Forging Strong Relationships Between In-House And Outside Counsel

Saturday, May 1, 2004 - 01:00
Ronald Prague

Editor: Ron, what types of matters do you typically handle in your day-to-day practice?

I support Intel's Communication Infrastructure Group which is part of Intel's Communication Group. I handle all issues that my group is involved in - from software licenses and purchase agreements to employment matters and getting involved in the myriad legal issues related to investments and acquisitions. In addition, I spend a lot of time working with my business team to address specific issues that come up in their business

Editor: Alan, in what ways is your practice more specialized than Ron's?

Ron essentially works for one client on a variety of different matters. On the other hand, my practice is representing many employers in any facet of employment and labor law. Essentially, I offer clients the ability to drill down deeper on particular employment, labor, and benefits matters. More specifically, I represent clients in federal and state courts and before the various federal and state agencies regulating work-place activities, primarily to defend against claims of discrimination. I also assist our clients in handling day-to-day human resources counseling as to compliance with federal and state benefits and discrimination laws, how to properly discipline employees, and the administration of other employment policies (i.e., vacation, attendance). I design and write employee handbooks, sexual harassment policies, employment agreements, restrictive covenants, and review and analyze all benefit programs. My traditional labor law practice includes defending clients against unfair labor practice charges filed at the National Labor Relations Board, counseling union and non-union companies, negotiating contracts, performing strike contingency plans, and devising long-term labor strategies (i.e. subcontracting, relocating).

Editor: Ron, what factors do you consider when hiring outside counsel?

Key things I look for are outside counsel's expertise in the matter that I need assistance and the ability to forge a strong working relationship. I've typically used counsel that I have worked with previously or received a recommendation from another colleague. The outside counsel I team with are strong leaders and good listeners. By that I mean that I am looking for them to lead the deal/transaction/litigation but listen to input from me, my legal team and our business representatives to understand that the most important result is a good result for the business - which may not be the direction the outside counsel initially was headed.

Editor: What are the characteristics of a strong working relationship between in-house and outside counsel?

Trust is really where it begins and ends. When picking up the phone, the in-house counsel has to know and believe that the voice on the other end of the line is going to provide the quickest, most expert and practical advice possible. Importantly, that advice must be tailored to the personality of the client. Some clients are litigious and unbending, while others are focused more on the economics and the avoidance of disruptions. My job from the outside is to know and understand the client's needs and preferences and to remember that in the labor and employment arena, we are simply an expense item to our clients. By this I mean that we do not ordinarily win dollar awards for our clients because we are on the management side. Instead, our focus must always remain on limiting exposure, handling matters economically, and preserving various principled issues for our clients.

Editor: What techniques do you find most useful in maintaining good relationships between in-house counsel and their law firms?

Continued communication is important. It's not important to me whether we have scheduled meetings but I do like to get periodic updates, especially after a big event (i.e., hearing, motion, etc.).

Model: It's a little bit of a two-way street. From the service perspective, I hope to achieve the results I spoke about above. From the respect and relationship perspective, what the outside attorney looks for from the in-house client is responsiveness, a willingness to accept the advice that's been given, and a participatory role by in-house counsel. We don't want to simply dictate the outcome or chosen strategy, we want the client to buy into what we are recommending. Although we strive to settle "bad cases" early and when appropriate, use mediation and arbitration to resolve disputes to hold fees down, it is ultimately the client's decision. On the billing side of the equation, I think it is again a two-way street - the client has a right to expect promptly delivered, reasonable bills and our firm has the right to expect that it will receive prompt payment. The best relationships in this area will require little review and oversight by the client, such that he or she knows that every bill you submit is rationally related to the services provided. We also strive to provide timely budgets to our clients and to work within those budgets.

Editor: How have technology tools impacted communications between in-house counsel and their law firms?

To me, the biggest advantage of technology is in the e-mail context. The ability to send drafts that the client can review/edit on screen saves everyone time and money. It permits us to get documents before clients more promptly and receive a response just as quickly.

Prague: E-mail is both a blessing and a curse. It's a great method of communication but I find that it sometimes is used too often to replace a phone call or face to face meeting. In addition, cell phones and pagers have made it much easier for us to communicate with each other, especially when one of us is traveling in another time zone or country. This has been especially beneficial in working with our international colleagues.

Editor: Alan, do you have any practical tips for corporate counsel when negotiating billing and payment arrangements with their law firms?

Keep it straight-forward and simple. From the firm's perspective, we need to have some rate flexibility to attract certain clients. On the other hand, we must protect the financial integrity of the firm's billing structure and recognize that it is not always fair to offer one client a lower rate than others. I also believe it is important to let the client know who they will be getting up front. I like to personally service the clients I have retained. Having said that, I also like to match skills and abilities with the particular project. Clients rightly expect me to staff particular tasks with an eye toward minimizing costs while ensuring first-class legal service. I avoid having multiple attorneys work on the same task. Also, given our firm's breadth of expertise and our voluminous brief and research bank, I do not have to re-create the wheel every time a research issue arises.

Editor: How do you see techniques for managing relationships between corporate counsel and their law firms evolving over the next five to ten years?

As technology advances, we may see more use of technologies like video conferencing in day-to-day communications. One thing which is unlikely to change - even with technology advances and the consolidation in the law firm environment - is my interest in developing personal relationships as I mentioned before. In most cases, if an attorney has moved firms or merged his or her practice with another firm, I have continued my relationship with the particular individual since there is no substitute for the strong relationship that has developed.

Model: For the really important attorney-client relationships, nothing will replace personal trust and confidence. That is always what makes the client pick up the phone. You must stay connected, work together, partner up on the victories and defeats, and keep building the trust at all times. From my perspective, I hope to keep my attorney-client relationships from developing into simply a computer-based interaction. The personal aspect should always be the most important component. My clients know (and presumably find comfort in the fact) that I am available 24/7 and sleep with my cell phone next to my pillow.

Questions about this article can be referred to Mr. Prague at or Mr. Model at