Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Winning business from a general counsel (for the long term)

Winning business from a general counsel (for the long term)


Carol Osborne and Chris Emerson discuss the key components in building relationships and securing instructions from a general counsel

All lawyers want to establish an enduring relationship with a client - one that generates repeat instructions over time. The 'one-off' engagement may have some real value (that one big case or that one big transaction), but gaining multiple instructions over a decade is a much more satisfying outcome. In our view, there are two key components in securing instructions from the general counsel (or other head of legal services): a complete alignment of our experience and skills with the specific work required, and a commitment to partnership with the client on the pricing and active management of the legal services we are providing. These are not complicated concepts, but they are often forgotten.

The first component can be restated as a simple rule: don't bluff. The general counsel knows their business, and if you don't, that will become apparent in the first five minutes of any pitch meeting. But the concept of aligning your experience and skills with the specific work required is more subtle than just doing some homework on the client's industry or reading their latest financial reports. You must understand precisely what the general counsel needs and what goal they are trying to achieve. A general counsel is busy and may not always articulate the real problem at hand. Be an active listener; ask good questions; probe.

Once you are clear on the issue, you also must be honest about your own talents and bring your best team. Our relationships with general counsel have been strengthened enormously by an honest assessment by the relationship partner: if they personally do not have the right expertise, they bring colleagues who do have the necessary skills to the meeting. As a firm, we have worked hard on removing the barriers to this kind of collaborative selling of legal services - matching the right expertise somewhere around the firm with the unique client problem - and our success is deeply connected to this 'one firm' approach.

The second component is predicated on the basic notion that although law firms are in the business of selling legal services, none of our clients are in the business of purchasing legal services. Purchasing your firm's services is secondary to the real business at hand and, as law firms, we need to partner with our clients on both the pricing and management of legal services. We have been successful in winning work from general counsel because we actively partner with them in three key ways.

Accurate pricing

First, we leverage a large, multidisciplinary team of pricing analysts (lawyers, statisticians, MBAs, and an actuary) to offer accurate pricing. No general counsel likes a surprise bill. Accurate pricing combines historical experience on similar projects, the specifics of the project at hand, and the incorporation of technology into the delivery of our legal services. Our goal is to ensure that the project approach and fee arrangement align our interests with the client's interests and we can customise the pricing arrangement accordingly. While the most important tools in pricing are our creativity and analytical capabilities, we also leverage a matter's experience database for historical pricing information and some proprietary tools developed in house to assist with profitability and risk management analyses.

Client expectations

Second, we actively manage the work to client expectations in both quality and budget. To ensure success, we take a multi-pronged approach to project management. We train all of our lawyers in project management best practices, tools, and resources. We act transparently by implementing all engagements through a proprietary reporting system. (We send out, on average, over 400 budget variance reports each day to internal client teams and to clients themselves.) We also offer integrated web-based project management and workflow systems to our teams and clients for more complicated projects, and we have a dedicated team of project managers and 'Six Sigma black belts' who manage and improve the delivery of legal services for particularly large or complex situations.

Operational problems

Finally, we partner with clients on a different level through our legal operations consulting division. This team works directly for companies to solve a wide variety of operational problems, including understanding the drivers of their current legal spend; improving processes and leveraging technology to reduce that legal spend; implementing matter management systems to increase the actionability of data collected in electronic billing systems; and implementing internal and external scorecards. This team is able to leverage business, technology, and legal best practices to enhance the legal service delivery model without interfering with the judgement and expertise our lawyers bring to bear.

If you can deliver the right expertise at the right budget on the right timetable, the general counsel's experience of engaging you and your firm will be a positive one. Ideally, it will feel like the best decision they have ever made. Those kinds of decisions are easily taken again - and so the relationship grows. SJ

Carol Osborne, pictured, is the London office managing partner and Chris Emerson the chief practice economics officer at Bryan Cave