In 25 years working at law firms, I never offered this to a client. In two years working in-house, no outside law firm ever before offered this to me. But I heard it moments ago, and I couldn’t believe how foolish I’ve been. I smiled, shook my head, hung up the phone, and popped open the blogging software for your benefit.
“When we’re handling a major case that is so terribly expensive to defend,” says my outside counsel, “we like to have an ‘all-hands’ meeting with the client once a quarter. Our entire team will fly to your headquarters for the event. We’d like you to invite not just any appropriate in-house lawyers, but also relevant people from the business unit and any senior managers who might either be concerned about the cost of the litigation or have ideas to offer. We find that people who aren’t directly involved in the litigation often suggest great ideas.
“We won’t charge you anything for these quarterly meetings. We’ll write off our time, and our firm will pay the travel expenses. We just think it’s a good idea to have these meetings regularly in cases as important as this one.”
I personally had nibbled around the edges of this idea when I was in private practice: “We’d like you to schedule a two-day educational conference about the product involved in the litigation,” I had said in the past. “Have each of your folks who helped to design the product, know its regulatory history, and so on, speak for an hour. We want to educate our entire team and to meet the key players in person. Naturally, we won’t charge you for our time or travel expense.”
That’s okay. It’s a nice offer; it serves an important function; and it causes a bunch of your lawyers to meet a bunch of client representatives. But the offer I just heard is much better. It achieves so much more. Why?
Offering free quarterly meetings achieves everything a law firm is pursuing (except for an immediate cash payment, but don’t be short-sighted here).
Offering free quarterly meetings shows concern for the client’s cause. It shows a slight willingness to incur costs for the client’s benefit. That’s nice.
The meetings let in-house lawyers not involved in a case on a daily basis get a relatively quick update on what’s happening. That’s helpful.
The meetings let in-house lawyers responsible for supervising the litigation, who may be being beaten about the head and shoulders about defense costs, invite interested senior managers to learn about the case and ask for themselves any questions they may have about defense costs or possibilities for early settlement. That’s not bad.
But that’s just from the client’s point of view. These meetings also give the outside lawyers a great platform to meet folks who matter at the company — in-house lawyers not involved in the case, key people in the business unit, and senior managers worried about expense (who may be very senior indeed). And these meetings aren’t a cocktail party or a meet-and-greet, where outside counsel can do do no more than hope to impress clients with their charm; this is a serious discussion that will let smart lawyers with good communications skills talk to an interested group of people about substantive matters. (That’s why this idea is so much better than having your team fly out to sit and listen. From a business development perspective, the outside law firm wants to be the teachers, not the students.) If the outside lawyers are any good at all, they should be able to impress the assembled business folks and have those people ask, the next time they’re involved in a similar case, why we don’t retain those impressive lawyers who flew in to see us at our headquarters.
But there’s more! My silly idea of flying folks out to learn about the product is a one-time event. That’s good, but repetitive meetings are better. If the lawsuit goes on for any length of time — and the big ones almost always do — outside counsel will have spent some chunk of a day working with our lawyers and business folks on a quarterly basis for a year or two or three. Over that period of time, the outside lawyers will start to feel like old friends — or, at a minimum, like trusted advisors and counselors, which is plenty.
Maybe I was unusually foolish during the twenty years when I worked at a huge firm and the five years before that when I worked at a small one. But I never offered free quarterly meetings to my clients, I never heard any of my colleagues suggest doing this, and I never heard rumors that any of us were doing this.
Similarly, for the two years that I’ve been in-house (working with some of the finest law firms in the world), none of our outside lawyers suggested this before the guy on the phone today. (We’ve occasionally insisted that our firms come in and give presentations, of course, but outside counsel never affirmatively suggested it, proposed to hold the meetings regularly, encouraged us to expand the last of invitees, and offered to write off the associated time and expense. Those are new, and clever, wrinkles.)
If a lot of firms are doing this, then I’m just out of touch. But if, as I suspect, very few firms are doing this, then law firms are missing a trick. Holding free quarterly meetings helps clients to defend their litigation, is a great client relations tool, and creates the perfect business development opportunity. As between having regular meetings like this and participating in most other business development events that I’ve inflicted on others or had inflicted on me, this one wins, hands down.
Now you’ve heard about it. Don’t be silly: Go forth and prosper.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at [email protected].