The True Meaning Of Partnering

Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 01:00

Editor: Could you please tell our readers about your firm's litigation practice group?

Hogan: Phillips Lytle's Litigation Practice Group has just under 100 attorneys in seven offices throughout the state. We practice all aspects of litigation, except for matrimonial and criminal law (other than white collar crime).

Editor: What are clients looking for in a partnership with their law firms?

Hogan: Clients are looking for added value. Usually, a client's outside counsel fees represent a cost center, rather than a profit center. Many outside counsel will distinguish themselves by their high quality work and positive, cost-effective results. Of those firms, the ones most thought of as partners by their clients are the ones that also add value in a variety of other ways beyond merely defending law suits. There are many ways to add value, not just by minimizing the costs to the client or maximizing the quality of services. Effective problem solving, suggesting pre-emptive or preventive measures, offering CLEs for in-house counsel, using technology to enhance communication and knowledge management, jointly supporting charitable and professional organizations, assisting with professional and new business development; there are many ways a firm's relationship can add value for a client. The bottom line is that the better the law firm is at helping a client achieve its business goals, the more value the firm adds.

Editor: Having worked with DuPont since 1944, what has been the key to this long-term relationship?

Hogan: We are fortunate to have had the relationship with DuPont for that length of time. The firm originated in Buffalo, close to two of DuPont's long time plants, and through hard work achieved lots of good results for DuPont. But the key to our relationship today is the trust we share as partners, and that trust is a product of a number of factors beyond merely the proximity of the firm and the plants. If a law firm is not responsive or accessible to its clients, they will never fully develop the rapport and level of communication that trust depends on. That trust is further enhanced when a firm, over time, develops shared values with its clients, an acute understanding of the client's businesses, and an institutional knowledge of the history of the client that even the client sometimes relies on when turnover within its own in-house counsel occurs. An outside firm also needs integrity and candor in communicating with its clients. A partnering relationship, based on trust, is unlike the relationship that often exists when the client and law firm treat the defense work like a commodity, as might occur between a vendor and vendee.

Editor: Culturally, where and when does this partnership mentality start?

Hogan: I think that a partnering mentality takes shape when the lawyers begin to focus not only on the strategy and outcome of a single case, but rather on the clients' long term business goals and coordinating the defense strategies for any particular matter with those goals. Sometimes you have a winnable case but there may be other business considerations that weigh in favor of a different strategy. Reputational risk, for instance, or relationships with critical suppliers or customers may eclipse the value of winning. How we treat our clients as partners is something we hope to instill in our young associates at the outset of their careers. We accomplish this by providing them with a chance to cultivate their own client relationships early in their careers. It is not something that always is intuitive, but through proactive mentoring by our senior attorneys and with frequent communications and other interactions with the client over a period of years, these young attorneys gradually establish the trust that is the foundation of our partnering relationship. Editor: Do you believe that clients see a difference between the service they receive from various law firms?

Hogan: Many of my clients who work with numerous firms share with me the different levels of service they receive, and what they attribute those differences to. Some firms leverage their familiarity of their clients' businesses and business goals, and the access, shared trust and rapport they have with their clients. These firms are constantly finding ways to contribute added value, however large or small, back to the client, and are the firms who are viewed as providing the best service.

Editor: What is the difference between convergence and partnering?

Hogan: Convergence describes the process which companies with large litigation dockets engage in to reduce the number of law firms, usually with the goal of reducing their legal expense. Convergences, however, do not always produce higher quality (or partnering) relationships, especially if, in the end, all the company has done is reduce the number of legal vendor relationships it manages. In true partnering relationships, you find clients and law firms that invest in each other's success.

Please email the interviewee at khogan@phillipslytle.com with questions about this interview.