General Counsel Tell It Like It Is

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - 12:04

Top lawyers at AIG, Trump, and WeiserMazars dish on what piques and pleases for LMA audience

In the third version of what has become one of its most popular events, the Annual GC Forum, the Metro New York Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association recently hosted a panel discussion featuring three in-house leaders: Jason Greenblatt, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of The Trump Organization; Edward Holmes, General Counsel of AIG Asset Management; and Scott M. Univer, General Counsel of WeiserMazars LLP. The session, entitled “What Keeps Us Up at Night,” was moderated by Aric Press, Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief of ALM.

In frank and sometimes brutally honest terms, the panels delivered thoughtful and constructive feedback on topics ranging from the high cost and other concerns related to document management and review, to regulatory enforcement and compliance, to the difficulty of getting deals done on time and on budget. The excerpts below have been edited for length and style.

It’s about – Me!
According to the panelists, too many outside counsel are so focused on telling their in-house counterparts how great they are, they forget to ask what their clients need and, even worse, are so busy promoting themselves they don’t listen to the answer. “Don’t tell me how great you are,” said one panelist. “Ask me what I want.”

The root of the problem, according to the panelists, is a striking but all too common disconnect between the client’s interests and outside counsel’s two motivations: generating billable hours and avoiding liability. Outside lawyers want to leave no stone unturned and push for every aggressive contract provision, while clients are looking at the big picture and picking their battles. Over-lawyering causes needless delays that irritate the businesspeople and the parties on the other side. As one panelist put it, when it comes to transactions, I want a lawyer who “thinks like a smart businessperson and gets the deal done quickly and properly.”

Know My Business
Panelists agreed that the key to overcoming that disconnect is communication. As one panelist stressed, it’s vital to listen to the businesspeople handling the deal. Even if they are inexperienced or inarticulate, they have a valuable perspective that outside lawyers sometimes dismiss. Too many lawyers, said one panelist, focus on “the way it’s always done” rather than striving to understand my business and solve my problems from my perspective.

Moreover, misalignment of motives is not just a transactional issue. One panelist described a situation in which an outside litigator sketched out an efficient, cost-effective plan for reviewing a huge number of documents that were stored in a warehouse, amounting to $250,000 in review costs. This approach completely missed the mark. From the client’s perspective, document review was not the priority, though it may have been part of a lawyer’s professional responsibility to do a thorough job. Rather, the panelist stated point blank that it is the attorney’s job “to make sure a lawsuit doesn’t become about those documents.”

Know Me and My Role
One panelist pointed out that no one law firm can meet all of his needs. In dealing with complex matters, it is his job to find the most qualified outside counsel, usually within the company’s roster of five or six firms, to handle specialized insurance or tax issues in a single deal. Another panelist remarked in no uncertain terms that when firms offer volume discounts up front, they “fundamentally don’t understand my job. . . . This is not a frequent flyer program.” He said that it is his responsibility to find the right person in each situation – period. Therefore, the better approach for outside counsel is to play to their strengths, bring the best and most relevant resources of the firm to the table, and recognize when the best course for the client is to refer a matter to a different firm. In building relationships based on core expertise, you will naturally drive down costs, increase efficiency, and improve retention.

Add Value (But Don’t Waste My Time)
The panelists gave high marks to onsite CLEs and customized firm communications. One panelist characterized CLEs as a win-win in providing great public relations opportunities for the firm, albeit at their own risk, and a constructive way for a client to “work during lunch.” On the other hand, panelists have no use for the generic alerts they receive. Their strong preference is for communications that are specifically targeted to their needs. That means that rather than sending out a one-size-fits-all alert, outside counsel must take the time to read and digest the topic, customize their analysis of the implications for my business, and then pick up the phone.

The last point is not a small one. Repeatedly, the panelists hammered away at the importance of relationships and personal contact. The message to law firms is this: If you think your clients are reticent about expressing their needs or unwilling to take the time to talk, think again.

Driving the message home, the moderator asked, “How often has it happened that a lawyer asked you to talk about your problems?”

The answer?

“It has never happened.”

Kristin Calve is the Publisher of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel.