What ails the GC/law firm dialogue?

One of the big, big wins to law firms and our clients is if we could get a collection of businesses to work out why you consistently hear from general counsel “law firms are not innovative enough” and you consistently hear from law firms “clients are never brave enough to do something different”. They’re both genuinely held views, with loads of examples – how can that be?’

That comment emerges not from a GC but a senior partner at a law firm, the admirably plain-speaking Pinsent Masons chief Richard Foley. As sister title to Legal Business, this magazine usually focuses on the buy-side experience. But that interview seems relevant to clients not only because it contains a number of on-point observations about the oddities of the dialogue between law firms and clients, but because it echoed many of the themes you hear from general counsel, such as talent, motivation, value, new models, technology, team-work. The clubbable Foley is a little closer in tone to the average GC than his senior partner peers but it is typical that the senior leadership of law firms echo GCs far more than regular partners in fee-earning roles.

Obviously, part of that is due to the broad nature of their respective responsibilities but I doubt it explains it all. Think of the big picture trends that get people engaged in the profession – and many industries – they are the kind of issues that Foley is alluding to and that chief legal officers frequently cite. Yet the dialogue at partner level is very different, even allowing for the appropriately tighter focus of an at-the-coalface practitioner.

Here is one possible answer. Law firms are increasingly structuring themselves, including their reporting, governance and marketing, around industries and practice group. Often that makes sense but it can create perverse results by choking off resources on the issues that get to the heart of the client experience like R&D, product development and service delivery. It’s frequent for law firms to talk of abandoning the ideas or projects that may have potentially raised a GC’s pulse because it involves the nightmare of arguing with four departments to kick in budget. And before corporate counsel get on their high horse, they should consider that in-house teams typically starve many potential areas of investment because so much of their focus is on spending huge sums of money on a) very expensive lawyers they employ and b) even more expensive external lawyers they hire.

I don’t have the answers. But after years of the profession on both the buy and sell side professing their creativity and innovative instincts with only limited progress to show for it, Foley asks an entirely valid question and one that should not always be ducked by blaming the people on the other side of the fence.