I’m sure I’ll upset a few law firm branding consultants with this comment, but, when the question gets asked, “Do corporate counsel hire the lawyer or the law firm,” I just want to scream: “It’s the lawyer, stupid!” I actually listen to general counsel when they speak at conferences and over the past 13 years I’ve never heard them sway from this standard idea: They might “interview” the firm, but they hire the lawyer. This doesn’t mean that they will use you for everything. You might be their favorite lawyer to use on x-projects, but when they need to CYA they might have to turn away from you and call upon an AmLaw 25 firm. HOWEVER, even in THAT situation, when all things are equal, they will still hire the LAWYER they know, like and trust. The firm brand just gives the GC cover with the board of directors/shareholders. I caught this post from across the pond, It’s not about the bisquits (cookies, for us Americans), written by an anonymous in-house counsel. Once again, his message remains consistent with everything I have heard over the years:

For me, the answer is clear: I buy lawyers. The most important thing for me is having an adviser that understands my business, and in particular its commercial drivers and its appetite for risk.

The author goes on to state that there are two reasons he hires outside counsel: a lack of resources or a lack of expertise.

If it’s the former, then I have a limited amount of time to spend on supervision, and in the latter case the whole point is to get someone who can deal with a matter that I can’t.

The VALUE of your services is dependent upon you understanding the nuances of the interactions, unspoken needs, expressed desires, etc. of the client. As outside counsel, it’s up to you to identify which role you are playing, and to change the delivery of your services based upon the role desired by the client. If your client needs a trusted business adviser to handle a situation where they lack expertise, then you’d better be able to make tough decisions and give your client the information they need to find comfort in said decisions. If it is a lack of resources from the in-house counsel, then get the job done quickly and efficiently. Don’t bother your client by explaining information about the matter that they already know and understand. No one likes to hear a lawyer ramble on, especially another lawyer. I know I drone on and on about “know, like and trust,” but there’s a reason why. THIS is what differentiates you from your competition. When you’re both Ivy League-educated, trained at white-shoe firms, and have done your time establishing your expertise, when your rates are equivalent, and your firm structures similar, it is YOU that is the key differentiating factor:

So when the standard of legal expertise is pretty much the same across a wide range of firms (and it is, despite the fetishisation of the city firms), what differentiates is a genuine understanding of non-legal considerations and a willingness to come down off the fence. And that is very much a matter of the individual lawyer’s own experience, skills and personality. Where does this leave the promise of great service that many firms would see as their great selling point? Well, that’s important, but for me it’s a hygiene factor – a reason to leave if it’s not there, but not a reason to buy in the first place. Let’s face it, pretty much any firm of a reasonable size offers speedy turnarounds and quality documents, and most will lay on half-yearly seminars for in house counsel to snooze through. Many even have nice biscuits (although quality pens seem to have disappeared in recent years). What differentiates in service terms is the ability, enthusiasm and likeability of individual lawyers …. (emphasis added)

(Can you tell yet … I REALLY like this blog post. Seriously, go read it here. There’s more there than what I’m covering). And here’s a great warning (I love warnings):

At the level of individual lawyers, I’m not sure why more don’t take the time to really understand their clients’ businesses, or even the individual transaction that they’re working on. Maybe it’s workload, or maybe it’s because the hours might not be billable. In some cases, I rather get the feeling that it’s because they don’t believe that they have anything to learn.

If you don’t understand the client’s business, you will NEVER solidify your relationship. If you don’t understand the client’s industry, how will you be able to strategically provide them the counsel that they need? Differentiate yourself: become that trusted BUSINESS adviser your clients are seeking. (ht to @niksgaff for sending me the link to The Bizzle post)