Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Do General Counsel Want?

Guest Post by Bruce Heintz 

This question represents a dangerous intellectual pursuit for a client-handling partner. Why? It assumes that all general counsel have similar needs and preferences.

Do you remember your logic classes in high school? Applying the general (What do general counsel want?) to the specific (What does your client’s general counsel want?) is false logic . The assumption can lead you to an incorrect conclusion – and possibly a big problem with your client!

Take the Rules of Engagement as an example, despite what you may read or hear, most companies develop their own rules for their law firms based upon the company's operational needs and its strategic objectives. How you serve one company may not fully translate to another. The focus on Alternative Fee Arrangements is another area in which the hype does not follow the practice. While some general counsel believe strongly in AFA's, many find them hard to set up and administer, and sometimes even causing them to overpay. Instead, a growing number of general counsel report that it’s easier to find a trusted law firm and  “pay as you go” using the traditional billable hour model.

Conversely, one can't take what a general counsel on a panel says at face value either. For example, I heard a general counsel panelist state that, instead of having a third-party interview him, he would prefer that the law firm’s responsible partner come to meet with him. However, this general counsel had never been interviewed by a consultant on behalf of a law firm. As such, he had no basis to compare two different interview regimens. He was simply stating his preference to speak with the relationship partner. This, in and of itself, is revealing. Asked about it, the general counsel revealed that no relationship partners had ever come to visit him!

With regard to client interviews, the individual conducting the client interview depends upon what the firm is trying to do. If the firm is simply monitoring whether the matter met expectations, the relationship partner can handle the discussion. If the firm is interested in deepening or securing the client relationship, having a Managing Partner meet with the client can make a big impact. But if the client is trying to understand client needs and preferences and get a sense of its market and competitive position, a third party is the best course of action. Regardless, client interviews are not depositions. They require training in how to tease out valuable information and avoid defensive comments and body language that can derail the conversation. But done correctly, client interviews can help you avoid making assumptions about your clients and their business.   

 “Assumptions can kill you!”  Particularly with regard to your most valued clients. Instead, ask your client’s and their general counsel, specifically, what does he/she want from you and your firm. And then do it.

Bruce conducts client interviews. He can be reached at

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