Accessibility Links

Legal jobs should focus on the legal, forget about the business stuff, says panel

Posted by: Laurence Simons 10/10/12

When you imagined becoming a lawyer it was probably the glamour of the thing that spurred you through law school and to sail on past the bar: all standing up in court in a weird wig. All visiting people in correctional facilities who did murders with a sharpened pencil. All ripping your shirt off in front of a jury and shouting "JUSTIIIIIICE!" and "LAAAAAAAAAWWWWW!".

But the reality is you have to send a bunch of e-mails and sometimes do your own photocopying.

For those in in-house legal jobs, that's sort of the reality of working life: exciting bits, sometimes, with meaty copyright issues or wrangling with clients over payments, but also a whole mess of admin. There's a way around that, though. Basically it's this: you have to define what is business (photocopying, making coffee, talking about your weekend) and what is legal work (shouting at people and suing them) and make that distinction clear to business clients. And in doing so, you're training them not to waste your time.

As the Canadian Lawyer points out, this 'training' concept first came up this week at an Association of Corporate Counsel annual session in Orlando, with a number of in-house specialists speaking on a panel called 'Training Your Clients'. And the best way to train your clients is to put a number on just how much time you're wasting dealing with business issues rather than legal ones. "Do your attorneys allocate their time back to the business units?" asked panel speaker Marcy Hingst, assistant general counsel with Bank of America. If not, then clients don't know that coming to you with routine nonsense rather than legal issues is costing them time and money.

And as regional counsel to Merck Canada Amita Kent noted, there's another advantage to drawing a clear line over what is your domain and what is a business units' domain: a better, more organic and collaborative working relationship with your client, which fosters loyalty and repeat business.

"We try and look at what matters are ongoing, what are the budget constraints, the scope of work overall and try to define the role of what the client brings to the table," Kent said. "It's a good opportunity to say to the client, 'Tell me all of this and I can better determine how to deal with the work and it won't be a waste of time'."

For those few lawyers who are going "woah there", who are going "billable hours", don't: a recent Acritas survey that identified the primary reasons corporate clients break-up with their outside counsel put a firm giving bad advice as being the second-most cited reason for terminating a working relationship. So giving them the heads up about where your legal domain ends and the work of a business unit begins could well put the kibosh on that, and ensure you and your firm secure an ongoing working relationship with major clients.