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How firms can improve client perceptions

Recent findings detail how happy in-house teams are with their external providers. In the face of such perceptions, what do law firms need to do to ensure their clients are more likely to engage and recommend them?

user iconJerome Doraisamy 21 March 2023 Corporate Counsel
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Last month, Lawyers Weekly and Momentum Intelligence started releasing the results of the Legal Firm of Choice Survey — now in its eighth iteration — which identified the most sought-after private legal practices across the country, and for the first time, explored the volume of law firms utilised by one’s law department in the past year, whether those in-house professionals would recommend their chosen firms to others, and how they would rank the performance of the firms engaged.

This latest survey was conducted between 14 November and 13 December 2022 and received 462 responses in total, recording the attitudes, priorities and perceptions of legal professionals in Australia — including 104 corporate counsel.

As recently reported by Lawyers Weekly, the survey detailed the happiness levels of law departments with their legal services panels, which firms law departments are using, and whether departments are likely to recommend the firms they use.


In the wake of the findings, Lawyers Weekly reached out to a handful of general counsel to better understand how best law firms can improve how they are perceived by their clients – especially against the backdrop of a potential recession later this year.

Assistance in spend reduction

In the wake of the aforementioned market volatility, general counsel and company secretary Jennifer Mulheron said, businesses will be evaluating their cost bases and tightening controls, “both to demonstrate fiscal responsibility and to ensure sufficient headroom to execute on existing program milestones”.

In this environment, she explained, legal functions, together with other core but non-revenue generating functions, are being asked to reduce spend on external advisors without compromising on quality.

“Firms that adjust their client approach in this context will be favoured by in-house teams,” Ms Mulheron explained.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean reduced rack rates or discounts. This may mean, for example, pushing forward a star senior lawyer to manage the day-to-day to reduce overall costs; providing headline advice on issues via calls or brief emails in lieu of lengthy written advices; and if providing a written advice, ask the client their preferred approach to increase efficiency (this may mean a ‘quick and dirty’ on certain lower value issues are acceptable),” she listed.

“It will also always go without saying that in-house teams operate within a commercial environment — this means the less they need to simplify and interpret external advice for their internal stakeholders, the happier they will be.”

Billing practices

Further to this, Sydney Fish Market general counsel Michael Guilday said in support, time-based billing continues to be an issue for corporate lawyers.

“Time-based billing means that whilst a law firm’s bills may reflect the overall effort on a matter contributed by the lawyers working on it, they do not approximate the value or benefits generated from the work,” he suggested.

“In-house lawyers typically go to external lawyers for assistance on delivering required commercial outcomes, yet the way in which the fees are generated more closely approximate the process which has gone through to create the work.”

While the fee-for-service methodology is common across many different service industries, Mr Guilday noted, this practice “can lead to inefficiencies in the way in which legal work is produced and, more concerningly, may also stifle innovation across the entire legal profession”.

In this regard, he surmised, law firms seeking to differentiate themselves and thrive during a period of prolonged economic uncertainty may wish to consider offering more flexible fee arrangements.

Efficient management

Tonkin general counsel Krystal Kovac pointed to efficiency of management of external counsel as a “key informal deliverable” for many GCs, noting that the progression of other projects within a business are often dependent on the advice that is coming in.

“Firms should focus on getting the client service basics right, which enable the GC to provide timely advice and guidance back into the business. In terms of what these basics look like, firms should be ensuring work is delivered on time and status updates on work being prepared are communicated,” she submitted.

“The business will be asking the GC for updates, so the communication between external counsel and the GC should enable the GC to communicate back into the business in an effective and timely manner.”

“Being available for quick phone conversations, which often act as a sounding board for the GC, also go a long way in building a long-term relationship as a trusted advisor and ultimately a pipeline of work,” Ms Kovac advised.

Individual referrals

Elsewhere, it may be pertinent for lawyers within bigger firms to appreciate that in-house teams — and particularly sole GCs — may wish only to brief individual lawyers and not firms as a whole.

Being a trusted adviser to corporate counsel, either under a bigger umbrella or by way of going out on one’s own, may well be a pathway for consideration for those wishing to remain on legal services panels.

As a sole GC, Mr Guilday is very active with the management of his panel firms, he detailed.

“This means that I go to nominated individuals for specific types of work, and I always view with circumspection situations in which intra-firm cross-referral opportunities are suggested. In fact, I no longer recommend law firms; I only recommend individuals. Typically, those individuals are law firm partners, but increasingly they may be associates as well,” he said.

“Clearly, the entire legal profession is experiencing a period of significant change, in part driven by significant advances in technology and its widespread impact on our ways of working. This means that the scale and logistical advantages of briefing a single law firm are no longer so pronounced, and it is becoming easier for in-house counsel to brief a number of different lawyers individually across a number of different firms.”

Technology advances, Mr Guilday continued, have also made it easier for external lawyers to break away from large firms and establish smaller standalone or boutique practices, which can provide a similar level of service to that provided by a large law firm.

“In this way, the legal market has become more fragmented but has also, perhaps counterintuitively, become more accessible,” he said.

Overall, he said, “I am quite satisfied with the individual external lawyers on my panel, and I feel comfortable referring them to my peers”.

“Communication used to be a major bugbear of mine, but on the whole, I think that law firms have made significant improvements on that front,” he reflected. 

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