Improving Your Company’s Relationships with its Attorneys
by Wisconsin Reinsurance Corporation Corporate Counsel
After you have successfully found a good attorney or law firm to help your company, there are numerous ways you can improve that business relationship. The keys are: sharing expectations, being forthright, being an active participant, continuing to evaluate the relationship, and remembering who makes the decisions.
Your company should know:
- What kinds of issues or cases do your attorneys typically handle, and what are they best at?
- The details of the fees, costs, and invoices: e.g., hourly rate(s) and whether paralegals or secretary hourly rates are also charged; how often are invoices sent; are invoices detailed (showing the amount of time and an indication of the work done during that time); are all cases handled on an hourly basis or are some able to be handled on a flat-fee or percentage basis if you prefer; will the law firm advance some of the routine costs of litigation (e.g., jury fee, cost of ordering reports) and then bill you for them?
- Who is your primary contact, and what is the best contact method? Your best contact person may be different for an initial exploration of a new issue than for a routine call or e-mail to obtain the status of an existing matter. In other words, you should know when to call or e-mail the attorney and when it is better to call or e-mail the attorney’s assistant
- What is the preferred way to send documents or other records? Is it sufficiently secure?
Your attorney wants to know:
- What exactly is the assignment?
- Is to provide a legal opinion? Is it to review documents/file and prepare a response?
- Is it to discuss potential strategies to resolve an issue or litigation? Who will the attorney be representing: the company, the board, etc.?
- When do you need a response, and what form do you want it in? Not all issues are so urgent that a response is needed the same day, but if it is, you need to clearly tell the attorney. And if your matter is urgent, it is best to call the attorney to find out if your question can be addressed in the timeframe you need, and if not, to discuss some potential alternatives.Who is the primary contact, what is the preferred method of contact, how often do you want updates? Is there a secondary contact, and, if so, is there anything that can’t be shared with that person?
- Will you still value their services if they occasionally need to decline work and give you a referral?
- Your attorneys will give you a referral when your issue is outside of their expertise or when they are currently too busy to give it the attention it deserves. These types of referrals are appropriate and common; these referrals do not mean that they are “firing you” as a client. If they are firing you as a client, it will be clear; they will either tell you directly or simply not take any new cases of any type from you.
In order to provide you with good advice, you need to provide the attorney with all the information you have about the issue.
In order to provide you with good advice, you need to provide the attorney with all the information you have about the issue. If you are unsure whether the information you have is relevant, your attorney can help make that determination. If you have a lot of different types of records, your attorney may want to view them at your company first, might prefer that you simply send your entire set of related records, or may ask you to make a list of what information you have. If you do not send “everything”, it is best to let your attorney know what other records you have that you did not send with the initial materials.
Your attorneys will want to know what your company’s primary concerns are when they are helping you with an issue. Sometimes the things companies worry about are not things that their attorneys see as likely problems. If you communicate your concerns, your attorney will be able to give you a more customized opinion or response that addresses those concerns along with any additional ones your attorney sees. If you do not understand the advice or opinion, please ask follow-up questions; otherwise, it will be more difficult for you to make decisions and for your attorney to assist you.
Many attorneys are willing to answer a “quick question” without charging your company as part of the cost of developing the business relationship. However, because they have not reviewed all of the information you have about the issue, their advice will be less detailed and more akin to suggestions or questions for you to consider. Some prefer that “quick questions” are handled via e-mail rather than with a phone call. You should also be sensitive to the attorney’s time. In other words, don’t try to hog all their time, and don’t only call them when you want free advice. Sometimes, after hearing the “quick question,” they will suggest that you send the issue to them because your question really isn’t of the “quick question” variety.
Being an Active Participant
When you send something to your attorney to handle, your homework is not done.
Your attorney may need to obtain documents or records from your company within a short period of time to comply with discovery requests or court orders. Your attorney may request you provide those items before the due date to give the attorney time to review those documents, ask follow-up questions, and complete any necessary related work. It is important for you to review those requests immediately and to contact your attorney right away if there is any problem with complying with the request. Courts do not like late homework, and courts can impose a variety of sanctions or take other actions that may be adverse to your company.
Similarly, your attorney may need to contact you to schedule your deposition, the deposition of your staff, or simply to meet with you to discuss the case or get necessary information. So, your attorney should know of any planned vacations or absences for you and any staff key to the company’s defense.
Continuing to Evaluate the Relationship
If you would prefer your attorneys do something differently, you should discuss it with them. It is truly okay to ask attorneys, even your favorite ones, if they have handled matters similar to the new one you are considering sending them. It is also acceptable to ask for an estimate of what it could cost for the work and to discuss fees and alternative fee schedules/arrangements.
It is helpful to periodically ask your attorneys if there is anything your company could improve on in the future when communicating and working with them. After larger matters in particular, reviewing with the attorneys what led to the result and whether changes should be considered is also important.
Remember Who Makes the Decisions
Please remember that your attorneys can prepare trial strategies, provide you with legal advice, help outline likely legal consequences of decisions, and make recommendations; however, your attorneys cannot decide for you. Your company still needs to make decisions. Why? Your company, not the attorney, bears the risks associated with the results of those decisions.
As with all business relationships, it takes work to keep them strong. By keeping these tips top of mind, it will help solidify a strong and productive working relationship with your attorney.