Noelle Sproul, In House Counsel, gives advice to Associates, talks about law firm budgets and more

The Q&A below is from a recent interview we conducted with Noelle Sproul, Associate General Counsel, TIAA CREF

Noelle Sproul, Associate General Counsel, TIAA CREF

Noelle Sproul, Associate General Counsel, TIAA CREF

Q. What are some things that outside counsel have done that have made a positive impression and/or impact?
A. Diversity and inclusion is very important to me personally and to my company.  We value the diversity of our clients and the diversity of ideas.  We also want to see our vendors, including outside counsel, reflect that diversity.  What impresses me are firms that take very deliberate and intentional acts to improve diversity and to ensure that a wide variety of candidates are given opportunities to be successful and grow in their careers.  That does require intentional action and planning, early in the development process, to make sure that all types of candidates are given the same opportunity to develop relationships internally with key partners and firm leaders and externally with clients and to develop the skills they need to advance in their career.  It is easy to give the opportunity to the person that looks like you or acts most like you, so it requires intentional action, thought and planning to break out of that mold and develop a new consciousness and organization culture that acts deliberately to institute change.  As internal counsel, I have had conversations with firms about this issue, and I am more impressed by the firm that can acknowledge that change is needed and can demonstrate actions taken to institute change than by the firm that provides a stock answer and a program that seems to be window dressing and does not appear to produce meaningful results.

Q. Do in-house counsel care if your outside counsel is a super/best/elite lawyer?
A. In hiring counsel, I consider expertise, referrals and past experiences.  While these accolades may provide confirmation of a positive referral, I will not choose a lawyer with such an accolade without other evidence to support the award.

Q. What advice would you give to a junior associate at a law firm?
A. I remember the days of being a junior associate.  The hours are grueling, the technical skills are still under development.  Junior associates should work hard on developing themselves and should stay focused on the things they can do well.  One of my strongest relationships when I was at a firm began to be developed with a client my first year in practice.  I approached my representation of them, deliberately thinking, how can I make this transaction easier on them?  What can I do well, even though I am still learning the substance?  By focusing on what I could do well and meet their needs, I impressed them even while I learned the substantive points of law, and that relationship continues to this day.  In addition, to grow in your practice and to develop the skills you will need to build your own practice, you should seek out opportunities with a variety of partners and you should be deliberate about developing meaningful relationships with key leaders and clients.  Finally, you should be conscious of your brand, your reputation, focusing on the need to be responsive, to anticipate needs, to produce quality work, to be responsive to deadlines, to be skillful at prioritizing, to treat the people you work with (internally and externally) in a respectful manner, to communicate in a professional manner, and to not be entitled or “too good” for a task.

Q. What are the biggest mistakes outside counsel can make? (What should law firms avoid?)
A. Law firms need to be accountable and responsive.  They should consider my needs and my competing demands.  If I have hired a firm to help on a project, they should take ownership of the project, including to follow-up with me or key parties when the project seems to have stalled.  Outside counsel needs to view their relationship as a long-term relationship and they need to find ways to support my organization’s goals.  That means being open to non-traditional fee arrangements and partnering with me on internal training.  It also means that counsel should be up-front about any mistakes that might have been made (preferably with a solution in hand) and that I should not be surprised if the legal bill is outside of budget.  Counsel needs to recognize that budgets are incredibly important and that I want to partner with firms who work with me to ensure efficiency and quality work.