Leading in-house counsel: their biggest law firm frustrations revealed

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Unhelpful advice, poor administration and uncertainty surrounding costs are some of the things which in-house lawyers have said frustrate them the most when they deal with firms.
 
Carmel Mulhern, general counsel of Telstra says that unclear advice frustrates her the most. 
 
“Sloppy or incorrect advice is a major frustration, but it doesn’t happen often. A more frequent frustration is getting advice that doesn’t really help me, as in-house counsel, give the answer my client is seeking.”
 
“This usually happens when lawyers don’t take the time to look at what the company’s strategic imperatives are and follow this up with advice that is not tailored to the company and the outcome it is looking at.”
 
“The worst thing is getting black-letter advice listing all the problems, but no solutions, or a number of options, but no recommendation. You don’t want legal advice that just sits on the fence."

"You also sometimes get advice that isn’t summarised. This means I have to spend as much time pulling [advice] into a form I can give my internal clients as I would if I had written the advice myself.”
 
Christian Paech, general counsel of Santos, says that changing expectations about costs was his biggest frustration when dealing with external firms. 
 
“Individual lawyers can be committed, work hard and give great advice, but administration is usually the downfall. When the scope (and therefore cost of a matter) changes, the failure to communicate and reset expectations is frustrating for clients. It comes down to trust. If you’ve got a relationship that’s open and has been built on a reasonable foundation, a lot of that can be solved. You can simply discuss whether a bill is reasonable or what’s changed about it.”
 
“I know firms are nervous about giving estimates because they are often perceived as quotes and they don’t want to be locked into them, that’s not where I am coming from. We are sophisticated users of legal services. We understand when things change and why things change. It’s just important that firms have the conversation, not avoid it.”
 
Richard Shine, general counsel of AIG New Zealand, also found costs to be an area of frustration, and sees strong client relationships as vital for distrust over expenses to be overcome.
 
“As a lawyer in private practice myself for many years, I believe you can get around that by just knowing you have the expertise to say how much you think something is going to cost. I’d suggest lawyers develop relationships with clients who accept that you’re giving them an honest price and aren’t just looking for the lowest quote.”
 
“The danger is where law firms become overly cutthroat and start undercutting each other. Then their estimates become misleading and they discover they can’t do work for the price they originally estimated. Eventually, they backpedal. This makes it really difficult for us. In that situation, we’ve already told our people what something is going to cost based on the estimates."

What do you think?  How can firms and in-house counsel work together better?  Share your thoughts below!  
  • Liz on 9/05/2014 12:26:53 PM

    I have seen incorrect and unhelpful advice given by top tier to in-house teams. Agree with Richard Shine about being able to estimate costs by a sufficiently experienced solicitor. I don't see why it can't be fixed cost. Industry is ripe for disruption.

  • Will on 7/05/2014 7:53:36 PM

    Top tier firms are elitist and don't necessarily accumulate the best brains. Top tier firms are "group think" tanks and that causes problems when innovation is required

  • Carmen on 7/05/2014 1:55:51 PM

    Disagree with Gaz. Some of those 'best lawyers' with experience at top tier firms leave to join or start boutique firms. I previously worked at one where we had plenty of GC clients.

  • GB on 7/05/2014 1:02:06 PM

    I regularly see work produced by so-called top tier firms. At least 30% is below par when anything international is involved.

    GCs are usually from top tier and are mind bound by their origins. They are (personal career) risk averse so stick with what they think are the safe and easy options - top tier.

    When it comes to costs, I have stopped counting the time that I have submitted a fixed price for work to a GC and are then asked for hourly rates.

  • Shaneel on 7/05/2014 12:27:17 PM

    Agree with Andrew. I come from in-house and the previous partner I worked for had in-house background...the problem has not changed...general counsels are locked with top tier mentality... there are numerous small to medium firms who would do fixed costs, with much better quality of service/advice tailored to clients needs however they are not given the opportunity...look beyond.

  • Gaz on 7/05/2014 12:27:12 PM

    Sorry to say it but GCs go to the top tier because they are top tier and have the best lawyers.

  • Dean on 7/05/2014 11:44:32 AM

    Spot on Andrew - surely this is a key KPI of a good General Counsel - knowing the market and scrutinising legal spend.

  • Andrew on 7/05/2014 11:35:16 AM

    So, if this really is the case why don't these corporate counsel start looking to alternative firms to their legal services. Perhaps it is about time these guys started to think of looking away from the top tier they probably worked before joining their new companies, and started investigating alternatives with smaller firms. This strikes me as just another case of corporate counsel not having the courage to deal with the problems of the current legal supplier, and then turning around to try and beat them down on price. Surely they know they are being taken for a ride to fund the latest art collection. I don't see much intelligence going on here.

  • VE on 9/05/2014 9:10:40 PM

    Sorry Andrew but having worked in large financial institutions and corporates, we know there is an 'approved' list which GC's are not permitted to deviate from-they are normally large top tier firms. Its not an option and is often a list which is 'inherited' by decision makers that are not involved in 'the process'.

    The advice normally includes a very 'comprehensive' disclaimer which means very little of the advice can be relied upon. Mid tier and smaller firms do not seem to be as bad with their disclaimer.

    Sadly, all are trying to 'undercut' and the advice quality suffers from my experience.

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