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Best Practices for Building Strong In-House and Outside Counsel Relationships

Andie Linker

Editor's Note: Originally published in 2021, this article features some insightful lessons on building productive, engaging, and happy relationships between legal professionals working together to tackle everyday matters (and big cases, too). We invite you to read through them and take the advice to heart, especially as you plan your outreach for the new year.

Having a strong relationship between in-house and outside counsel is invaluable to legal teams. With a strong sense of partnership comes stronger decision making, better case strategies, and the ability to tackle any challenge that comes your way as a team.

At Relativity Fest 2021, Silver Lake's managing director and chief legal officer, Karen King, gathered a group of her closest outside counsel partners to discuss how to build these partnerships and what they have meant for their organizations. Karen was joined by Jon Ballis, partner and chairman at Kirkland & Ellis; Bill Dougherty, partner and chairman at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; and Julie Jones, partner and chairman at Ropes & Gray, to discuss their partnerships and share some best practices.

The group discussed four major themes around building strong relationships between in-house and outside teams: networking to begin building relationships, creating a deep and lasting client relationship, navigating challenges alongside your client, and innovating as a team.

The Importance of Networking

Julie, a networker extraordinaire according to the panelists, walked attendees through her secrets to great networking. First, Julie acknowledged what all the attendees were feeling: networking is daunting, and it can be really hard. But Julie also reminded the audience that networking doesn't have to exist only in huge events. Networking can happen in small group settings such as affinity groups, or one-on-one chats with people you want to get to know in your field.

Why invest in networking? Julie reiterated that you should never underestimate anyone you meet in your career, as they could emerge down the road as a key influencer or mentor. This is especially true of the legal industry, where one day opposing counsel can become your colleague, or someone you met years ago at an industry event becomes your client. That's why nurturing all your relationships is a key first step to building a good foundation for solid working relationships.

According to Julie, investing in relationships has important IRR (or initial rates of return) for you and your organization than a lot of our other daily work and skills.

Building Deep and Lasting Relationships

Next up, Bill walked us through his secrets for building deep and lasting relationships with his clients. Although there is no one path to how exactly you build those relationships, Bill let the audience know that it’s all about your mindset.

Both sides have to have a desire and commitment to wanting to build a relationship, as opposed to simply handing off tasks between one another. One simple way to begin? Make sure you understand your counterparts’ working styles and preferences and adjust the way you work to complement them. Putting in this effort to make collaboration more comfortable will help make it clear that you’re looking to engage with your partners more intentionally, working together more productively and positively.

When both sides truly invest in the partnership, according to Bill, a strong foundation of trust is built. And with that foundation of trust, you can accomplish a lot together.

Navigating Challenges

With your network built and trust established, you've laid a great foundation for being able to tackle the challenges that may come your way. Jon explained to the audience that collaboratively navigating challenges is not an innate skill. It takes practice—and it isn’t always comfortable. It's easier to avoid conversations, but having those conversations is vital to making your partnership more robust and effective.

According to Jon, “Honesty and transparency are vital to partnerships and relationships. Being able to transcend to a deeper level of trust and effectiveness is the only way to get to the right answer.”

Jon also acknowledged that this takes time, and the partnership needs to be nurtured for these conversations to be as effective as possible. The key to nurturing trust in order to navigate challenges is being fully honest from the onset of your partnership, and continuing to practice this throughout.

Leveraging Partnerships to Innovate

A strong partnership not only allows you to navigate challenges and establish deep trust—it also can help set your organization apart from others. With diverse teams working together to solve the legal industry's challenges, there is room for so much innovation.

Karen noted that the legal industry is filled with people who are risk averse, since many are held to a standard where mistakes simply aren’t tolerated. However, Karen noted that she “spends all day making risk-adjusted decisions and embracing, to some degree, risk.” She continued by saying that she “expects her lawyers to rise above the risk-averse nature of the job and the industry and to embrace innovation, ultimately helping move their institutions forward in a secure and responsible way that allows for strides in efficiency and accuracy.”

The panelists discussed how partnering together to thoughtfully invest in the technology that will one day transform the industry is an important component of effective relationships between in-house and outside counsel. By having the right tools in your toolkit, according to Julie, outside counsel can become a thought leader in the way they offer services to their clients—and in-house teams can see significant gains in terms of cost savings, case insights, and more.

But how do they move past risk aversion to take advantage of these benefits? The panelists agreed that it must start at the leadership level. So if you’re a people leader with the influence and authority to encourage this forward momentum in your organization, it’s time to get started. And if you’re not—it’s time to start asking your leaders about it, before your team starts to fall behind.

4 Must-Use Tips for Effective Communication with Clients and Colleagues

Andie Linker is a member of the product marketing team at Relativity.

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