Life in a service profession — there’s nothing to it!
When you’re asked to do something, think about how you can make the other guy’s life as easy as humanly possible. Then, do precisely that. Presto! You’re a star!
When a client asks you to do something, do it. On time and right.
When a partner asks you to do something, do it. On time and right.
“On time” is typically pretty easy to understand: That means “on or before the established deadline.”
“Right” is slightly trickier: It certainly means, at a minimum, “done to the absolute best of your ability.” (There’s a chance that “the absolute best of your ability” won’t make the grade. That’s an individualized issue, not capable of being resolved in a blog post. But it’s a lock-cinch that you won’t make the grade by “submitting a crappy first effort, riddled with incomplete research, barely literate, and filled with typographical and grammatical errors, because all I’m really trying to do is get the client/partner off my back.”)
Now I’ve moved in-house, and life in an in-house service profession is just like life at a firm — there’s nothing to it! . . .
What do the folks in the C-suites typically complain about?
First on the list is unpredictability: “Why are we always learning at the end of a quarter about unexpected litigation surprises?”
That’s easy enough to fix: Flood ‘em with information! (Yeah, yeah: I got carried away there. Don’t “bury ‘em in irrelevant minutiae to cover your ass.” Rather, “send them all the information that a reasonably intelligent person might want to know about pending matters.”)
If there are trial dates that might either prompt settlements or result in judgments above whatever threshold would catch the eye of folks in your C-suites, then send the appropriate people a list: “The Iago case goes to trial on January 1, with a maximum possible exposure of X; the Desdemona case is set for February 1, and we could lose as much as Y; the schedule is then clear until Cassio in May.”
You’ve just eliminated surprises! Was that really so hard?
But the folks in the C-suites might also complain about the unpredictability of defense costs: “What do you mean we’ll be spending 500 grand in December on the Bianca case? We didn’t budget for that!”
Again, professional life is easy! Historically, in-house lawyers beat up on outside counsel for reasonably accurate litigation budgets, in part to make defense costs more predictable. Today, many corporations enter flat-fee agreements with outside firms, under which the firm agrees to defend an entire set of cases (maybe “all single-plaintiff employment discrimination or wrongful termination cases”) for a specified fee. That does a pretty nice job of avoiding unexpected increases in defense costs.
That’s all low-hanging fruit. But pick it! And then start moving up through the middle branches.
If the folks in the C-suites are concerned about outside legal spend generally, then double-check to be sure that you’re assigning the right lawyers to the right cases. High-exposure, tough-to-defend cases go to the very best outside counsel; routine and easy-to-defend matters go to perfectly competent lawyers who aren’t necessarily known for their flashes of inspiration. If you’re unthinkingly giving all of your litigation matters to Bigg & Mediocre, then you’re probably wasting money.
Expand your use of alternative fee agreements, bundling up categories of cases and putting them up for bid (inviting only lawyers you trust to compete in the process). Firms will think hard about how they can handle cases more efficiently when they know competitors are bidding for the same business.
That’s the medium-hanging fruit. Pick it!
Finally, there’s the hard stuff, way up in the canopy. Like “actually winning all of your cases.”
But that again raises an individualized issue, which turns on your ability, outside counsel’s ability, the judge you draw, and just how horrifying the underlying facts may be. We can’t crack that nut in a single blog post (and perhaps we can’t crack it at all).
That’s okay; just do the basics. Pick the low-hanging fruit and slowly climb into the higher branches. There’s nothing to it — and you’ll make yourself an in-house star.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer 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 and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.