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Corporate Counsel Says Get Innovative, Get Different

Corporate counsel want service providers to get innovative and different.

Corporate counsel’s challenges have always been complex. In a dynamic legal landscape, their range of responsibilities has become more diverse. What has remained constant is rigor and vigilance to protect the best interests of their business.

Over the last few years, terms such as “innovation” and “disruption” have been bandied about within the legal sector to the point of becoming overused and tiresome. However, now more than ever, corporate counsel needs outside legal resources that provide valuable partnerships along with different perspectives and ways of doing things.

Getting this message across remains problematic. In my conversations with private practice and corporate lawyers, there continues to be a gap – that of late seems to be widening to a chasm – between what one party says and the other party hears.

For example, corporate says “value” and private hears “discounts.” Corporate says “innovation” and private hears “technology.” And, when corporate says “disruption,” private hears “the end of my practice as I know it.” 

Shrieking Into a Void … or Avoid

Is it any wonder in-house counsel feels that, at times, they’re roaring into a deaf ear of unresponsive outside counsel who are avoiding what they assume could be a difficult conversation? Is it also any wonder that rather than seeking advice from law firms, corporate counsel choose instead to seek input from other in-house lawyers?

On October 26, 2016, a panel of corporate counsel representing a range of business interests provided candid expectations of what they want from outside counsel.

They were Angela Nikolakakos, Senior Vice President, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary, Natixis Global Asset Management (Canada); Marni Dicker, Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary, Infrastructure Ontario; and, Peter Nguyen, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary, Resolver Inc.

Jean Cumming, Editor-in-Chief and Market Director at Lexpert, moderated the discussion in Toronto.

Lost in Translation

Innovation means different things to different people.

Peter Nguyen said, “It means fresh thinking that creates value.” Defining value as factors that are meaningful to him, he explained that he hasn’t seen much change in relationships between clients and firms. For example, he has yet to have outside lawyers take the initiative to visit or check in whether or not there is work on the go.

Marni Dicker said she expects innovation to involve teamwork: “I want lawyers to be my partners” and “be business-oriented rather than legal-oriented.” She also expects legal project management to be part of a firm’s service. And while she made a passing reference to reviewing Gantt charts, LPM involves more than schedules.

It answers the “how” factor of management that requires being fiercely organized and executing what needs to be done and by when along with who is best to do pieces of the work and why. LPM includes techniques such as scope definition, staffing, outsourcing, pricing, process, and communication plus tools for implementation.

For some in the legal industry, project management is a relatively – and embarrassingly – new component, but for those outside of legal, these techniques and tools have been standard issue in the business world forever.

As for Angela Nikolakakos, she said, “Innovation doesn’t have to be ‘techie.’” In her view, it’s about “doing things differently.” She suggested that firms can do this “if they listen.” Interestingly, Nikolakakos repeated “if they listen” during this part of the session so one could conclude that law firms would do well to have their ears wide open.

Their World Through Their Eyes

“Come for a visit” was the suggestion of Nikolakakos who, as the sole lawyer at Natixis has barely enough time to breathe much less hobnob at law firm-sponsored events.

She said it’s important that outside counsel gets a good sense of her working environment along with understanding the types of people with whom she works. Seeing her working world through her eyes offers one perspective and viewing it with outside eyes “will help you identify gaps I mightn’t see.” This type of gap spotting helps inside counsel to be graceful in dealing with issues that need attention and often results in work for outside counsel.

Nguyen said, “Job shadow me for a day.” In addition to his role as GC, he’s in charge of facilities. This means he deals with legal issues ranging from employment to leasing. He said, “It’s lonely out there as a GC.” That’s why he “appreciates forums where ideas can be shared with external lawyers or other clients who share like-minds.”

Cost, Resources and a Dare

“File-by-file procurement is time-intensive so we’re going with Vendors of Record,” said Dicker. Infrastructure Ontario wants a roster of firms with whom it can negotiate for work. Dicker said, “Best value is key” and that lowest price isn’t always the winner.

Being a former member of Bank of Montreal’s legal team, Nikolakakos said alternative fee arrangements were a requirement at BMO. In her current role, she has a very good sense of what things cost and expects outside counsel to “know my business. You’ll be able to price your services better.” In addition to being cost-aware, she was emphatic that “Above price is trust and respect.”

Nguyen said, “What I haven’t seen is a proactive approach when it comes to pricing. It’s same old, same old.”

In addition to wanting law firms to get busy on proactive pricing, he said that having access to a repository of legal precedents and other tools would be enormously helpful especially to in-house counsel who, like him and Nikolakakos, are a department on one. Nguyen explained that he has had to ask other software corporate counsel colleagues or rummage through Google when hunting for material.

In response to Nguyen’s request, I offered a suggestion of a US law firm that provides material and tools that could be adaptable along with a dare to Canadian law firms to follow the lead of Palo Alto-based Cooley LLP featured in an article earlier this year.

Serving clients in Silicon Valley, Cooley twigged that nurturing start-ups is a smart move. In 2014, Cooley GO launched as a resource for all businesses at all stages of the growth cycle. It offers US and UK-relevant legal and business content covering formation, financing, team building, etc., and provides tips, tools, guides and documents for free to anyone who wants them.

When it comes to getting the message that innovation means fresh thinking, listening to clients, and being business-oriented, US-based Cooley is responding big time. By providing free information and tools, the firm is a hero to its current and prospective clients with the unspoken message that it is ready to help if and when need be.

A groundbreaking move such as this would be well received and yield enormously positive returns in Canada, and there are many firms in this country capable of doing so.

Now, who will be the first Canadian law firm to get the message and do something truly innovative, and offer something like this?

This is the second of two 2016 posts featuring insights from Canadian corporate counsel. The first is How Corporate Counsel Buys Legal Services. Related material: What In-House Counsel Really, Really Wants and Being Client Savvy.

Heather Suttie is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on legal market strategy and management of legal services firms.

For 25 years, she has advised leaders of premier law firms and legal service providers worldwide — Global to Solo | BigLaw to NewLaw — on innovative strategies pertaining to business, markets, management, and clients.

The result is accelerated performance achieved through a distinctive one of one legal market position and sustained competitive advantage leading to greater market share, revenue, and profits.

The effect is accomplishment of the prime objective — To Win.

Reach her at +1.416.964.9607 or

3 responses to “Corporate Counsel Says Get Innovative, Get Different”

  1. The great thing about boutique law firms is their ability to respond nimbly to clients’ immediate crises, and to find creative solutions for their clients, including “non-traditional” fee structures. Excellent lawyers, excellent service, less overhead.

    • Cat-like agility and flexibility tends to be a factor for boutique firms. Thank you, Marg, for adding your voice.

  2. Great article, Heather.. agree wholeheartedly that innovation doesn’t have to be technology focused..much of what I see has to do with business process re-engineering, idea sharing, creativity training, LPM, BPO, standardization and making things simpler, leadership buy-in/acceptance.. I could go on and on..

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