By Vivek Jayaram
“That’s a business question” is a common response that lawyers provide clients all the time before moving on to the next issue on the agenda. And it must be extremely frustrating for in-house counsel to hear this from their outside counsel; someone who is supposed to be their counselor and advisor. Sure, issues regarding pricing and payment terms may not be “legal” issues, but as outside lawyers we shouldn’t shy away from giving clients our thoughts on any issue that comes up in a contract, during a transaction, or even in a day-to-day operational setting.
We might be initially retained to provide insights on a specific set of legal issues. But over time, clients expect us to learn their business. That means that if we’re doing our jobs correctly, we should have an opinion on those “business issues” since we’ve been advisors to the business. The bottom line is we should be adding value to our clients’ businesses. We may not be employed by our clients, but we should be helping them scale, pivot, and innovate. There’s a lot of competent lawyers out there. Be one of the few who is a first stop for advice – any kind of advice about the business – that your clients in-house may need.
Here are three ways outside lawyers can become true and trusted advisors to their clients in-house.
- Don’t Punt. When we get a call from our clients in-house regarding a legal or non-legal business issue that isn’t in our wheelhouse, we should nonetheless seize that opportunity to help our clients. If they have a tax issue and you are an IP lawyer, offer to introduce them to a friend from law school who practices tax law. Perhaps they describe to you a major leadership issue they are having in their India operations and you have a friend or contact that is an executive recruiter in Mumbai. Make that introduction. And maybe they say they’re looking to sell their house and you have a friend who’s an outstanding broker. Make that introduction for them as well. The more that you become their first stop when they have a problem, the more ingrained you will become as their day-to-day lawyer and advisor, which means you will build a stronger long term relationship with your client.
- Develop Synergies. If we pay attention, our clients are giving us valuable information about their business all the time. And if they’re not, just ask; our clients love to talk about their ventures and the challenges they are facing. Learning as much as you can about their business does not only allow you to render better legal advice, it allows you to reach into your network to create valuable synergies for your client. I recently had a client who developed a software platform that regularly handled very sensitive personnel information. Security was a major concern. I casually introduced them to another client of mine who had developed an award-winning security solution for enterprise software. The synergy turned out to be mutually beneficial. And if you’re working with early stage ventures, introduce those founders to potential investors. Even if they never invest, other meaningful connections might emerge through that relationship. These non-billable efforts will position you as a trusted client advisor.
- Follow the Business. With today’s tools and resources, there’s no reason why we cannot keep abreast with our clients’ accomplishments. Whether it’s a new acquisition or hire, platforms like LinkedIn allow us to stay current on our clients’ achievements. When major things happen, don’t stay silent. Offer your thoughts, congratulations, condolences, or introductions. There is rarely an excuse to not catch wind of a major happening within your client’s organization. If you’re paying attention (and let them know that you are), they’ll take notice of your interest in their business. That lets your clients in-house know that you’re going to provide the kind of advice that takes into consideration the business interests at hand.
These are three easy ways to be known as a trusted advisor to your clients in-house. These things will become second nature, and will open new doors not only for your clients, but for your practice as well.