Personal chemistry, individualism and communication (but not too much): What GCs told Walker Morris they wanted from their law firms

In recent years the role in-house of legal teams has expanded beyond its traditional boundaries. In-house lawyers across the board are becoming strategic partners to their commercial counterparts and are advising on the likes of ESG, digital transformation, and risk or reputation management.

This is a challenge for many in-house teams, who are already dealing with complex and consuming projects, increased ‘business as usual’ workloads, and often, all with limited resources to hand. This is a difficult situation for GCs, who can’t be expected to have all the answers, especially when it comes to specialised commercial or legal matters, but need them quicker, and more focused than ever before. Of course, one option is to engage additional expertise from external advisors.

Earlier this year, we carried out our own research to better understand what GCs really want from their legal partners and how to better meet their needs in today’s faster, leaner and generally more demanding environment. We worked with an independent researcher – Graham Archbold at Chorus Insight – to ask almost 200 senior professionals about their needs, their challenges, and their views on law firms.

So, what did it tell us?

In some ways, nothing surprising.

Some of what we heard wasn’t earth-shattering, but confirmed our own experience of working with legal teams. In-house counsel, like all other business functions, are struggling to deal with the current economic situation and controlling costs, while keeping the company in line with ever-changing regulatory landscapes. Considering the average in-house legal team is just six or seven people strong – including admin staff – it’s really no wonder this is becoming a difficult scenario to keep on top of.

The other challenge that small – or even medium-sized – teams face is a lack of knowledge specialism. In fact, it’s unlikely that even if you have a bigger team, you’ll have the expertise to cover everything. Depending on the sector, practice areas such as technology, IP and tax law are often too narrow to have dedicated in-house resources. It would be almost impossible to keep up with every piece of regulation without having experts in data, environmental law, product safety or white-collar crime but there is simply not enough room in the budget for these specialisms on the payroll in many organisations.

It’s not surprising, then, to find technical experience and quality of advice sitting right at the top of the list of ‘what GCs need’. Perhaps this tells us what we’ve always known – in-house teams need firms that properly understand their business and can see what might be coming over the horizon to fill the gaps in the in-house offering. This is where the real value of working with an external firm will come from – but that value will only be delivered if the partner firm has a true specialism on offer, and it fits neatly with their client’s needs.

So, aside from knowledge, what else are in-house teams looking for in 2023?

Turns out that people buy from people. Or so the saying goes. Our research confirms that it’s no different when choosing a law firm partner. Excellent client service is up there with the top expectations, and 32% of GCs told us they place importance on trust, but the personal relationship seems to sit centre stage as well.

We were pleasantly surprised to hear from a fifth of GCs who said that the idea that a firm is human and allows individualism is a key driver when looking at who to work with. That was music to our ears. We encourage all our people to ‘forge their own path’ – our entire culture is built around allowing everyone to bring their whole selves to work and to pursue great ideas. (In fact, when we ran a companion piece of employee research, 79% agreed that Walker Morris ‘is human and allows individualism’.)

A massive 73% said that they’re more concerned with making sure they have personal chemistry with their main contact at a firm, rather than choosing based on the whole team. As we know, it’s easier to build a closer professional relationship when you know who you’re dealing with – and can get used to the way they work – rather than having multiple conversations at once. What is perhaps less clear is how many lawyers think their individual personality is critical to the success of the wider relationship (we might ask them next).

And those relationships appear to create a longevity and stability too. On average, CEOs can name just three different law firms, while GCs can think of about seven. This shows that while GCs may have more knowledge of the legal market than others in the business, law firms still need to grab their attention and must work hard to build solid, effective relationships with them. It’s not about being distinctive or different for the sake of it either – only 2% said it was important that we do things differently to other law firms. Clearly, its the individual connections that stand the test of time.

How much communication is too much?

The research tells us that legal teams also continue to look for a service tailored to their needs. They want lawyers who keep them in the loop and communicate what’s going on but, crucially, in a way that fits with their organisation.

Stepping away from the research for a moment, our own experience tells us that assuming we should communicate with our own clients in a way that suits us, is generally unhelpful. In-house lawyers often want information that can be passed onto the business with minimal work. We’re communicating with a mix of ‘detail people’ and those that prefer a one-page visual – and everyone in-between – so there’s really no ‘one size fits all’.

But back to the research. Interestingly, one in seven in-house counsel say firms have ‘overcommunicated’ with them. The immediate assumption is that they’re thinking about the volume of communication. But maybe not. When talking generally about the information they get from law firms, we saw that people want ‘workable advice, not 14 different options’, or ‘a headline executive summary’. We didn’t dig into whether the ‘overcommunication’ meant that they’re hearing too much from law firms, or whether communication is just too detailed. We’ll do that in our next round of research. In the meantime, we’ll be sure to keep asking our clients about their particular ‘Goldilocks’ volume, format and method of communication.

Location, location, location?

A majority of decision-makers now believe that where a law firm partner is based geographically is no longer an issue. Of those we spoke to, 70% said that a firm didn’t necessarily have to be local to deliver what they need.

If we’d asked this question five years ago, we’d have got a different answer. The seismic shift toward remote and hybrid working and the improved ease of communication has undoubtedly played its part here.

However, the challenge, particularly for client partners managing relationships, is whether sufficient quality interaction and engagement can still be achieved with in-house teams, and if so, how. Thinking back to the point above – that there’s no one right way – we need to make sure we keep asking questions. Do you like Teams, or do you like to build relationships in person? If so, can we involve all of your team and, perhaps occasionally, we can just do the social thing rather than throw in the free training because, after all, relationships are just as important as CPD aren’t they?

A willingness to listen – and to act on what we hear

Feedback is the best way to understand how well lawyers are delivering what their clients want – and understand what they can do to improve. That’s one of the main reasons we carried out this research, and why we prioritise speaking to our clients regularly to make sure we can support them in the best way.

And the best way to get exactly what you need from your law firm partner? Engage. At Walker Morris, we want GCs to tell us precisely what they need from us at all stages to help them succeed. We take the time to listen, to learn and to challenge our clients on their thinking to refine what we do to be the very best it can be. That can be at our initial in-depth consultation or RFP stage, as our work continues or through formal feedback at the end of transactions. It’s through this kind of communication that we can avoid making assumptions, and act on what’s really going to make a difference. But perhaps more importantly, our ears are always open, to listen, to learn and to evolve with our clients.

It’s also important that you, as GCs, aren’t afraid to tell us if things aren’t working as you’d like them to. If our way of doing things – which we may have developed with the best of intentions – doesn’t work for you, raise the issue. We’re always happy to discuss how to make changes and save any bigger headaches happening down the line.

That’s because we want to help. We want to do what’s needed to let you handle the day-job, or free up time to do the things that really interest you and add value. And it’s through open communication between us and GCs that we can make that happen.

Stuart Ponting is a regulatory and compliance partner at Walker Morris LLP. He leads Walker Morris’ general counsel programme, Illuminate. Email:

Independent research agency, Chorus Insight, surveyed 186 senior professionals in businesses across the UK, including clients and non-clients of Walker Morris between April and June of 2023.

About Walker Morris

Walker Morris LLP is a commercial law firm that provides tailored, long term, full-service advice to clients around the world.

Our diverse collection of lawyers and professionals carry an entrepreneurial spirit and work hard to help clients forge their own paths and achieve greater success. At our firm, the owners of the business do the work. They have ‘skin in the game’ and assemble their own teams to suit each requirement. This highly flexible approach has enabled us to consistently provide the commercial and sustainable advice our clients look for.