In the referenced post, I described outside lawyers who communicate solely with the Legal Dept. as "myopic." The same goes for in-house counsel who insist on such restrictions. It was no surprise that this stance triggered a number of comments from readers in various LinkedIn groups to which it was published, a number of whom argued that establishing contact with business management would alienate the GC and have serious repercussions.

I can certainly understand a GC's desire to buffer management from a flood of lawyers' pitches for work. The pitches are unwelcome, and when successful create problems with managing the company's legal activity and budget.

Let me clarify a couple of points.

  • I'm saying "in addition to the Law Dept.," not "instead of." This is akin to having a relationship with a company's CEO. Sounds great, but the CEO rarely has a direct operating role, and is rarely a direct consumer of legal services. Instead, the CEO relies on a number of direct reports, and their direct reports. Likewise, the GC is the CEO of the Law Dept., charged with the strategic direction of that function, and the wise use of its human and financial resources. She'll rely on legal domain experts on her staff, e.g., litigation, M&A, HR, etc.

  • Napoleonic GCs whose paranoia causes them to prohibit outside experts' contact with their internal clients make themselves vulnerable to being blind-sided by emerging industry issues they're unaware of because they can't possibly monitor the entire industry the way that a dedicated major account team at a law firm can. That said, the dictum, "approach anyone but us and you're banned" is usually a response to out-of-control usage by the business units caused by outside firms' relentless (and often clumsy) pitching for new business. Either the business people have asked for relief from the pitches, or the GC needs to get usage and spending back under control.

Earn your way around the restriction

It's not hard for outside counsel to earn their way out of such restrictions. The operative word is "earn."

To do so, become an industry expert and approach inhouse counsel with emerging industry issues. If you keep yourself ahead of the business problem/challenge curve, the inhouse lawyer will recognize the need to engage management or others in the business units, and will often recognize the wisdom of bringing you along because you're better informed.

When we do this with law firm client teams, it ends up making the inhouse lawyer look good to his or her internal clients. (The alternative is issue-blindness.) Over time, the Law Dept regards outside counsel as a valuable intelligence-gathering resource.

No pitching

The caveat is "no pitching." On our client teams, we have a hard and fast rule: The first time you pitch someone, you've violated the trust your colleagues have earned, so you're banned from using the firm's hard-earned access to the client's executives. 

The other way to initiate relationships with management in a way that doesn't threaten the GC is to become a thought leader on a topic of significance to the industry as a whole. As a result, business execs will hear of you. Some of them will decide that you're relevant and useful, and will encourage their Law Dept to get to know you. They're not going to insist that you be hired, so there's no risk of inhouse counsel feeling like you've been jammed down their throat. It's more, "This lawyer has some useful thinking. I think you'll welcome it."

Is there anything better than being referred to someone by their client?

This concept is predicated on your interactions being based on making a relevant contribution to the discussion about helping the business succeed. Making a pitch is anathema to that.