spoke at a Legal Marketing Association event in Toronto. An annual affair, the three lawyers on the panel were asked to discuss what they liked and disliked regarding their law firm relationships and how law firms approach requests for proposals.

The general feedback from the audience and from some who read our story from the event was they were the same issues in-house has been talking about for years. Which means change is happening at a slow pace, but it begged the question: Who should really be pushing the agenda? Should in-house counsel — who ultimately sign off on the bills — be more pointed in their discussions and actions with their firms?

Both Richard Susskind and Trevor Faure, author of the Smarter Legal Model, have been clear in their comments that in-house counsel have been lax in not pushing their own agendas.

Perhaps it’s time for in-house counsel to look in the mirror before they criticize the actions of their law firms unless they’ve initiated some action themselves first.

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