Want to Help Your In-House Counterparts? Put Yourself in Their Shoes

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If you’re connected to the legal profession and part of the industry that is law, you’ve undoubtedly seen the scads of newsletters and webinars emanating from law firms big and small, aimed at marketing their services to clients and potential clients during this time of crisis. Law firms want and need to be helpful to the clients they serve, and in this world where there are no precedents to guide current behavior, it is natural to offer legal advice to those who might need it. As we know, organizations and companies of all types do need legal assistance, now perhaps more than ever.

If you stop and think about it, however, it should become clear that broad-based invitations to webinars and articles chock full of legal advice, are falling on deaf ears. Not only are these pitches not effective in most instances, they probably also are counter-productive and harmful to a law firm’s goal of developing business. Why should this be so, you might ask? Put yourself in the shoes of in-house lawyers and general counsel and the answer will become clear.

Unlike law firms, law departments always have one and only one client — the organization that employs them. They not only do not have to attract clients to serve, they literally are their client’s captives. Twenty-hour hours per day, seven days per week, and 52 weeks per year, the representatives of their client, i.e., the managers and executives, can demand services from them. For those companies that are spread geographically, the demand can come from any part of the country, or any part of the globe, at any time of the day or night.

What’s more, the pandemic has raised the demand on law departments for legal services to unprecedented heights and importance. Help is needed for human resources and employee relations questions as companies and other organizations grapple with the potential need to lay people off, change their status, modify their pay, or ask them to take on new roles. Help is needed to deal with contracts that define an organization’s supply chain, as suppliers themselves are affected by the pandemic and their abilities to uphold their obligations; and, if your company is part of someone else’s supply chain, you can be on the other end of these problems as well. Help is needed for financial issues and investor and market communications, especially for public companies. Help is needed for intellectual property issues, especially for organizations that might be developing new medicines or other technologies to defeat the novel coronavirus. The list goes on and on — the crisis has resulted in an almost unlimited number of legal questions that companies and organizations face, and the questions are directed in the first instance to their law departments. Companies are struggling with how to cope with the havoc caused by the virus and what it is doing to their businesses, their revenues, and their employees, and they are turning to in-house lawyers for advice and counsel.

In addition to this potentially huge spike in demand for services, you need to keep in mind that it costs the client’s representatives nothing additional to seek legal services with as much frequency as client demands dictate. In-house legal professionals are paid salaries and are expected to work as long and as hard as their employer might need. Additionally, with a deluge of work, systems for triaging the importance of incoming work become even more critical to a law department’s ability to manage the demand, but setting up or improving on triage systems takes effort too, and who might have time for that?

As a leader, your job is to determine how your firm can best support in-house clients who are besieged with work from their organizations. It also is to make certain that everyone in the firm knows what not to do. In-house lawyers don’t have time for webinars. They don’t have time for even reading invitations to webinars. They certainly don’t have time to consider any law firm’s efforts to develop business related to the pandemic. Law firm leaders need to make certain that their firms aren’t sending out marketing materials and webinar invitations at a time like this.

Instead, what law firms need to do are things such as these:

  • Save the webinar planning and invitations until after the storm has subsided.
  • Have relationship-responsible lawyers send three-sentence email messages to their clients that say, “I am here to help you weather this storm. We are on top of the myriad legal issues related to an organization’s ability to cope with the novel coronavirus. I will call you tomorrow to listen to what your needs are, and to direct you to the place where your needs can be met, whether that be inside or outside my firm.” Call the client the next day, and listen to his or her needs, first as a person, then as a client. Listen some more. And don’t talk about the law until the client asks you a question. Solidify your relationship as the client’s most trusted advisor.
  • If you have associates on the payroll without enough to keep them busy, “lend” them to your client, free of charge, to help in any way the client needs.
  • Offer your clients free advice for any question that can be answered by telephone or email that doesn’t require more than, say, a few hours of work to handle.
  • If your client is in the process of contemplating or applying for a loan from the SBA’s Payroll Protection Program, they may be struggling with it. If your firm has already applied for its own loan, put the people in your firm who handled the application in touch with your client to assist them and provide them with the knowledge and information you gained when applying for your loan.
  • Overall, be there for them, without expectation of direct remuneration, and let them know that you’re all in this together.

Also, by putting your clients first during this crisis, you’ll be setting up your firm for the huge amounts of spill-over work that will flow from law departments to their outside lawyers for important matters that they simply do not have the capacity to handle. Being your client’s trusted advisor is the role to seek. There never has been a better opportunity to achieve it than now. Show your clients that you have their backs.

In doing so, you’ll strengthen your relationships with your clients for the long run. Your selflessness will not go unnoticed. You’ll be the first to be called when a matter does need to be handled on a fee-earning basis. You’ll be developing business for the future without engaging in any business development activities.


James S. Wilber is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc. He heads Altman Weil's services to corporate and government law departments. He advises law firms and corporate law departments on administrative structure, management and leadership and is a former practicing lawyer and law office manager. 

Contact him at jswilber@altmanweil.com.

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