From CPR’s International Conference Last Month: How to Work Effectively with Your In-House Counsel

By Mylene Chan

During the 2021 CPR International Conference, held online Oct. 6-7, CPR’s Young Leaders in Alternative Dispute Resolution Steering Committee presented “How to Work Effectively with Your In-House Counsel.”  

The panel was moderated by Y-ADR’s Steering Committee member Elizabeth Chan, an associate at Three Crowns in London, and included Daniel Huth, Legal Counsel of Global Litigation Europe & MENA for Shell in London; Hemma Lomax, Senior Corporate Counsel, Snap Inc., in Santa Monica, Calif.; Brittany Mouzourakis, Counsel-Litigation at Detroit’s General Motors Co., and Megan Westerberg, Assistant General Counsel, Eisai U.S., Woodcliff Lake, N.J. (Links to the participants can be found on CPR’s website at https://bit.ly/3qlhryI.)

The panel’s focus was on providing advice for young practitioners on developing business relationships and working with in-house counsel. Young practitioners are often told to “think commercially” and to draft advice that reflects commercial acumen. As young practitioners gain more experience, they are expected to manage client relationships and case matters efficiently and within budget.  This panel discussed how young practitioners could gain visibility with the client, how they could understand their client’s commercial objectives, and how they could win clients’ trust and confidence.

The panel opened with a discussion on effective pitching to the client. One panelist advised that young practitioners at the pitch table should project confidence, passion, and knowledge of the subject. Even if a rainmaker is present, junior practitioners should not think of themselves as window dressing because the in-house counsel listening to the pitch wants to hear from the junior practitioners as well for other perspectives. 

Another panelist explained that the presence of junior practitioners at the pitch table underscores the law firm’s commitment to workforce diversity, which is an important criterion for many in-house counsel in selecting outside lawyers.

To raise visibility, the panelists encouraged young practitioners to find a few moments around the pitch to greet the potential clients, build rapport and to get to know the client. Young practitioners should take the initiative to interact with in-house counsel directly to create face-time opportunities, such as offering to buy in-house counsel a coffee to network.

The panelists also urged young practitioners to publish; the publication does not have to be in a formal journal but could be a blog. Many young practitioners also gain visibility through re-posting on LinkedIn and piggybacking on others’ posts. Newcomers to ADR practice should start networking early on, and one easy method is through joining relevant online communities.

In addition to finessing interpersonal skills, young practitioners also must learn how companies approach risks, including the practices that they put in place to avoid, mitigate, and remediate risk. 

The panelists elaborated that if young practitioners are cognizant of the principles of risk control, they will have a holistic view and better understanding of the company, putting those practitioners  in an excellent position to help companies resolve conflicts–which will inevitably happen–and to move past impasses.  

The panelists cautioned that in-house lawyers and company executives do not think alike, contrary to what many young practitioners appear to believe. For example, a vice president may or may not approach risk and compliance the same way as a manager.

Many young attorneys appear to harbor the erroneous assumption that companies have properly trained their staff and have the appropriate monitoring programs in place when, in fact, in-house counsel may expect external lawyers to guide companies in risk management through baby steps. 

Young practitioners should be mindful of the collaboration dynamics between inside and outside counsel so that they can contribute accordingly. When an arbitration or legal proceeding launches, the initial step is for the internal and external counsel to determine the appropriate questions to ask, the respective roles, and the documents to be collected in order to develop a case strategy.

The next step is to consider the staffing of the team, and the rule, the panel members agreed, is the broader the better. The team should ascertain the length, cost, and insurance coverage, and of course, they must discuss the assessment of the case, including the strengths and weaknesses of each claim. The panelists agreed that there should be full collaboration all the way through the matter between inside and outside counsel. 

For enhanced communication with outside counsel, young practitioners should understand that in-house counsel hire outside lawyers for their energy, expertise, and resources to facilitate decision making, so outside counsel must learn to synthesize complicated ideas and present information succinctly.

Since inside counsel may receive hundreds of emails per day, the communication must be concise and easy to digest. In such communications, young practitioners should lay out options, make a recommendation, and explain the relevant reasoning.  In-house counsel often want bullet points that they can easily parse through, not legal briefs, so that they can interface with business colleagues seamlessly. Understanding the life cycle of decision-making at companies and partnering with the in-house counsel is also critical for aspiring young practitioners.

The panelists concluded by giving their final advice for young practitioners: (1) be nosy and greedy, be a creator not just a consumer; (2) just jump in, be genuine and sincere; (3) take the initiative to be heard; and (4) distinguish oneself from the team, ask the right questions, help clients avoid surprises, and dare to challenge.

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A video of “How to Work Effectively with Your In-House Counsel” from the 2021 CPR International Conference has been posted on CPR’s website at https://bit.ly/3qlhryI.

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The author, an LLM candidate at Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, in Malibu, Calif., is a 2021 CPR Intern.

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