What Tech Company In-House Counsel Want (A Lot) — Lessons from #LMAtech 2015

[Ed Note: Please welcome guest blogger, Susan Kostal. Susan is a longtime legal affairs journalist who also offers marketing advice and media coaching. Follow her on Twitter at @skostal.]

LMA Tech’s annual in-house counsel panel is always one of the biggest draws of the conference, and this year was no different. Last week’s discussion in San Francisco, moderated as always by Nat Slavin of Wicker Park Group, could be called the “one-size-fits-one” lesson. However, I’ve dubbed it the “come-to-Jesus” panel. Repent of your sins, outside counsel, and sin no more.

The panel consisted of tech-company general counsel, Michael R. Haven, Senior Corporate Counsel Legal Operations and Litigation at NetApp; Olga Mack, Head of Legal at ClearSlide ; Sharon Segev, VP of Corporate Development & General Counsel at Elo Touch Solutions; and Alexandra Sepulveda, Deputy General Counsel at Udemy.

Beyond the panelist's tips and advice came a fair portion devoted to horror stories involving various errors by outside counsel. As Sepulveda commented, “How is it we are still having the same conversation about how to get personalized pragmatic advice?”

One running theme for these tech-savvy in-house counsel is that outside firms must use the billing and tech management software their clients use. It is the firm that should adapt and adopt, not the client.

Each in-house counsel said that excellence and understanding a client’s business will only get a firm in the door. In other words, it is expected, and not the exceptional. NetApp’s Michael Haven said the differentiators are:
  • new fee models, 
  • new technology to manage projects and 
  • proactive efforts to improve the attorney-client relationship. 
Haven drove the point home by commenting that “we want e-billing, so we can derive metrics. We would love to see them firms giving us metrics about their own business, and showing us how they are working more efficiently for us.”

Each panelist said they want hours and bills updated daily or three days at the latest. Haven likes ViewaBill, which allows him to see daily expenses. Serengeti also received high marks. “I can’t endure the expense of waiting for bill and then trying to mitigate the damage.” In other words, avoid surprises at all costs.

Haven says about 150 firms have adopted ViewaBill. “We see only our matters in real time. I can see what my firm billed me yesterday on a matter,” he said. Such software avoids nightmares that could cost a firm its slot on the outside counsel panel.

Olga Mack told of one patent matter which came in $500,000 over budget. As she went back through the bills, she discovered the law firm had increased its rates 15% Jan. 1, in the middle of the project, and never informed her. The firm lost its place on her panel almost immediately.

In addition to billing issues, there are technology habits within law firms that drive tech company GCs crazy. An enormous pet peeve is attorneys and firms that won’t use electronic signatures. Nearly all tech firms strive for paperless offices, and demanding inked hard copies is SOOO 20th century. Emails with “FYI” in a subject line are equally hated. In-house counsel want timely information they can scan immediately, with email subheadings such as "EVENT," "IMPORTANCE," and "ACTION" to be TAKEN.”

Tech GCs want quick-and-dirty answer in hours. They will wait longer for more complicated questions, but want to know their attorney is on it by acknowledging their email. A reply within 24 hours is ideal; three days is the outer limit. If attorneys can comply, in-house promise they won’t stage “fire drills” for information they don’t need immediately.

Mack also said she immediately judges an attorney on the quality, both the writing and content, of an attorney’s client alerts, as well as what’s on social media, such as LinkedIn and elsewhere. “I make an immediate judgment as to do I want to meet this person, and do I find this useful. I admit it is a bit like judging a book by its cover.” See her recent LinkedIn post on "The Art and Science of Being Useful to In-House Counsel."

Additionally, more in-house counsel are now on Facebook and Twitter, not just LinkedIn.
Equally important are attorney bios, where in-house counsel typically start their research. 78% of general counsel use bios when choosing outside counsel.

Internally, in-house counsel share information about various attorneys and firms. A lot. Haven, who manages a global team of 80, says NetApp has “our own little version of FaceBook that we use internally. We collaborate on how we are dealing with outside partners, and discuss the pros and cons of certain partners.”

Regarding maintaining a strong relationship with a client, these panelists said they are amazed more firms don't ask for 360 reviews of how the firm is doing.

In summary, here are the takeaway themes:

It has to be spot-on experience to get hired. It used to be OK to have general experience and good service, but now that’s just a gating issue.
Unless someone is on vacation, responding within 24 hours is the low bar. GCs expect outside counsel to at least communicate that you got the email even if you can’t do anything right now.
Get in Our Shoes and Stay There
If you are going to be a very effective advocate for the client, you need to understand what they do, how they make money, and what risks they face. Then your approach is more tailored to their goal.

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