In Legal as in Other Business Functions: Match the People You Assign to the Task at Hand (Part I of III)

Part I

Where there’s a lot at stake in the matter at hand it’s usually best to begin with “Who’s the right lawyer?” — Not: “What’s the best law firm?”

Jane and Susan entered my office:

“Jack wants us to ask you which environmental lawyer we should hire”.

Jack was our company’s president.

Jane was head of a new environmental business unit — an accomplished environmental engineer.

Susan was associate general counsel — whose corporate law acumen I’d long admired.

(All names changed to protect ….)

I was two years into a transition from practicing lawyer to general manager after a corporate client had invited me to run one of its divisions.

Neither Jane nor Susan reported to me. And I wasn’t part of the general counsel’s office.

I replied: “It’s always great to see you guys. But I don’t know why our president has sent you to talk to me about this!”    

Jane and Susan had done their own due diligence — and they had found an environmental attorney whom they concluded possessed the best skills to advise them through the launch of their new environmental business unit.

At the same time our company had a long-term, go-to relationship with a full-service law firm. Its lead partner was personally close to our president — and I was friends with several of its attorneys.

And — being “full-service” — that law firm had its own environmental lawyers.

The “problem”: The attorney Jane and Susan wanted was from a law firm different from the go-to firm our company typically used.

I told Jane and Susan that it was up to them. They knew the most about this task — and therefore about which lawyer was best for it. And it was they who were accountable for the launch’s success or failure. 

“Well, duh!”

So a new general manager — unfamiliar with the mysterious relationships between management and their law firm and in-house lawyers — might respond. But powerful organizational dynamics often prevent business leaders from being able to pick the best man or woman for the (legal) job.

First, some companies structure their use of law firms through a “preferred provider” program. I faced this as a general manager.

For instance, for a deal that involved aircraft transactions and issuance of securities to be listed on the London Stock Exchange the general counsel of my company asked me to consider Skadden Arps — a preferred provider.

I told the general counsel that Skadden Arps would be at the top of any list for something like a contested takeover in the U.S. — but they had no expertise that I knew of in aviation finance or U.K. securities.

(I was fortunate to get permission to use a London attorney and firm with whom I’d done previous aircraft finance work. Typically a general counsel will consent to you asking their spouse out on a date before he or she will consent to a business person choosing the lawyer on a matter.)

Second, even within a given law firm, the lawyer you’ve come to rely upon may not be the individual to whom that the firm assigns to your work.

Recently a financial advisor I know had this happen to her. The partner in a three-lawyer firm to whom she’d referred many clients sent an understudy to meet with her and a new client. It didn’t happen again!

See Part II (“Match the attorney you pick to the decision-maker you face if a court, regulator, or prosecutor with a distinctive viewpoint will be driving the legal outcome”), and Part III (“For routine, repetitive, or high-volume legal or regulatory compliance tasks, consider a service provider who brings the right processes — and perhaps technology — to your company’s needs”) — of this series.