A recent BTI Consulting report on how inside counsel select outside counsel arrived in my inbox just prior to a no-agenda, relaxed lunch meeting with a General Counsel.  The BTI report indicates that inside counsel rely almost not at all on directories such as Martindale-Hubbell and Chambers, but rather on a combination of informal networks, reputation, peer referrals and (private practice) attorney referrals.  A colleague and I used BTI’s report as a springboard to ask direct questions about how Inside Counsel really find and engage new firms.  The conversation confirmed BTI’s findings to a large extent. 

“Why,” the General Counsel asked in response to a question about how new law firms really break into the rotation, “would I make a change when the relationship is strong, the firm has a good reputation, the skills are on-point, the quality is high, the response is timely, and the price is within reason?”  Answering his own question, he mentioned that he always has a small number of new firms in the back of his mind – firms that he will engage when he sees a fit between his own needs and his perceived understanding of new firms’ strengths.  Among the reasons he keeps a mental list of potential new lawyers/firms:

  • reluctance to put himself in the position of relying on only one or two firms
  • keeping those primary firms on their toes (he lets them know that he always is “looking around”)
  • having fallback options when insurmountable conflicts issues arise with existing providers

He indicated that at any given time, he may be considering finding ways to work one firm, or two, into the rotation and that new opportunities may arise for them six months, a year or more after he first begins developing relationships with them. 

Sales efforts, he said, are one component of his awareness of new firms, but that’s not the whole story.  More important, he said, are the opinions of peers in the inside-counsel community and his own first-hand evaluations of lawyers and law firms in settings such as public business and community service events. 

I have heard that there are more than 80,000 private-practice lawyers at scores of firms in the DC-metropolitan marketplace where this General Counsel operates.  Knowing that only one or two new firms will be given a tryout in anything resembling the near-term, the odds of getting into the rotation are daunting.  For law firms, what to do?

  • Take extraordinary care of existing client relationships
  • Ditto potential client relationships
  • Counter the long odds of being engaged by any one potential buyer by initiating and nurturing a multitude of relationships with far more buyers than you currently do
  • Make sure that the execution of that first assignment (not to mention all subsequent assignments) is commensurate with the difficulty in landing it.  See first bullet point.