Optimising the GC/law firm relationship

The relationship between a GC and their chosen law firms is an extremely important partnership that can offer offering huge benefits to the in-house legal team and contribute to the wider success of an organisation. Like any relationship, however, it’s not always without its challenges. How can GCs best avoid hiccups and headaches when seeking expert external advice?

Malcolm Simpson, Managing Partner, Walker Morris
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Make sure everyone understands the parameters of the relationship

Is an external law firm’s relationship with the GC or the wider organisation? It’s actually not an either/or question. The relationship is with both – albeit in different ways. While law firms’ primary relationships as external advisors are with the GC and the in-house legal team, there are of course instances when external legal teams are approached directly by other parts of the business.

When this happens, law firms often have the opportunity to shine a light on the value of the GC and their team by providing third-party endorsement and reinforcing their legal argumentation. This is particularly important in a world in which in-house legal teams are frequently perceived by commercial colleagues as ‘legal blockers’. If and when this occurs, external legal advisers can play a vital role in helping to find positive solutions by reflecting on their experience in discussions with more commercially focussed teams.

While this relationship with the wider business can be positive, it can also pose challenges. Legal teams, which are of course the holders of the legal budget, can lose oversight of the legal support and guidance provided by the external law firm – something easily avoided when lines of communication are open and working effectively. Technology can also help maintain visibility.

Share your expectations – and ask law firms to share back

This kind of effective communication begins and ends with the setting of clear expectations. If GCs and law firms fail to fully align expectations right from the outset, misunderstandings can develop, leading to frustration and inefficiencies.

Here the responsibility is on both parties: in-house teams should set clear guidelines to define the who, what, when and how of external legal support, whereas law firms should be happy to confirm agreements in writing. This should be later buttressed with clear, mutually agreed upon project plans, and during subsequent meetings to monitor delivery and progress. In essence, just because the relationship is lawyer to lawyer, there’s no reason for interactions to be any more or less professional than with any other party – internal or external.

Encourage transparency

Being open and transparent, even when there’s a potentially challenging conversation to be had, is the foundation of any effective working relationship. For this reason, any good law firm will want to know if something isn’t right – be the problem big or small.

While this may sound obvious, sensitivities can disrupt communication, procrastinating can lead to delays, and a lack planning or adherence to process can lead to confusion. There are also invariably occasions when we as external legal advisors have to deliver less positive messages, and GCs need to be open to hearing them. Transparency isn’t always easy, but if it is valued on both sides it will lead to greater trust and an enhanced working relationship.

Aim for an honest and enduring partnership

The common thread running through all the potential pitfalls in the GC-law firm relationship is transparent, open and honest communication. Relationships matter, so don’t be afraid to ask for someone different if the just fit isn’t there. In the same vein, having more than one line into the law firm can be very helpful, as this provides an alternative contact in the event of any difficulties arising. Speaking as a Managing Partner, while it’s not possible to have day-to-day contact with all our relationship clients, I would always want to know if something were to arise that requires added attention.

To this end, your law firm should schedule moments to speak so that you maintain regular contact. Similarly, they should always try to establish lines of communication that can be utilised outside of more formal relationship meetings.

Finally, be clear on your needs. If we as an external law firm have a full view on what you want and why, we can ensure that we put the right focus in the right places to deliver real value for you. By acknowledging the potential pitfalls and prioritising open, transparent, and timely communication, these relationships can be transformed into enduring partnerships that thrive whatever the challenge.

“By acknowledging the potential pitfalls and prioritising open, transparent, and timely communication, these relationships can be transformed into enduring partnerships that thrive even in the face of challenges.”

Malcolm Simpson, Managing Partner
An image of an ice floe breaking apart. Visual metaphor for the topic of this article: Why the GC/Law Firm relationship breaks down and how to avoid it