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My Lawyer, He Wrote Me a Letter

2012 November 19
by John Wallbillich

Toby Brown posted a compelling (and slightly hypothetical) letter from a law firm to a client. You should read it at the link in the prior sentence. The “tl;dr” short summary: we get you want speed, quality and low cost; unless you’re OK with two out of three, we need to talk.”

When I was a general counsel, I didn’t receive a letter like this. Maybe it would have helped. I did have a number of discussions with outside counsel that proceeded along those lines. So since I didn’t have a chance to respond to a letter that was never sent, I thought, with Mr. Brown’s understanding, I’d respond here.

______________________________________________

Dear Waiting for More Guidance:

I am in receipt of your letter dated November 19, 2012. I appreciate your candor and willingness to reach out and get further insight into what MegaCorp expects from its outside counsel.

As far as your choice of less hours or cheaper hours, we’ll take both if possible. Some of our other firms are doing this, and are getting there by integrating technology when warranted. Of course, We don’t want to tell you how to run your business. But the competition we are facing in ours forces us to ask.

I agree with your point that most law firms think they are already efficient. I fell out of my chair laughing, but I agree.

You may be right that some firms are confused by this state of affairs. As far as you wondering whether others are “ignorant of our needs,” that’s something we wrestle with every day.

You conclude your helpful letter with this: “as a favor to your firms, be a bit more specific about what it is you want exactly the next time you ask for more efficiency.” We should do this, and we should start right now.

So tomorrow your firm, as our primary outside counsel, and nine other similar law firms (I think these would be the “ignorant” ones you mentioned) will receive a Request for Proposal to perform all the work (a) your firm currently handles for us and (b) the work I was just about to refer to you today before I received your letter.

I am attaching your letter as an exhibit to the RFP, and am asking for guidance on those issues from the recipients. It will be extra credit added to our final ranking. Since you do not have anything else to add on those issues at this time, your firm should not complete that portion of the RFP.

Thank you for your thought-provoking letter, it really helped us get going on an RFP process that we have been kicking around internally for the last year.

Very truly yours,

John Client
GC, MegaCorp

_______________________________________________

I’ve always wanted to respond to a “Dear John” letter.

5 Responses Post a comment
  1. November 20, 2012

    This is a letter you could write (let ‘em know who is boss and who is lucky to get the work), but it’s not the letter a really great general counsel would write. You don’t really get the best work out of people by treating them like dirt, or like idiots. You get the best work out of people by treating them like respected colleagues, even partners. Sure, you can RFP work out to the lowest cost bidder, and there will always someone that no one else is keeping busy who wants to bid, but the real long term savings come from finding loyal and enthusiastic partners (of all kinds, not just law firms) who understand the client’s needs and work together to deliver better quality work at a lower price.

    What mystifies me about this letter is, why not tell them how to be more efficient, or at least how to think about being more efficient? You are already telling them how to run their business, so if you actually know the answers why not share them around a bit? Why not refer them to a book or a magazine article or a blog or even a consultant who can work with them to get up the 21st century curve? Why not let them know when you want ‘good enough’ work done with lower priced talent and less time spent plunging into every possible rabbit hole, and when you want a differently engineered process? The questions in the letter aren’t irredeemably stupid; they are the questions of someone used to delivering custom work on a hours billed basis who needs to be led to different ways to deliver value.

    Some corporate general counsels think law firm partners are the problem. They are wrong. Corporate general counsels and law firm partners are the problem. The great general counsel know this, and they don’t waste time abusing the help. They reengineer their own processes, and look for firms that can work with those reengineered processes. If they know what they are doing, and if they know what needs to be done, they don’t get abusive with the confused, they get excited about a chance to help get them with the program.

  2. John Wallbillich permalink*
    November 20, 2012

    Ray:

    Thank you for your comment. You raise a number of good points. I chose to sign the letter as a fictional GC since this response was fictional as well.

    I totally agree that the responsibility for legal efficiency is at least equally shared by GCs and law firm partners. Maybe even more so on GCs, since it is their budgets that are being consumed.

    But that’s not as interesting to write; and perhaps not as entertaining to read.

    And as far as this letter being “abusive,” well I thought it was downright cordial. At least “John Client” included “Waiting for More Guidance’s” law firm in the RFP.

    ~ John

  3. November 20, 2012

    Consider how this question parallels Hostess Brands’ decline. Lawyers and Twinkies – here. http://lexician.com/lexblog/2012/11/the-twinkie-defense/

  4. November 20, 2012

    “But that’s not as interesting to write; and perhaps not as entertaining to read.”

    Really? A very, very old school “It’s my work to hand out and I’m yanking your business because I can,” is more interesting than talking about what someone doing a good job of grappling with the changing legal landscape might do to help move a firm up the curve? I think you underestimate your readers, and underestimate how interested people are in figuring out what things would look like in a client/lawyer universe that wasn’t dysfunctional on both sides. ‘Interesting’ doesn’t just provoke attention; it gives you something new to take away. I would be more interested in seeing the letter you would really write if this letter came in from a firm you valued and had worked with for a while.

  5. John Wallbillich permalink*
    November 21, 2012

    Ray:

    Thanks again for your additional comment.

    I would post the letter you are interested in if I ever actually received a letter like the fictional one that lead to this post.

    One of the issues inherent in the “clients should tell law firms what they want” approach is that legal services aren’t just provided by traditional law firms any more. So part of what GCs are looking for from law firms is awareness of this fact; and insight based upon it. I know you are aware, based upon my review of your current research. And I look forward to reading more when your paper on legal innovation is published.

    I reject the notion that the “client/lawyer universe” is “dysfunctional on both sides” as a general rule. To me, that’s more of a meme than a market message. I know many general counsel who are clear about what they want, and have been able to find law firms that understand.

    And these GCs provide meaningful feedback to their law firms (and encourage the same from them). That’s called pro-active. But it’s not up to the GC community to fix the BigLaw business model. That’s why they pay managing partners big bucks. And they’re worth every penny these days.

    ~ John

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