CLIENTSPEAK: Ama Romaine, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

Society 54 gives you direct access to what In-House Counsel and other purchasers of legal services want from their lawyers and law firms. The Q&A below is from a recent interview we conducted with Ama Romaine, the General Counsel and Head of Risk Management of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

Q: What factors influence whether you hire outside counsel?
A: For me, the most important factor that influences my decision to hire outside counsel is demonstrated deep expertise on the issue that I am calling about. I need to know that they can offer meaningful guidance (that goes beyond what I can find in a Google search) and a perspective that is broader than mine since I am typically dealing with a sample size of 1. I also need my outside counsel to consistently provide practical guidance that translates legal risks into real world consequences. Finally, I need to know that my outside counsel is sensitive to my budget and even if I had an unlimited budget, I would prefer if my outside counsel always tried to deliver value based bills.

Q: Do in-house counsel care if your outside counsel is a super/best/elite lawyer?
A: I think it depends on the matter. On bet-the-company matters, everyone the lawyers and executives (up to and including the board) really want to know that we have engaged an elite lawyer or law firm to advise us. However, a lot of the work that is done in-house doesn’t require an elite law firm and even if an elite law firm or lawyer is advising on these matters, they should be able to provide their services in a manner that delivers optimal value to clients. In my view, it is flawed to charge the same rate for every matter simply because of who is providing the service. I also struggle with characterizing lawyers as “elite” and “best” although I recognize there are many lawyers who are preeminent in their fields. In general, I find most lawyers who I engage with are proficient and clearly good at their jobs. The ones who stand out are those who are able to provide narrowly tailored advice that demonstrates an understanding of business goals.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes outside counsel can make? (What should law firms avoid?)
A: The biggest mistake that firms make is to provide work product that is inconsistent with the client’s request. It is incredibly frustrating to receive work product that is not what you ask for or need because we still have to pay the bill while knowing that we didn’t get exactly what we paid for. I think this is a particular challenge for more elite lawyers. Clients generally have a really good reason for asking for legal advice in a certain way. If you feel strongly that you want to deviate from the request, I would suggest a quick call to get aligned before delivering the final product.

Ama Romaine is a General Counsel and seasoned executive whose experience spans a broad range of industries including hospitality, science and engineering research, financial services and energy. She has also represented companies in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Ama is former Vice President & Senior Counsel for Brands at Hilton Worldwide, and served as key legal strategic advisor for the Global Brands organization. Ama is currently a member of the D.C. advisory council of the Tahirih Justice Institute, a national nonprofit that provides legal and educational services to protect female immigrants fleeing violence.