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This Is a Relationship Business!

The second week of Law 2050 concluded with a panel of corporate general counsel, the day after the panel of law firm leaders. As a reminder, the participants, whom I thank profusely, were

Also participating on the law firms panel was Mike Duffy, King & Spalding’s first Director of Growth & Client Service, who added a fascinating dimension to the discussion. I think it is fair to say the students were riveted by the discussion and will have lots to work with in their reaction papers.

I have enough notes from the panels to fill pages, so I plan to break my own reactions down into several posts over the next few weeks. Today’s has to do with a theme the cut across both panels: As one of the GCs put it, “This is a relationship business!” Now, I am sure everyone gets that in general–lawyers have to forge a relationship with their clients and vice versa–but what does that mean today, six years after 2008 hit the reset button.  I’d have to say that the GCs panel was most emphatic about this, so I’ll start there:

  • It’s about the lawyer, not the firm. I have always maintained that the spike in lateral partner and practice group movement in the late 1980s, which I saw happen around me in my firm and which has not abated, was the beginning of the erosion of the “trusted firm” relationship. It has been replaced by what the GCs described as the “follow the lawyer” relationship, which places less weight on the firm and more on the individual.
  • Share the risk. The GCs want that individual to forge a partnership that involves new ways of sharing risk, as opposed to the old model of firms shifting all the risk to clients through the billable hour.
  • Help yourself by helping me. The outside lawyer also has to recognize that GCs and their in-house legal team “live with the client.” They are on call 24/7 and are under intense pressure to get answers fast and to perform like any other branch of the business. There is low tolerance in that environment for outside lawyers looking to make themselves look good–the real value comes in making the in-house lawyers look good to their C-suite colleagues and to have their back. Do that and it will work both ways.
  • Look around the room. One student asked how to begin to forge those kinds of relationships, and the best advice was to start by looking around the room–in other words, it starts in law school and continues into the years of associateship. All those GCs out there were once law students and associates too, so the person next to you in class or down the hall at the firm could very well later be in-house at one of your current or prospective clients.
  • Don’t fake it. The GCs also had low tolerance for outside counsel who go too far outside their or their firm’s wheelhouse to keep work. That costs clients time and money, and won’t help get return business.

My sense is that none of this would have surprised the law firm leaders panel, but that the harder question for them is how to forge and sustain this kind of relationship in a static market facing intense competition from within (other firms) and outside (new kinds of service providers). All the law firm leaders agreed it starts with firm differentiation, although if the “follow the lawyer” trend is real and growing, one has to wonder whether differentiation matters. The firm lawyers suggested it does if it achieves niche or strength differentiation, as that is likely to attract the best lawyers. But the most interesting angle on it came from Mike Duffy, a non-lawyer who came to King & Spalding from Ernst & Young. Among his many functions there, one practice he has instituted is to interview clients who retain the firm, but also those who decline to hire the firm, as in what did the firm not bring to the table. That practice has to lead to some insight about how to get the relationships up and running next time.

To drive this message home, Mike Duffy also revealed to the class what he believes, based on years of observation, to be the traits of the most successful lawyers (more on which later). High on the list was “relationship skills.” Those do not come naturally to all people and are hard to teach in law school, but if I got anything out of the two panels (and I got a lot), it’s that this world of lawyering is, now more than ever, a relationship business.



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