Today, I’m bringing you a guest post on a topic near and dear to my heart – collaboration. Gareth Stephenson, of Top3Legal has a different take on it, from his experience, which may be useful as you engage further in your own collaborative efforts.

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In-house counsel are increasingly recognising the benefits of collaboration – this occurs within their teams, with counsel at other companies and also with their law firms.

One of the main areas where they look to collaborate is deciding which external lawyer to instruct and especially when they are looking for a lawyer in a new practice area or country.  Top 3 Legal’s research showed that they are 8 times more likely to ask a colleague, or a friend at another company, to recommend a new lawyer than they are to use traditional legal directories.

In particular, there is a growing realisation amongst in-house counsel that their team’s combined and pooled experience of external lawyers around the world is powerful and can provide many benefits if they can find a way to harness and leverage it.  Top 3 Legal’s Team Sheets were launched recently for this purpose.

Collaboration within companies’ teams and with peers at other companies

Looking first at collaboration within companies’ in-house legal teams around the world, our experience is that few companies actually have efficient systems for pooling – and, even more importantly, sharing – information on external lawyers around their global teams.  In fact, we were surprised to be asked by several companies to update the Top 3 Legal platform to allow in-house counsel to be able to click on their colleagues’ profiles around the world to see what areas of legal expertise they cover.  For example, an in-house lawyer in Eastern Europe explained that he knew which external lawyers to instruct in his region but often needed to instruct someone in Mexico – he knew he had colleagues in Mexico but didn’t have any way of knowing who the best colleagues to contact were or of finding out which lawyers they were using.

Following on from this, the degree of sophistication with which in-house legal teams exchange their views on external lawyers varies hugely.  Many keep Word documents or spreadsheets, but these are not necessarily user-friendly or immediately available.  Top 3 Legal’s Team Sheets make detailed information on all of a company’s external lawyers instantly available to their global team and encourage in-house teams to collaborate by adding recommendations of individual lawyers and by sharing private notes about their experience of working with those lawyers.  In short, people listen to, and are much more influenced by, people they know and trust.

Also, companies are not just interested in the GC / partner level relationships.  They know that the majority of the work is done by law firm associates who interact with all levels of their team and their shared experiences of these associates are equally important.  They also want to see the detailed profiles of these associates to check their relevant experience – in respect of both the work type and sector experience.  Recent research published by LexisNexis suggested that clients are now less-focussed on sector experience, but our client responses suggest an increased focus on lawyers having relevant sector experience – or, as one senior in-house counsel expressed it, seeing what sector experience they haven’t got.

Another example of collaboration within an organisation is an Australian company that is now using Top 3 Legal.   One of their drivers in setting up a Team Sheet was the fact that their legal team was very small and so they were now letting functions such as HR and Finance (i.e. non-lawyers) instruct external lawyers themselves and they wanted those colleagues to have the benefit of the pooled experiences of the legal team as to which external lawyer would best be able to help them.

Collaborating in these ways provides many benefits.  In addition to the obvious advantage of being able to instruct a lawyer informed by knowledge and trust, it also enables companies to manage their external lawyers better by ensuring more consistent use of their preferred (or panel law firm) lawyers. In turn, this reduces legal risk and can also realise consequent fee deal benefits – for example, volume discounts and a stronger bargaining position for asking a law firm to provide secondees.

Collaboration amongst GCs at different companies is also becoming easier and more structured as many organisations and networks have been established with collaboration at their core.  I have lost count of the number of times in the last year I have heard a GC say that law firms don’t realise they talk to each other.  Hearing this so often was one of the drivers for Top 3 Legal creating private networks of in-house counsel which enable them immediately to see whether any of their friends or contacts have recommended particular lawyers and to help inform them when searching for a lawyer in a new work area or location.

Collaboration with law firms

However, one area where in-house counsel are looking to collaborate more is in their relationships with their external law firms.  Many counsel immediately fall silent if asked to give examples of where their law firms have collaborated with them – or even tried to.  Many law firms are ideally placed to do so given the number of legal tech solutions they are now using or assessing.  So, what stops them?  Some clients blame a lack of collaboration generally within law firms. They experience individual partners guarding the client relationship and being reluctant to involve other partners.  We’ve encountered similar examples a couple of times since launching Top 3 Legal’s Team Sheets – the London Corporate Head of a national firm had no interest in getting colleagues involved in a client relationship and a partner at a global law firm admitted he didn’t trust his colleagues enough for a client to have direct access to them.

Fortunately, these have been isolated examples with the vast majority of partners Top 3 Legal has engaged with clearly seeing the benefits of introducing colleagues to broaden and expand their overall client relationships.

One area which has perhaps been surprising though is that not all law firms clearly designate an overall Relationship Partner for individual clients.  This becomes very apparent when clients ask multiple offices of a law firm to add their lawyers’ profiles to that client’s Team Sheet on Top 3 Legal.  For both the client and us, it can feel like you’re dealing with different law firms.  Contrast that with where a Relationship Partner immediately assumes control of the request and we see a consistent, coordinated response with the partner ensuring that all relevant areas of the firm are engaged.  Clients notice this – and they notice even more if they have asked for, say, three offices to be included and one has been ignored.

There are many easy wins for law firms to collaborate with their clients but it will require a change of emphasis from focusing on billings to sitting down with clients to understand the issues they’re facing and getting their tech and innovation teams to help suggest solutions.

Gareth Stephenson is CEO and a Co-Founder of Top 3 Legal (www.top3legal.com).  Top 3 Legal is an online platform that is redefining how companies find the right external lawyer to instruct and how they manage their ongoing law firm relationships, informed by knowledge and trust.  Companies quickly and easily create Team Sheets of their external lawyers.  Their team then has a fully searchable and up-to-date Team Sheet for all its relationship lawyers across different firms around the world.  They can also overlay the lawyer profiles with their own notes and recommendations to assist their colleagues.