I have been speaking to General Counsels at a range of firms to find out what they want from their external advisers in the coming months and what is sitting well with them right now. In order to get this article out quickly, and to enable the people I interviewed to be as candid as possible, I have kept all names anonymous.
What impact is coronavirus having on clients?
The first thing that firms should be mindful of is that the Coronavirus will be affecting clients in different ways.
Companies can be broadly split into three camps. Some will be seeing a surge in business, the most obvious of these are supermarkets who are experiencing unprecedented demand. At the other extreme are companies who will have seen business halt, such as most in the leisure and hospitality industry. In the middle are those companies who can continue to operate, but who might be needing to flex their offering or adjust their business model, for example some trainers who are moving to virtual means of delivery.
In-house teams respond to the demands of the business they serve. In-house lawyers are likely to be very busy for a range of reasons. They are also likely, in the words of one GC we spoke to, be trying to calm the hysteria within.
This is a time for compassion - not generic comms
I will not be alone in having received emails from companies who I don’t have a strong relationship with telling me that they are there for me. GDPR seems to have been thrown out of the window and anyone who once happened across my email is contacting me. GCs are no different in this regard.
Depending on where the client’s business is right now, GCs needs are different; but there are some commonalities in what they are all saying they need:
They want lawyers who can walk shoulder to shoulder with them, who can be an extension of their team
They need empathy and compassion
Now is not the time for heavy handed cross-selling
They need firms to flex their offerings
Firms grappling with Covid specific issues
Some in-house teams are busier than ever. They are dealing with complex issues that are being thrown up. From questions around the scope of furloughing employees, to competition law angles about working with competitors in the same industry. In-house teams are having to work fast to enable the business to take quick decisions.
Keep comms short and targeted
One in-house lawyer that we spoke to said that whilst they are received lots of briefings, they just don’t have the time to read them. They added that they have access to the same government information as their external lawyers and receiving the information in a newsletter with no spin just wasn’t useful. Some law firms are offering specific and targeted webinars, or briefings and these are more helpful. Albeit, those we spoke to hadn’t had the time to tune into those!
Signposting relevant provisions and articles is likely to be valuable to business GCs whose inboxes are creaking and who are also trying to work from home in a crisis.
The need to bolster teams
One in-house lawyer we spoke to said that what she valued and needed was for firms to call and find out what was happening with them in order to work with them and come up with innovative solutions. What her team was looking for was flexible rates for added resource, so that the outsourced firm could work as an extension of her in-house team. This was a result of a unique combination of more work at a time when colleagues were calling in sick because of Coronavirus.
Reflections from a firm that has seen their business paused
Another GC that I spoke to, of a global wholesale business, explained that Coronavirus is having a major impact on their business. The retailers they deal with are closed and therefore most of their employees have been furloughed. It is a troubling time.
She was surprised at the approach lawyers are taking and the lack of empathy.:
“Lawyers who we have done some work with, but not huge amounts are approaching us saying ‘do you need advice on force majeure we can help at x rate’. We would value a general discussion about what can be done, and of course we would pay if it turned into a project, but this isn’t the time to be clocking up hours. There is no compassion or a sense of helping each other out in what will be a short period of time. There just isn’t the mentality of we are all in this together.”
The same GC said that what she wants is for her lawyers to just pick up the phone and brainstorm with her. She just isn’t seeing this.
“There isn’t the openness we had hoped for – the value outside counsel has is that they are talking to lots of businesses – they can offer a view on what the general approach is that is being taken. There is a lot of talk around dispute resolution and the suggestion that we should just start proceedings against our suppliers or customers. What we want is some commerciality; how do we secure our position now. We need balance. What can we do? What is the best market practice?”.
This is true for many businesses. Actions taken to secure cash-flow in the short-term need to be balanced against the desire to survive and thrive in the medium to long term. Everyone is connected and everyone is affected; lawyers need to think about a range of stakeholders when giving advice to their clients. Punishing a client’s suppliers and customers isn’t an option for firms who want to grow when this crisis period is over.
Never undervalue listening
Client Talk recently published a report on what drives growth in professional services firms. The comments we are hearing now echo those that we heard when writing the report. Firms aren’t listening well enough and clients more so than ever want firms who can be partners with them. Rather than be client centric, firms need to walk shoulder to shoulder with their clients. Clients want firms to brainstorm with them and come up with innovative solutions. They want firms who can share risk and be on the same team.
More than anything, clients want firms who can listen.