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Secrets from Corporate Counsel: What Law Firms Need to Know

Andie Linker

Law firms all over the world should start using KNIVES.

No, no, not that kind, put that away. I’m talking about the acronym coined by Beth Solomon, Karen Wagshul, and Kimberly Quan at Relativity Fest this year. Beth—who serves as senior counsel at Discover Financial Services—introduced the acronym, encouraging law firms to “be sharp like a knife” when it comes to working with their corporate counsel.

Knowledge: Know your client’s industry and know what compliance rules they’re dealing with.

New World: Understand where the practice of law is going to go next.

Innovation: Align corporate and law firm risk appetites. Show corporations which risks are worth the potential reward.

Flexibility: Be willing to bend your approaches, models, costs, and relationships.

Efficiency: Be up front about how long each will take.

Our audience built upon KNIFE in real time (flexibility!) and added a V for “versatility” and an S for “security,” thus transforming our acronym into KNIVES. But we didn’t stop there.

Karen, who serves as counsel at Allstate Insurance Company, also added that there should be a silent D at the end for diversity of skills on teams.

KNIVES[D]—and the cooperation it took to evolve the acronym—is just one of the many skills discussed during “Secrets from Corporate Counsel: The Law Firm-Corporate Relationship.”

In this session, we got to hear firsthand what corporations expect when it comes to having a law firm be their trusted advisor.

What does it mean to be a trusted advisor?

Beth, Karen, and Kimberly all agreed: Being a trusted advisor is not about the “one and done” cases with corporations, or selling a project and closing a deal. It’s about building a relationship.

Open communication, flexibility, and background knowledge are table stakes for a good law firm-corporate relationship, but being a trusted advisor goes beyond that. A trusted advisor gets to know their client and pushes them towards making the right choices on cases, based on their expertise. 

“The ultimate goal is to be authentic and to build relationships—not to close a deal or have business with a particular entity at some point in time,” said Kimberly, who leads e-discovery, digital forensics, and information governance at Juniper Networks.

Law firms should also understand that corporations are going to use multiple firms based on their case needs. It’s important that firms know what need they serve for their client—and then excel at it. Karen offered that law firms should put on their vendor mentalities and treat the relationship as such at first.

Beth added: “It’s worth having that conversation about expectations to align. It’s a good idea when you’re an outside law firm to ask questions, even if it seems like it’s not necessarily something the client is asking. Just make it all clear, because then you’ll avoid questions about billing disputes and fees at the end.”

What should your team look like?

e-Discovery is more complicated than ever before. Having technical expertise has become an important part of every case. Our panelists talked about the importance of having a diverse team, with each member of the team bringing their unique set of skills. Some types of roles they suggested having on the team were project managers and IT professionals.

“It makes more sense to bring [your diverse team] to the table, and bring them to the table often, so that there’s not any possibility of mistranslation,” Karen said. “If there’s a phone call between the outside counsel and the client, and the outside counsel gets off the phone and then calls in-house lit support and gives the incorrect instructions, it creates a series of mistakes going forward. Bring the right people to the table from the beginning, as opposed to just being an order-taker. It just makes it a lot easier.”

Not only should you have this diverse team, but you should promote it! Corporate clients are looking for this type of expertise in the field. Bring it up in initial conversations with your clients, in proposals, or while planning out your cases. Whichever way you choose to promote it, don’t forget that your diverse talent is an asset. When it comes to billing, law firms just need to be transparent about it. Show them your billing model and why billing for e-discovery skills is important to the case.

Beth added, “If you present that technical expert as a project manager who will increase efficiency, create more visibility, and answer technical questions, that’s a resource that you have that’s really valuable.”

What will the result be?

An empowered corporate attorney supported by their trusted advisor is going to, first of all, win cases left and right. But more importantly, a super case team is going to find new ways to look at cases, use technology in the best ways possible, and optimize their workflows. In a nutshell, a strong case team is going to change the future of litigation.

How do you get there? Well, as Beth so eloquently put it: “Show [corporations] your knife block!”

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

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