Why Can’T We Be Friends? Maximizing The Potential Of The In-House, Outside Counsel Relationship

My dear in-house counsel friends! As you know, my monthly In The House column aims to provide you with behind-the-scenes tips to which I am privy as a recruiter — issues you may not know about, but which can help you in advancing your career. This month's column is about a potential secret weapon at your disposal: your relationship with outside counsel.

Often, the discussion about the in-house counsel–law firm relationship focuses on conflict —like charging too much money, poor communication, or just generally trying to get one over on each other. But there can be so much more to this relationship if both sides take a step back and look at the big picture.  The biggest, most overlooked benefit of this relationship for in-house counsel is the professional development potential that exists. Law firm partners have deep networks. Because they are responsible for business development for their firms, they spend a lot more of their time developing a great many important relationships than you do as an in-house counsel. Why not take advantage of who and what they know which can help your career outside of the transaction? I know law firm partners and GCs who have had each other's backs throughout their careers. Together they rise!

It is important to note that companies often contact their outside counsel for recommendations on GC and other in-house counsel hires before they take any other recruitment steps. It would behoove you to have good relationships with some of the key outside counsel players. Beyond hiring recommendations, though, outside counsel can greatly assist you in your career development.

Consider this: As an in-house counsel, you want to build your brand, grow your network and knowledge, and otherwise advance your career by speaking on panels, authoring articles, winning awards, and generally getting your name out there. Perhaps you have an interest in attending a particular organization's event but you don't have an "in" that you know of. But wait! Your law firm partner just happens to know the president of that organization. This is a perfect opportunity to tap into that relationship and ask for an introduction. And because you have developed such a trusting relationship with your law firm partner, you should have no problem mentioning your interest and gauging their ability to pull some strings. And your law firm partner, wanting to maintain your esteem, will gladly pick up the phone and make that call.

Smart law firm partners are consistently trying to help their in-house clients be more successful because as the in-house person rises, the law firm rises. As a recruiter, I receive daily calls and emails from law firm partners nationwide advocating for their in-house clients and friends, and I have a list of law firm partners I reach out to when I am seeking referrals for in-house counsel candidates.

"Outside counsel has a very effective network," explained Damien Atkins, general counsel at Panasonic Corporation of North America. "It's not just any outside counsel, however; it's the outside counsel that understands that presenting professional development opportunities is a way to provide value to a client. You really want to find partners that have a deep knowledge base on particular things and use them for free information and free education, which can be incredibly beneficial. For example, if you are in a liability crisis and you have outside counsel with an M&A background, you can lean on them as a resource to get smart in this area and to be the best you can be."

To Damien's point, often, there are substantive skill boxes that need to be checked so that an in-house counsel can grow to become a better, more competitive candidate for a desired opportunity down the road. A trusted law firm partner can provide training and access to other opportunities to help you check those boxes.

Both as a law firm partner and as a partner/recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, I have done many seemingly unusual things over the years to help out my clients and contacts (finding dentists and hairdressers, babysitting so the GC could go to an important business dinner, helping to write an acceptance speech for an award a GC won, advising on the right tie for an interview, and so on). My goal is always to be helpful however I can and show how valuable I can be beyond the day-to-day transactional legal (or legal search) needs. Sure, I can take (and have taken) my clients to lunch or to the theatre, but they don't really need more food or tickets to Hamilton from me (though, that is a lot of fun, too!). They need good counsel about their careers (and sometimes their personal lives), great introductions, invitations to useful events, to be nominated for awards, published in trade journals, featured as a panelist or keynote speaker at an industry event. By using my connections and abilities to help elevate them, I am, in turn, helping myself.

Joe Drayton, partner at Cooley, shares similar experiences, "I've co-authored an article or 12, and I've arranged so many speaking engagements that I cannot count them." He sees these professional development opportunities as ways to help his client succeed and, in turn, build a trusting relationship. "The more experiences we can help them obtain, the better equipped they are to do their jobs. That trust factor is so important. A GC will call when they need someone they trust in every which way. That trust will grow if you can personally advise them on their company's matters but also show you can give advice—and be trusted with—their most sensitive matters outside of the organization."

Chalk it up to experience and intuition, but Joe looks for real opportunities for his clients that are going to "resonate and complete the package." He sees himself as a connector and realizes that if he looks for opportunities to help and give, then he is helping himself and fostering better relationships. "I have learned that it is better to give than to receive, so my thought with my external clients is how can I give. I just live my life by that principle. I'm constantly thinking how can I help? How can I assist my clients? Not because I'm trying to grow my book, but because I'm trying to tap into genuine qualities that make me a better person. If you listen more than you talk, those things will become more evident to you. You have to find people who want to build a business and know your best interests and their best interests are aligned."

Damien echoes that sentiment about his role as in-house counsel in this relationship, "You can't be very transactional about your relationships; it’s important to give first—and give because it's the right thing to do—and not expect anything from it. Over time you'll see the more you give, the more you'll see it come back to you. Ask yourself "How can I add value to them?" Whether it's introducing them to other clients or business folks, if you give first, you start creating a virtuous cycle and that takes on a life of its own. Eventually, people make themselves known, discovering who is more transactional and who can give in other ways."

Finding opportunities to give to others is rejuvenating; you just need to look for the right platforms to give back. When it comes from a spirit not driven by desire (and people can tell when you genuinely care about them and when you don't), the universe brings it back to you in some form or fashion.

"The biggest thing is to reflect on who you are and what you bring to the table to guide how you develop yourself and how you can be supportive of people in different positions," Joe explained. "If you focus in on knowing yourself, you'll be able to forge relationships with people because you'll know how to interact with them in a way that makes you happy. And if people see you happy, that acts as a magnet."

P.S.: Damien Atkins (who was placed by Major, Lindsey & Africa as General Counsel at Panasonic Corporation of North America), will be honored as Corporate Counsel of the Year at this year's Metropolitan Black Bar Association ("MBBA") Gala in New York City on May 19, 2017. Joe Drayton will be honored as Private Practitioner of the Year at the same event. For more information on this year's honorees and to purchase tickets to the MBBA Gala, visit https://www.mbbanyc.org/thirty-third-anniversary-awards-gala. 

This feature originally appeared on 'In the House,' April 21, 2017. "Real Talk" is a monthly column focusing on career-development issues for in-house counsel.


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