Invest in the Relationship to Win Work: Review of Silicon Valley In-House Counsel Summit

Gathering amongst an exhibit of self-driving cars, legal professionals explored the notion that cars can drive autonomously without human intervention. 

But the big theme of the night emphasized quite the opposite: in fact, human interaction and personal contact are what drive fruitful relationships between in-house counsel and outside law firms. 

The Silicon Valley In-House Counsel Summit took place last Wednesday at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, featuring a panel discussion about what general counsel want from their law firms, followed by a networking mixer in the museum’s autonomous car exhibit. 

Rob Kahn, Chief Marketing Officer of Fenwick & West, moderated the expert panel of in-house general counsel, which included Mark Altman, Legal Director at NVIDIA Corporation, Jennifer Tetenbaum Miller, VP and AGC of Gigamon, Inc., and Scott Minden, Senior Legal Director at Symantec Corporation

The Silicon Valley GC panel echoed many of the same themes of the general counsel panel at the annual LMA conference, such as the rise of procurement officers for purchasing legal, the convergence towards preferred provider networks, the increase of value-based fees, and the importance of outside firms serving as business partners to the in-house legal teams. However, this panel provided deep insights as to how law firms can uniquely add value for tech companies in Silicon Valley. 

What Are GC’s Looking For?

Legal departments are looking for outside firms that do more than simply provide legal services. The best relationships are those where the law firm helps the in-house counsel be a better asset to their company. The general counsel panelists emphasized that law firms should work hard to understand the company’s goals, and help the legal team accomplish those goals through strategic, manageable solutions. Jennifer Tetenbaum Miller, of Gigamon, encouraged law firms to think of themselves as a “business partner” to the company – one that helps manage solutions for the business. To help the legal team accomplish their goals, Scott Minden of Symantec suggested law firms learn what key performance indicators (KPIs) are important to the in-house team, and then help the in-house team accomplish those metrics. 

How to Break In

For firms to earn a relationship with an in-house legal team, they must first and foremost be responsive. Mark Altman of NVIDIA stressed the importance of responding quickly to requests, and encouraged law firms to provide information that is easily shareable with the whole legal team. When exploring incumbent firms, general counsels will often ask each other for recommendations of firms, and sometimes even ask their existing outside counsel. For specialized matters, a firm that has particular experience or expertise in an area makes them stand-out among other firms. 

When crafting proposals for GCs to review, the proposals must speak to the value the firm can create for the company. A successful proposal will inherently focus on the goals of the company and will offer services that anticipate how to achieve those corporate goals. That can include offering appropriate actions based on the size and severity of the matter, as well as anticipating other services the company might need. The big opportunity, according to Jennifer Tetenbaum Miller, is in the questions that the firm asks of the company. Firms should ask deep company questions to know the business – a great example Miller provided is asking questions about the risk tolerance of a legal team. If a team is more tolerant of a certain type of risk, a firm can create extraordinary value by catering to that tolerance and by delivering exactly what the team wants. For procuring outside counsel, many in-house teams are adopting new structures and guidelines that reflect the desire to lower costs and more-closely align with company goals. Outside firms should respond by aligning with the company’s goals, demonstrating the ability to produce desired results, and supplying realistic, upfront information about what the firm can do. 

Pricing

Recently, in-house legal teams have come under pressure to cut legal budgets and “do more with less”. With over $1 billion moving in-house from outside, according to a recent BTI survey, the best some general counsels can possibly do is keep legal budgets flat year over year. As a result, outside law firms must help keep legal bills as low as possible. For larger, more risky litigation matters, Scott Minden said the emphasis is more on the value the firm can provide; whereas, for smaller, less risky matters, the price point takes priority. Firm should provide a clear idea about rates, and try to craft fee arrangements that anticipate cost-savings. For example, Minden said a firm could successfully meet price expectations by offering up lower-cost summer associates for a portion of the work. When asked about the tension between value and price, Jennifer Tetenbaum Miller indicated that the best proposals will speak to the value that can be provided to the company, based on knowing what the company wants and what the company needs in the future. For example, don’t propose a flat fee arrangement for patent work and not know the number of patents pending. 

Long-Term Relationships

Once a firm has built a relationship with a company and has developed a successful track record, it is highly likely the firm will continue to receive future work. Long-term relationships will flourish, so long as the relationship is mutual, ongoing, and invested. A stellar relationship manager is a great way to sustain a relationship, because that person keeps continual, nurturing communications with the GC and is always responsive.  But more importantly, the relationship with the firm should be more than just a legal arrangement. Jennifer Tetenbaum Miller looks for other benefits, such as CLEs, dinners, seminars, and women’s networking events. These types of events demonstrate that a firm is continually investing in the relationship, which is imperative for a long-term engagement. Additionally, the entire in-house team should feel valued – as Mark Altman suggested, don’t just focus on the GC, but instead build a relationship with the entire legal team. To build this kind of relationship, there is an incredible opportunity for engaging with in-house teams in ways that transcend isolated legal work and demonstrate a true value-add to the company. 

Perhaps Scott Menden put it best: he is tired of only hearing from his outside counsel when Symantec is being sued.

The panel discussion, hosted by the Legal Marketing Association – Bay Area Chapter Silicon Valley Group, emphasized the importance of close, mutually-beneficial relationships between in-house counsel and outside law firms. The best relationships are not automatic – they are based on understanding the company’s goals, creating true value-added services, nurturing satisfaction through multiple channels, and growing with the business. 

Self-driving cars may offer a “hands-off approach” to driving, but law firms cannot take the same approach to create value-added relationships with in-house counsel. If you are invested in the relationship, you will win the work.

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