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NOVEMBER 2013 - Berman
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Building Relationships with Corporate Counsel

by Sharon Berman

The marketing brass ring for many lawyers is connecting with that elusive general counsel or other in-house attorneys, and building a long-term relationship. In-house counsel are inundated with requests and material from attorneys and law firms seeking an opportunity to show what they can do, and it’s a challenge to figure out how to be heard above the cacophony.

While it may seem there is a marketing code to be cracked, panel after panel of corporate counsel offers straightforward and common sense marketing advice that rarely varies. Given how simple the steps, any law professional looking to foster better communication with in-house counsel would be remiss not to pay heed.

You must establish the relationship before you can build it, which is where your effective marketing commences. As with all marketing, there is no single method that works across the board. If listening to in-house lawyers over the years makes one point, it’s that different methods resonate with some, and that every tactic nay-sayed by one has worked for another. It’s essential to try a combination of different methods to diversify and strengthen your marketing strategy. Examples of different methods include: maintaining a regularly updated, substantive and well-written blog, sending client alert emails immediately on the heels of news hitting the streets, and creating podcasts and/or videos that offer your take on relevant topics.

Think creatively to brainstorm ways to make even these standard marketing strategies more targeted and thus more effective. For instance, one general counsel claimed that, while he tended to ignore client alert emails, he was far more likely to read those that offered an in-depth analysis of a decision. Another corporate counsel reported that he receives many solicitations from private-practice lawyers once the company has filed suit, but that he pays attention only to those that specify in detail how their experience aligns with the company’s needs, e.g., the law firm successfully represented a client in exactly the same issue in the same court. Lastly, they all must offer some creative pricing strategy.

Once you have been engaged, you can set yourself apart by demonstrating that you not only think like a lawyer, but also understand the company from a business perspective. Building a great relationship with corporate counsel is in many ways dependent upon what you can do to make their life a little easier for the duration of your engagement.

Time is an extremely valuable and limited commodity for all professionals. If you know your client is facing a particular deadline, it would reflect well on you to provide the information they need early, thereby allowing them sufficient time to review and edit the work without going down to the wire. Understand that your in-house clients are lawyers who are operating in a business environment, meaning that they or their colleagues report to business professionals who may not be fluent in legalese. Make your work clear, simple and concise, and always write for your audience in order to spare counsel the task of having to rewrite anything that is too dense, wordy or confusing to non-lawyers who may read it.

Budgetary concerns loom large in most companies and often cast quite a shadow over the legal department. Wise lawyers working with in-house counsel should always keep the interests of the company’s chief financial officer in mind, as well of those of the chief legal officer. Remember, your lawyer-client must be able to justify the budget for the legal department’s expenses at a moment’s notice; anything you can do to make this task a little easier will be greatly appreciated.

The best approach to dealing with the question of cost and expense is for outside counsel to delineate what they will do and how much it will cost at the beginning of the engagement, including any necessary supporting services such as litigation support, appraisals and so on. If it looks like the actual cost is going to exceed the budget, it’s critical to inform your client of this fact as soon as possible. One corporate counsel suggested that if the invoice amounts will be uneven, e.g., lower invoices for less work in the first few months and then higher ones down the road as the amount of work heats up, discuss the possibility of sending an invoice for the average amount. This can help sidestep an unpleasant situation, such as the finance department using the lower expenditures for their annual budgeting and then chastising the legal department when the actual cost exceeds their projections.

As the engagement is coming to an end, use your current experience with their company to further assist in-house counsel by recommending ways in which costs can be reduced in the future. After the engagement is over, keep in touch with the attorneys – particularly if you offer valuable information on new legal issues for which he or she may need your assistance again.

In all relationships, respect is key. Make sure to maintain a respectful rapport not only with the company’s top counsel, but with the younger in-house counsel as well. Finally, always make it a point to treat corporate counsel as the full-fledged fellow lawyers they are. Several in-house counsel mentioned that outside attorneys seem to think that they have more "lawyer clout” than those attorneys who work in-house. Such elitism is not only false, but it can do a great deal of damage to an otherwise healthy working relationship.

Shining through all of the clutter that comes at in-house counsel on a regular basis is no easy task, but it can be accomplished by paying attention to the "little things,” including personal and professional conduct, respect, and keeping an eye on practical concerns such as deadlines and budget. By proving yourself as a dynamic and considerate member of the team and the company, you can count on building a strong and enduring relationship with corporate counsel.

Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Corp. Marketing and Public Relations. The website is www.berbay.com. She can be reached at berman@berbay.com.

 

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