Society 54 gives you direct access to what In-House Counsel want from their lawyers and law firms. The Q&A below is from a recent interview we conducted with Taryn Mecia, Vice President Legal Compliance for Harris Teeter.
Q: What factors influence whether you hire outside counsel?
A: The two biggest factors are the potential for drain on in-house resources and the degree of expertise needed to handle the issue. We have a very small in-house department, so we need to use our internal resources wisely. If we think an issue will demand a considerable amount of an in-house attorney’s time, we are far more likely to send it to outside counsel. I need to ensure that our internal staff has time to handle the routine work and the crises that inevitably arise.
Even if the matter isn’t time-consuming, we are more likely to involve outside counsel if the issue demands a certain expertise. One of the things that keeps life interesting for an in-house attorney is the constant, fast-paced analysis of issues that are outside our comfort zones. We use our legal training, gut instinct and knowledge of the business to make the best decisions we can quickly, and then move on to the next issue. However, there are some matters that require technical knowledge, such as ERISA issues or complex tax issues. If we don’t have that expertise in-house, I am willing to pay outside legal fees to get it.
Q: Do in-house counsel care if your outside counsel is a super/best/elite lawyer?
A: I don’t make decisions on hiring outside counsel based on these designations. If I need to hire an attorney in an area in which we don’t currently have counsel, I will get a personal referral. My two usual sources are trusted law firms and other in-house counsel. Other in-house attorneys are a particularly valuable resource!
Q: What law firm trends are you seeing that you would like to either end or continue?
A: The trend that is most helpful to me is the use of fixed fees for categories of work that are repetitive. We have found this to be helpful in real estate transactions in particular. Once forms are developed and a process is put in place, both the law firm and the company can predict costs fairly well. This allows me to budget more accurately, and it allows the law firm to be paid a fair price. Of course, we always have to make exceptions when the unexpected happens. Accurate budgeting is becoming increasingly important to in-house counsel. We are held accountable for legal spending and can’t just turn outside counsel loose without a firm expectation of costs.
Q: What advice would you give to a junior associate at a law firm?
A: There are several things: First, I would advise a junior associate to get to know his or her client. It’s important to work with your partner to engage the client in active discussions on succession planning, so everyone is prepared and comfortable when that partner retires. Your in-house client needs to feel comfortable calling you for both the larger deals and the day-to-day random questions. To build the relationship, spend face-to-face time with your client. Instead of phone meetings, offer to visit the client in person, without charging for your travel time. Get to know the non-legal business people who regularly interact with your in-house counsel client. Spend time with your client outside of work if that’s possible. Listen to your client and ask them about the dynamics of decision-making in their company – your client is a valuable resource of insight into the inner workings of the business.
Second, when an in-house attorney calls with an issue, don’t respond with a legalistic memo with citations. In-house attorneys need to report to their business clients in plain, simple English and present clear-cut alternatives. In-house counsel don’t have time to wade through long memos that analyze every possible angle of a problem. Figure out the most likely scenarios and give practical advice that reflects the way the business actually works.