The in-house whisperer

The in-house whisperer
Judith McKay has been working with the senior team at the firm enhancing its client feedback processes.
Judith McKay may have started a trend a year ago when she left DuPont as general counsel to return to a Bay Street law firm. Since then a number of in-house lawyers have returned to private practice in a variety of client development roles, but in McKay’s case she is McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s point person in what has become a battle ground for business.
Last November, after 20 years at chemical giant DuPont, McKay decided she wanted a change. For the last four years she had been in the United States in the role of vice president and general counsel for DuPont Pioneer, responsible for legal affairs stateside, in Canada, and globally. In that job she led a team of more than 20 lawyers.

“I was in the States and wanted to return to Canada. I thought it would be interesting to take my career in a different direction but leverage the skills and knowledge I had gained as a GC,” says McKay, who in addition to being a lawyer holds a bachelor of chemical engineering and is a patent and trademark agent.

At the same time, McCarthys was looking to better understand its clients’ rapidly changing needs, recognizing the business environment was becoming increasingly complex.

“We had a conversation and they were intrigued by the perspective of someone who comes from industry and who has been on the buy side for the majority of my career and what I could bring to a law firm,” she says.

In her time in-house McKay has pretty much seen it all. She was responsible for law department management, compliance, governance, risk management, and operations.

“I was also intrigued because the industry is going through such tremendous change and I really thought it would be fun to be in a change agent role,” she says. “The profession is much more receptive to change and the voice of the client than perhaps ever before. Compared to say 10 years ago, it seemed like the time was right to do something like this.”

McKay came home and McCarthys made her its chief client officer. In the last year, McKay has been working with the senior team at the firm enhancing its client feedback processes through what she calls “a robust” annual client interview process as well as applying ongoing lessons learned.

A big part of what made her want to join McCarthys was that it was the first firm to embrace project management.

“I just felt they were receptive to offering innovative solutions to clients,” she says.

In the last year, McCarthys has also joined forces with alternative services providers such as Cognition LLP and Exigent Group Ltd. to provide clients options to traditional law firm services. Last Thursday, at an Ontario Bar Association seminar, McCarthys hosted a panel that included Cognition co-founder Rubsun Ho, McCarthys’ partner Matthew Peters, Exigent CEO and founder David Holme, and Alaine Grand, chief legal counsel for AstraZeneca Canada.

The panel discussed ways all four are approaching service delivery differently and in some cases working together. It’s an example of the conversations McKay is also having with clients.

“Some clients are open to out-sourced services so we will partner with Cognition and Exigent and other service providers to meet that need. In some cases they want an in-house McCarthy solution where we deploy staff lawyers and paralegals from the firm and leverage our national platform to give them the best price point across the country,” she says.

“What clients are increasingly looking for is value and if they can get that value with their existing law firms and services providers that’s good and they’re looking for us to be their trusted advisers. Our approach is to offer clients a variety of tools and solutions to achieve that solution.”

McKay is working with client and industry teams on plans and processes to help them gain greater client insights, she says.

“We have been developing and offering fixed-fee solutions in a number of practice areas and building on that success.”

Mergers and acquisition is one area where McCarthys will soon be offering a fixed fee arrangement to clients.

“If we find an efficient way to do an M&A matter or litigation matter, we take our best practices and pull it together as a solution we can offer to other clients. Our approach is to deliver what our clients need. I view it as a positive development for us to re-envision how we run our business,” she says.

Getting their legal services for value is the No. 1 issue McKay talks to in-house counsel about.

“In some instances where we have close relationships with clients it may be a discussion around budgetary constraints and we can brainstorm together on the staffing, assessing how the service could be re-engineered to be more efficient. Following something like that we would also approach other clients and say ‘we can do this for you more effectively for greater value than what you’re receiving today’ and that’s been very well received by clients.”

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