Working with a lawyer can be a lot of things. It can be easy, thrilling and collaborative. Or it can be difficult, frustrating and, worse, counterproductive. Often clients think that their lawyer controls the dynamic of the relationship. While this is partly true, there are a lot of things clients can do to contribute to the success and productivity of the relationship. There are best practices to help ensure that your relationship with outside counsel is productive and frustration-free. Here are some of those best practices.
Establish Clear Fee and Billing Expectations
The most common complaint about working with outside counsel revolves around cost. Before the bill lands on your desk, make sure that you have a clear, written fee agreement establishing billing protocols and fee arrangements. Beyond the written fee agreement, you should consider creating a set of billing guidelines that require the attorney to inform you if they are exceeding a certain amount or if the matter is taking longer than predicted. If the attorney regularly deviates from your expectations, you can have a discussion or even renegotiate the fee agreement to prevent further runaway legal expenses. Another useful approach is to set milestones on projects and build cost estimates for each milestone. This provides visibility into each stage of a project and can also help with creating deliverables and realistic expectations.
Manage Your Communications with Outside Counsel
Make sure that outside counsel knows your preferred method of communication. While lawyers may prefer to offer their advice in writing—say, in a formal memorandum—you may prefer a short, bulleted email, or even a few minutes on the phone to understand the issue. On the other hand, you may want certain exchanges with outside counsel to be in writing for legal or business reasons. In response to questions about your matter, you may desire clear and concise recommendations rather than an exhaustive weighing of arguments on either side. If so, communicate this expectation clearly; do not assume that it is already understood. By doing so, you can prevent unnecessary work product and save time and money.
As your relationship with an attorney develops, you may notice trends about how he or she charges for advice. For example, some attorneys tend not to charge for brief phone calls even if they would charge for a series of emails covering the same topic. Consider these types of variations in communications and billing practices as well as your own personal preferences when setting expectations.
Once you set clear expectations about billing, communications and work product, you should consider evaluating outside counsel’s performance against those expectations. After all, setting expectations at the beginning of a working relationship means little if those expectations are never met or reviewed. Some companies choose to share evaluations with outside counsel, providing an opportunity for them to improve their performance and an opportunity for the client to restate or reset expectations. Other companies choose to use the evaluations for internal purposes only, which can be helpful if a company is considering working with a different law firm or lawyer.
Build a Relationship of Trust
Great outside counsel can be among your most important business advisors. Beyond their legal knowledge, they can provide a second set of eyes or a critical sounding board when making important strategic decisions that will affect your company for years to come. While you may be tempted to reduce costs on legal fees, you can often save even more money by finding an attorney you trust and engaging with them early on in major deals that will affect your company in the long term. Instead of paying for an attorney to resolve a complex issue that seemingly came out of nowhere, consider finding and hiring trusted outside counsel to spot those issues before they arise.