The Top 7 Questions To Ask Your Law Firms In 2021

Steven O'Donnell |

2021 was transformative – to say the least. In the world of Legal Operations, discussion ricocheted from issue to issue:

  • From COVID-19 to remote working;
  • From the increasing fiscal pressures on legal departments to outside counsel/resource performance benchmarking;
  • From diversity/equality initiatives to strict enforcement of sexual harassment policies.

Despite all the noise, one of the core topics prevailing year over year? The relationship between corporate counsel and the law firms/servcie vendors they employ. As we turn the corner into 2021, let’s take a collective deep breath and assess which of these issues truly affect that core relationship.

To get started, we’ve identified the top seven questions you should be asking your firms and vendors in the upcoming year.

How are they ensuring cybersecurity?

The confidential information you share with outside counsel is only as secure as the law firm itself. All ethical obligations aside, what processes/ procedures/ technology/ risk mitigation steps have your firms put in place to secure your information? With the breaches of Target, Equifax, Verizon, and Uber hitting the daily news, this was a dominant topic in 2017 – one your firms cannot ignore.

More and more corporate entities are vetting their vendors carefully with detailed security questionnaires, requiring proof of insurance to cover breach notifications. And a significantly higher investment is predicted in this area in the upcoming year.

Survey: What Do Legal Professionals Expect from 2021?

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How are they preventing sexual harassment?

What do you do when your “bet-the-company” litigation is spearheaded by your “go-to” law firm relationship partner – one who is suddenly sidelined by allegations of sexual harassment? #metoo revelations are popping up in all industries, and law firms are not exempt. A few good recent sources on this?  “A Look Back at Sexual Harassment Claims Against Legal Leaders” and “Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”.

Your firms should be proactively determining internally how to prevent such scenarios, how to handle the PR challenges if they occur, and how to counsel your own company on prevention measures. Are they going to be doing a good enough job of preparing you for any fallout from such a risk?

Are they embracing innovation?

This is not a new topic, but one that has seen more focus in the last year. Recent news indicates that firms, especially big firms, are increasing their investment in innovation efforts – from R&D labs to innovation committees to think tanks. But as one commentator suggested, smaller incremental changes can be more effective than “big ideas” that go nowhere. Firms need to be willing to experiment and iterate to determine which ideas provide the best results. Questions you should ask of your firms:

  • What innovations did you actually implement in 2017 and how are you measuring their success / or failure?
  • How do such innovations enhance the services you provide, and what benefits are passed to your clients? For example, are you open to AFAs or risk sharing arrangements and how can they be a win-win for both of us?

Are they deploying Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Speaking of innovation, does the term “AI” send you into economic bliss or strike fear into your heart of hearts? How are your firms – and vendors for that matter – reacting to this new technology? “AI” has been defined as anything from predictive analytics to a replacement for human intellect (including the provision of legal advice).

While recent surveys found that 50% of legal departments were not at all interested in bringing AI on board, there are specific areas that may gain useful ground more quickly, such as e-discovery, cybersecurity monitoring, contract management, and invoice auditing.

What metrics are they tracking?

Business intelligence, dashboards, and KPIs were also popular buzzwords in the year past, and will be in the year ahead. Metrics can inform anything from cybersecurity compliance and innovation opportunities (above) to values (such as diversity goals below). What measures are your firms tracking to identify successes, failures, and areas for improvement?

As one astute commentator suggested, if your firm’s main KPI remains the number of billable hours (over other values such as client satisfaction and retention), it is unlikely that the firm will be focused on increased efficiency or innovation.

Are they making diversity a priority?

This recurring issue has also seen a recent resurgence, especially considering the #metoo movement. What are your firms doing to foster diversity in their attorney and leadership staff?

One GC famously laid her cards on the table a few years ago, and her example is being followed by much of the corporate world:

“In order to emphasize the business imperative to make meaningful strides in diversity among our law firm partners, HP has implemented a ‘diversity holdback’ mandate. With this we can withhold up to 10% of all amounts invoiced by law firms that do not meet or exceed our minimal diverse staffing requirements. … I am counting on your courage and vision to support both the letter and spirit of the ‘diversity holdback’ provision. We hope it will serve as a meaningful tool to improve diversity in our organizations and on our working teams.”

What are they doing to improve the client-firm relationship?

All of the above questions relate in one way or another to the client-firm relationship.  Asking them actually can open up opportunities for client and firm to come together on common ground, to the benefit of both parties. Perhaps the most meaningful step to advance these initiatives?  Collaborative dialogue. 

Thus, we end with two questions to be asked of both the client and the firm, and a quote:

  1. Can you, as my business partner, articulate my company’s (or my firm’s) top business drivers?
  2. What can I do to help you with the above and help strengthen our relationship?

One thing your law firms should bear in mind?  That by addressing all these questions, they’ll enable a stronger relationship with corporate legal departments.

“By collaborating with their clients, fellow partners, and the firm’s marketing professionals, lawyers can take the steps towards building a more functional and stronger firm – one that will grow and secure long-lasting client relationships. It’s important for firm leaders to understand the importance of a collaborative culture and to take the steps necessary to incentivise partners to work together in establishing their own working model of successful – and collaborative – business development.”

Deborah Brightman Farone, founder of Farone Advisors LLC, at The Legal 500.