Six Things the In House Counsel Want from External Counsel


The existence of an in house counsel (company secretary/legal adviser or just a legal counsel) in a company does not make the services of an external counsel or law firm unnecessary. The view that the employment of a lawyer in house would solve all of the company’s legal problems exist only in theory because even in companies with large, highly developed and specialized legal department there is still a wide field of activity for external counsel. Even a well-staffed and well-organized law department cannot supply all the legal services required by a large company and its affiliates.

External counsel are frequently used and have proved most useful in certain areas of law. For instance, if a company has a lawsuit, it would certainly depend on the services and assistance of the external counsel to defend the suit. Also, there are also issues of law that require the expertise of solicitors from specialized firms outside the company’s legal structure.

Many times, there appear to be some form of misunderstanding and/or rivalry between the in house counsel and the company’s external counsel. These are majorly caused by some avoidable frictions which threaten to transform a rather mutually beneficial relationship into one of rival professionals trying to assert rights and privileges. Even when there are no frictions between the two parties, there are always a few things that both the in house counsel and the external counsel wished was shared by the other that could make their jobs easier.

In this write up, we would discuss the things that the in house counsel wants from the external counsel:

Practical solution

The most important thing an in house counsel need from an external counsel is for him to be practical.  You need to understand that “law review” answers may be interesting, but they are not very useful to the in house counsel who is looking for practical means of solving a particular issue.  An in house counsel needs practical advice, i.e., things that work in the real business world based on real world experience and which would show that the external counsel understands how his solution can be applied to real business situation.

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Most of all, in house counsel would want to know what you would do in a given situation. So, it is not just enough for you to issue a legal opinion giving options “A, B or C”. You need to, in addition to giving the options, also let him know the one you would choose and why. This would not only guide the company in making commercial decision, it would also give a practical touch to the request by the in house counsel.

Keep the in house counsel informed

I was at a conference some time ago where an in house counsel spoke passionately about how keeping information away from her by the external counsel is such a turn off. She went as far as indicating that where there is a matter in court for instance, she expects that the external counsel should update her of events while still in court via text message. It is that important.

For instance ensuring that emails and phone calls from the in house counsel is returned even if there is no meaningful information that is being given would show him that you at least saw his message and have attempted to work on same. Ensure that regular update is given on any project you have taken up for the company even if it was not asked for.  Do not make the in house counsel chase you for information about his matter.  Keep him regularly updated even if you are telling him nothing new has happened.  If your update or message is important, make sure he received it. You can use a “read receipt” or follow up by telephone.

If you are out of the office and have limited or no access to your email and voicemail, make sure you have your “out of office” message for email and voicemail turned on. If  you don’t and you are not checking your email every day and getting back to clients?  you are basically telling them you “don’t care.”

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The in house counsel may not call you out on the above bad service but may likely just stop using you and your firm.  You are accountable for everyone on your team as well.  If they are not responsive, you are painted by that same brush.  You have a lot of competition out there, all of whom are ready to return the in house council’s emails and phone calls and keep him updated.

Learn the Company’s business

You cannot give practical advice without knowing the realities of the company’s business. In other words, if you want to be a lawyer’s lawyer, you must over time learn how his business works, how it fits in the marketplace, what countries the company do business in, who the company’s competitors are, and what are the challenges the company faces (business and legal).  Keep an eye out for things that you think might be helpful to the company or that identify potential threats or bumps in the road.  Send them to the company’s in house counsel, along with a short description of why you think the article is interesting.  Become an advisor, not just a lawyer. 

Value the in house counsel’s input

The area you are called in as an expert, is no doubt your strong point but the in house counsel is the best resource you have about the company.  Not only can he help you get the information you need for the matter, he also understands the marketplace, the board of directors and just generally “how things work” at the company.   If you ignore him and his input you are putting yourself and the company in jeopardy.  Making the in house counsel a real part of the team would not only guarantee you working without stress, it would help you get necessary information without much effort from the company. Also be patient to listen to the concern of the in house counsel, he is the one that would defend your action before the company management and directors. Make it a point to carry the in house counsel along in all you do and even when his input is not needed, make it worth the effort he has put into it. 

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Succinct and useful communication

Twenty page memos are not helpful.  Find a way to communicate your suggestions in a succinct and to-the-point manner. Where there is need to make deep clarifications, request for a meeting or speak to the in house counsel over the phone. Then send the highlight of such one on one engagement in a short concise and straight to the point manner, making reference to the earlier discussion. Make sure to keep to turn around time and let the in house counsel know when and if there is need to take more time. Do not assume anything, get clarification on what the client wants. Let the in house counsel know when there is anything that require clarification.

Ask how you can improve your services

In house counsel  appreciate getting the opportunity to tell you how you are doing and things you can do to improve your services.  Just ask.  The in house counsel will be glad to  complete your survey, especially if it asks relevant questions and seeks honest feedback in a manner that does not make him feel he will damage his relationships with the lawyers at your firm. Before you take a survey, you must prepare your team for an honest assessment in other not to create friction. Feedbacks by the way, are good for lawyers who really wish to give top notch legal services. They help to identify areas of improvement. 

This list is not exhaustive.

Next: ln House Counsel: Ways to Manage External Counsel


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