Although some private practitioners in some jurisdictions still take the stance that they are the ‘real lawyers’ and the in-house team is in some way second rate, there is little to be gained by keeping business people away from external advisers. You should not view good chemistry between business people and external lawyers as a threat to the in-house legal function, provided you are in the relationship triangle.
Much is to be gained from external advisers being viewed as known allies in managing legal risk and not remote subcontractors of the legal team.
These are the primary opportunities for building mutual familiarity (and hopefully respect)
Explain to senior managers the selection criteria and give them an opportunity to meet candidates and to express their views.
Share the scope with business people so that they have a clear appreciation that scope changes will have an impact on effort and cost
- Progress meetings / updates / reviews
Play your part in translating the business input for the law firm and the legal advice for the business, but not at the price of no three way conversations between the relevant players which may be more effective.
- Sharing insights
Identify the subjects which an experienced external adviser might address in a session with session managers to share their take on trends in the sector and their legal implications ie. outside the context of a specific deal or problem.
- Input to decision making
When the business has a difficult or significant decision to make, and the external adviser has a material contribution to that decision making process, invite the appropriate person in the law firm (usually a partner, but in some circumstances the senior associate who was more involved) to attend the meeting at which the decision will be deliberated and made. The law firm will benefit from seeing the decision making dynamic and the business will benefit from testing direct advocacy.
At the end of a significant matter or a series of similar matters, convene a three way review meeting to identify ways in which the relationship can be reinforced.
You should temper your well-intentioned desire to spare business people from contact with external advisers with a recognition that a lack of direct dialogue can be counterproductive.
Many in-house legal departments insist on being the portal through which the business has access to law firms. If the legal department is responsible for managing the budget for external spend, then this is understandable. However if the business user or beneficiary of the advice bears the cost and the need for access to advice is regular, direct access can make sense, as long as it is properly managed. Ironically direct access is often the norm where a remote part of the business has no legal department which can act as the portal.
How to set up direct access which does not yet exist and how to deal with / influence direct access which is already established will be addressed in the webinar to be held for the Commerce and Industry Group later this month.