GCs, Find the Right Yin for Your Yang: How to Choose Outside Counsel for Your Company

How to Choose Outside Counsel for Your Company

A company’s in-house counsel—whether a solo general counsel or a legal team—is a critical part of its executive leadership. But in-house lawyers can’t do everything. And they shouldn’t.

Maybe a thorny legal question has arisen. Perhaps the founders are contemplating taking the company public. Or the business is facing litigation that is potentially both time-consuming and financially draining.

At some point, a business’s in-house legal department will want to tap the expertise of skilled outside counsel.

The ideal outside legal counsel is a blend of experience, in-depth knowledge, business savvy and responsiveness. So it’s no wonder that when GCs find that mix, they nurture those relationships, rewarding them with steady work.

How to Choose Outside General Counsel for Your Company

If you’re seeking to add to your roster of reliable advisors—or if you’re an attorney looking to expand your business to serve in-house legal teams—consider the role that these qualities play in building connections between in-house counsel and their trusted counsellors:

They understand the business and its challenges. The best outside advisers “take deep legal expertise and translate it into practical business solutions,” says Jan Kang, general counsel and vice president of Bromium Inc., a Silicon Valley-based company that makes software to protect against cyberattacks. Any lawyer can cite case law. But only a sharp attorney can adroitly apply that law and its nuances to an issue her client faces.

They make clients their priority. Everyone’s busy. But when Aerohive Networks Inc.’s CEO approaches GC Steve Debenham with an urgent and complex question, the in-house lawyer needs to know he can reach his outside counsel immediately, get the answers he needs and report back speedily to the CEO. The best outside counsel “make you feel they’re making you a priority, and that’s worth its weight in gold,” says Debenham, who is also vice president and secretary at Aerohive, a cloud-based networking solutions company.

They find answers. When an in-house lawyer needs perspective or deep expertise, her outside counsel is her go-to source. “I come to them with a problem, and they come back to me with an elegant, effective solution,” says Kang, who’s held GC roles at seven companies.

They communicate clearly. Every in-house legal department operates on a budget, and Aerohive Networks of Milpitas, Ca., is no exception. Debenham expects his outside counsel to be upfront about legal costs so his jaw doesn’t hit the ground when he reviews a monthly bill. “If I get surprised by a bill from a lawyer, that can be a tension point,” he says.

They know their limits. Whether they’re top-tier global firms or solo practitioners, no lawyer—or group of lawyers—can be all things to all clients. Companies generally tap primary corporate counsel for high-visibility litigation, large M&A (merger and acquisition) deals and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) matters. For general employment questions or smaller litigation, it’s more cost-effective to use smaller firms. When GCs need specialized advice in areas such as intellectual property, they often turn to a boutique practice. If a firm doesn’t have the expertise or capacity to meet a GC’s needs, the best thing it can do is refer the work elsewhere.

They’re experts. Kang asks her network of GC colleagues for referrals when she needs to add to her stable of legal advisors. The fact that other in-house lawyers are satisfied with their work is a strong selling point. She recently retained a lawyer after reading an article he’d written. His work showed he understood a complex issue and could express his views logically and succinctly.

They don’t nickel-and-dime. Sometimes outside counsel’s legal work exceeds a company’s budget. Firms that are open to cutting a monstrous bill by a percentage or willing to shave costs gain a GC’s loyalty. “They helped me a pinch,” explains Debenham, a GC for nearly 20 years. “They’ve invested in the relationship, so I will, too.”

An experienced general counsel can guide your company on a variety of legal needs. Contact one of our Special Counsel locations to discuss how we can assist you with your legal needs for long or short-term contract assignments.

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