Alt Legal Connect Session Summary: What In-house Clients Really Want and How to Deliver It
Alt Legal Team | October 29, 2020
On Wednesday, October 28, Lynne Boisineau of Boisineau Law moderated a panel discussion with in-house attorneys Sejal Patel Richbourg of Shutterstock and Sofya Nadgorny of Warner Music Group and former in-house IP paralegal Susan Milloy, “What In-house Clients Really Want and How to Deliver It.” During this session, Lynne posed a number of questions to the panel to understand the inner workings of the in-house and outside counsel relationship and how they can work together most effectively.
First, Lynne asked the group about what outside counsel can do to make life easier for their in-house clients. Sofya said that getting to know your client and preferences from the get-go is so important. For example, if you know that your client has renewal in the next year, give them the head’s up so that they can work it into their budget. Sejal echoed Sofya’s point and said at a small/medium-sized business like Shutterstock, getting too much information and too in-depth is not what they need. They need counsel that can get on their level, set practical deadlines, provide relevant information, and understand their business needs. Sejal also added that it’s very important that outside counsel meet their in-house clients halfway and ask specifically what they need. This approach goes a long way!
Next, the panel discussed different types of fee structures and what they prefer. The panelists began by mentioning that the subscription based model is something new and sounds interesting. This was the subject of another session at Alt Legal Connect, “Building a Subscription Practice” so it was really top-of-mind for many of the conference attendees and presenters. Sofya said that she is mostly accustomed to flat rate billing, but her primary concern is that billing is done fairly. She does not feel it is fair when she’s billed .1 or .2 hours for each mark for one email that mentions multiple marks – it’s situations like that where it’s easy to feel taken advantage of. She advised that in-house clients get quotes for big filings and perhaps try out several firms to compare costs. Additionally, she suggested that a way to improve the relationship with outside counsel is to establish flat rates for as many pro forma matters as possible. Sejal said that she appreciates when she can communicate with outside counsel about the budget she’s working with and what she needs to accomplish. It helps her initiate a discussion asking outside counsel: what can you offer us within this budget without having to make hard decisions that will impact our portfolio? For Sejal, she has to be very mindful of her budget and she appreciates when outside counsel can come up with flexible arrangements. She noted that the subscription model seems particularly interesting, or perhaps initiating a blended rate or capping fees on certain types of work, so that when junior attorneys are working on a project, bills don’t climb excessively.
Lynne then turned to discuss how outside counsel handles docketing. Susan mentioned that she had worked at a company with lots of historical trademarks and many of the files were not in great shape. There were many mistakes to be cleared up and there was significant value in having humans review the files. Sofya agreed and added that she likes that Alt Legal allows outside counsel to access a docket. She said it’s good to work with outside counsel to find discrepancies and that it’s a way to self-check. Sejal echoed Sofya’s sentiments and said that as a small team with a small portfolio, the smart dates in Alt Legal are crucial to her and her team. She trusts the dates in Alt Legal and feels that she has a go-to resource where she can cross-check information with outside counsel. She also uses Alt Legal when collaborating with patent counsel. She has her patent counsel docket her company’s patent matters in Alt Legal and feels that it’s crucial for her to have that capability.
Next, Lynne asked the panel about their preferred method of communication with outside counsel. Sofya started off by saying that business people don’t care about legalese, so she prefers that legalese be cut out. She also recommends that outside counsel angle their advice towards her goals, not towards all potential goals she might have. It’s especially helpful if outside counsel can pre-empt and know what her goals are and set forth the practical risk and not just the legal risk. Sejal and Susan echoed Sofya’s comments and reiterated that it is so important for outside counsel to understand the client’s needs and goals.
The next topic of discussion was how large and mid-sized firms advise in-house clients differently. Sejal noted that for her company, she felt boutiques really have the opportunity to shine. She acknowledged that big firms often offered very generalized advice, that her business concerns weren’t translated well, and she wasn’t getting the tailored approach and advice that she was looking for. Sejal felt that she wasn’t able to trust a partner at a large law firm who she was working with to make decisions on her behalf because he didn’t truly understand her business. Sejal said that she ultimately went to work with a smaller boutique firm where she felt comfortable deferring certain decisions and asking to be included on other decisions. For Sofya she also enjoyed working with boutique firms, especially for niche matters like UDRP disputes. She noted a particularly negative experience with big “white shoe” law firms, expressing frustration with the firm consistently filing applications and receiving office actions – she felt that there wasn’t enough effort to ensure that the application went as smoothly as possible and that the firm didn’t understand the nuances of her business. However, she acknowledged that big firms truly excel with their experience and history in working on licensing and agreements.
The panel then discussed the importance of response times and expectations. Sofya admitted that she’s laid back and generally doesn’t demand an immediate response. She said that her default expectation is that communications should be responded to within 24-48 hours unless there is a deadline or she indicates that it is urgent. However, Sofya acknowledged that this is an important point of communication and counsel must establish expectations. Sejal agreed with Sofya’s comments and said that response time is dependent on subject matter, particularly if there’s something that she needs to do, she’ll need some lead time. Sejal also noted that as in-house counsel, she makes a point to let her outside counsel know when an immediate response isn’t necessary, for example, when a weekend response isn’t required! Sejal brought up an important point, that she really does not appreciate when outside counsel comes to her and says, “We need a response in a week, or we can file an extension.” For Sejal, this is frustrating because it means paying an extension fee, but more importantly, it makes her wonder if her outside counsel is paying attention to the docket deadlines.
Next, the panel moved on to discuss pet peeves and firing outside counsel. Sofya said that she’s only fired a firm once and it was because of billing practices. Invoicing is a huge pet peeve and any way that outside counsel can make it simpler and save time is greatly appreciated. She said that she doesn’t typically outright fire a firm, but if she doesn’t like how the firm works, she just won’t work with them and will send her business elsewhere – it’s more of a phasing out process. She suggested that if you notice in-house counsel phasing out your firm, try to engage with them and determine if there’s something you can fix. Similarly, Sejal commented that she’ll phase out firms if they don’t meet her expectations and follow her team’s outside counsel guidelines. She noted in particular that she doesn’t want to see junior associates doing the work and being billed for partner work. Also, of particular importance for Sejal, her outside counsel must have a basic understanding of her business. Lastly, in terms of firing outside counsel and moving to a new firm, Susan mentioned that it’s important not to forget the paralegal who has to do the dirty work, transferring everything to a new firm! It’s not a comfortable experience.
The final topic of discussion was whether to work with a large firm or a boutique firm and where to find outside counsel. Lynne cited a story where she was working with a large firm in a foreign country, sending them $20k worth of business each month. When she in turn sent them a large bill for a matter she worked on, the firm fought her on it leaving such a bad taste in her mouth that she pulled her entire portfolio and gave it to a small boutique. Additionally, she cited an instance where she got business from an opposing counsel on a matter that was resolved quickly and amicably. It’s another great way to get to know people! Sofya spoke about how artist name searches were a pain point for her and she wasn’t getting the results she was looking for with large firms. After a productive phone call with one of her artist’s attorneys at a small boutique firm in California, she decided to try him out. She said that overall she’s sending work away from big firms and using firms she already works with and getting introductions from people she already knows. Sejal echoed Sofya’s comments and said that it can be futile trying to find a large firm that understands her business needs. She said that she appreciates when she’s working with a firm on a matter and gets an email saying, “We noticed XYZ issue and you only have so much time to respond to it.” She felt that emails like this show that the outside counsel is on top of their client’s business and is taking the opportunity to address an issue that hasn’t been addressed or to help make something happen. She noted that this has happened in at least one case and she’s been using this firm ever since.
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