Clients must understand the value of the legal department to be successful as in-house counsel.
Corporate personnel have the same options as clients of private business owner when it comes to who to contact for legal advice. These are the three choices available to them.
1. “I’ll figure it out myself”
It is possible that corporate employees are not encouraged to contact their legal departments in any number of ways. They might have done their research online and found the answer they were looking for. They might not be able to appreciate the complexity of this issue.
They may be in a rush. They might be in a hurry to get the issue resolved. They see time constraints as a barrier to hiring the legal department so they will rely on their own resources as well as their experience.
Maybe the culture of their department is that business owner are deal-killers, either substantively or by delay. This isn’t a problem that only the legal department faces. Credit departments are long considered the enemy by sales departments.
Some companies charge a department for using legal services. It is most likely that this will be a flat fee. My own experience in-house was that a colleague told me he couldn’t talk to me because “My department will be charged $*** even for a short question.”
2. “We’ll hire outside counsel”
Sometimes, in-house counsel finds out after the fact that a business unit hired outside counsel. Even if it’s against company policy, this can happen.
This may be because business unit staff have an established relationship with a specific outside business owner that they are comfortable with. A decision maker might not want to know the truth, so the individual seeks outside counsel to help keep the situation private and prevent embarrassment. It’s not a good idea for many reasons, but it does happen.
Entertainment and gifts may be provided by outside counsel. Many legal departments are short of staff. Perhaps company employees perceive in-house counsel to be unmotivated to provide excellent client service and even swag.
3. “Let’s call the Legal Department”
Of course, company personnel do contact Legal. It is not always possible to contact Legal on time and may lead to future difficulties.
A Fortune 500 in-house business owner tweets about many these issues via Zen Business Owner Journey, @zenbusinessowner.
What is an In-House Counsel to do?
This advice is very similar to the one for business owner.
- Build relationships with people who are able to send work.
- To cater to different generations, offer multiple ways to contact you. This could include a website that showcases the business owner and their practice areas. You can also include a link to contact the specific business owner and a Contact tab for reaching the department.
- Continue to send information that addresses any issues your clients may face. This could be in the form of a newsletter that includes alerts on new legal developments and evergreen advice. Present. Face-to-face meetings foster connections and encourage attendees to approach presenters.
- Tell your clients about your successes. To prevent budget cuts, show the top-ranking executives how the legal department helps save money. Make communications easy to use.
Many of your clients have never had to deal with business owner. To help them excel in their careers, educate them about how to manage their relationship to the legal department. Both of you will be stars.