man in a dark hallway with closed doors

There was a very important panel discussion at today's session of the World Services Group North American regional meeting in Park City, Utah. Every law firm lawyer who works with a general counsel in a client organization could take away some valuable insights.

Paul Durham, a shareholder in the Salt Lake City law firm of Durham, Jones & Pinegar, chaired the session. The panelists were general counsel from major companies in the health care, food retail and distribution, solar energy, and aviation parts sectors:

  • Douglas Hammer (Intermountain Healthcare)
  • David Klomp (Associated Foods)
  • Shawn Lindquist (Vivint Solar)
  • Eric Vernon (The Wencor Group)

It was one of the best discussions of the changing dynamics between in-house counsel and their outside law firms that I have heard recently. The panelists comments echoed what my Walker Clark colleagues and I frequently hear from general counsel whom we interview on behalf of our law firm clients; but I was especially struck by the clarity, frankness, and practicality that each panelist contributed to a topic that, in many conferences, receives only superficial consideration.

As one would expect, most of the discussion centered on the need for timely, clear, and concise communications between outside counsel and in-house lawyers. The details are too extensive to try to summarize fairly in this limited space. The final discussion topic, however, impressed me as venturing into areas that, in my experience, many outside counsel seldom if ever consider. Paul Durham asked the panelists to identify something the outside counsel frequently do not know or do not fully understand about the role of a general counsel.

Following the panelists' preference for conciseness, here are some bullet points:

  • Outside counsel usually do not understand "the magnitude, scope, and complexity" of the issues that general counsels must handle. 
  • Outside counsel need to know how to help evolving industries meet their business objectives in rapidly changing business environments.
  • Outside counsel should make sure that they understand "what success looks like" for the general counsel in each matter.
  • Outside counsel sometimes fail to recognize that in many issues -- perhaps most of them -- the general counsel is not "the most important person in the room" when major strategic and policy decisions are made.
  • General counsels already know, in most cases, what the issues are. They expect outside counsel to recommend solutions, not just elaborate even more issues.

Although these five points do not include the entire scope or all of the details of today's panel discussion, they make up an excellent checklist for every law firm partner and associate who work with in-house counsel. Note that there is no mention of "professional quality" or "ethics" or "responsiveness," Many law firms still trumpet these attributes. Although undeniably important, they are basic requirements. General counsels are looking for added value, that usually is to be found by considering the five things that many outside counsel still do not understand.

Click here to download one of Walker Clark's most popular articles, "Serving the Foreign Client," which explores issues in effective communications between law firms and in-house counsel and business executives in foreign companies. 

Norman Clark