Blog/Podcast: Want to Earn Business from In-House Counsel? Consider These 4 Rules

If you’re a law firm seeking more lucrative commercial clients, this usually requires winning over in-house counsel first — a competitive and sometimes challenging process.

Matt Nolan, Vice President and General Counsel of Ancra Group and Director of The Heico Companies’ Global Compliance, shared insight into the mind of in-house counsel on the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Matt spoke with host Sharon Berman about the four rules law firms need to know to work with in-house lawyers successfully.

  • Rule 1: Understand How In-House Counsel Operates

Although it can seem like in-house counsel and private practice lawyers are two different breeds, they still face many of the same challenges: juggling multiple responsibilities, handling lots of moving parts at once and the general pressures of being a lawyer. Still, when trying to earn in-house counsels’ business, it can be helpful to understand their mindset and the position they hold in their companies.

Because general counsel are on common ground with their coworkers, they have more control over their work, and a greater ability to push back and question priorities when necessary. Perhaps the biggest difference is that in-house counsel are in tune with the business goals of their client. They have the ability to influence strategic priorities and align their work to meet those priorities — an important distinction to note when working with them.

  • Rule 2: You Have to Communicate

In-house counsel are the problem-solvers of their companies. They spend a lot of time finding solutions and preventing issues before they begin, and when help from outside counsel becomes necessary, in-house attorneys automatically take on the role of translator. They’re the ones who dissect the advice being given, help the business understand it, and apply it to the business’ specific strategic goals and risk matrix.

Firms can win over in-house counsel by making this responsibility easier for them. Advice should always be packaged in practical terms that facilitate decision-making – the more personalized for the company, the better.

Even more important is that firms communicate in a clear and timely way. It’s tough for in-house lawyers to work successfully with firms that take days to respond to a voice message or email. Expectations need to be communicated clearly, too. As long as timeframes are agreed upon ahead of time, in-house counsel usually won’t demand unreasonable deadlines. If, on the other hand, a firm misses deadlines or doesn’t explain how long something is going to take, that makes it difficult for in-house counsel to continue their work and manage the expectations of their employer — and that means they’re less likely to call you when they need help in the future.

  • Rule 3: Build Your Firm’s Reputation

Ultimately, many in-house counsel select law firms based on recommendations from within their networks. They often ask for suggestions from their in-house colleagues and firm attorneys they’ve worked with in the past, which is why providing a top-notch client experience is so critical — your reputation follows you long after you complete a matter.

Good, old-fashioned networking is a useful way to connect with in-house counsel as well, but some environments are better than others. Matt prefers to talk to firms at conferences, particularly the Association of Corporate Counsel’s (ACC) annual meeting. It gives lawyers the opportunity to have more natural conversations, without the formality of calling a firm and asking about its capabilities.

Finally, if your firm has no experience working with in-house counsel, another way to work your way into their consciousness is by sending client alerts. Most in-house counsel read corporate counsel newsletters and client alerts in subjects related to their industries. If they see your firm’s name pop up consistently, they’ll start to think of you as a thought leader in that space, and you’ll be top of mind when they need help.

  • Rule 4: Don’t Overlook Professional Organizations

General counsel and firm lawyers alike can benefit from membership in in-house legal organizations, namely ACC. ACC, in particular, offers tons of benefits for in-house counsel, including education, a knowledge library and opportunities to network with professionals facing the same issues.

For law firms, membership, involvement and investment in ACC and similar organizations can be equally useful. Many firms don’t realize the impact that hosting a webinar or speaking at a conference can have. First, it’s just good practice to share knowledge and resources, and general counsel appreciate the effort. Plus, chances are good that at least a few lawyers in the audience will have a need for your services.

Another surprising benefit of this kind of involvement in professional organizations is third-party verification. If an in-house lawyer is impressed by one of your presentations, oftentimes they’ll approach the organizers of the event before going directly to your firm. They’ll seek out opinions from colleagues within the organization first, and that positive feedback is what seals the deal even before they contact your firm.

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