How’s Your Relationship (with Outside Counsel)?

By Jane Paksoy

It’s the start of a new year and a new decade. Perhaps you’ve reflected on the time leading up to 2020 and have made some resolutions to better yourself in the new year. Maybe you want to better your relationships with your family, friends, colleagues, or yourself. But what about your outside counsel?  After all, it is an important business relationship; colleague, advisor, direct report all in one. How are you going to strengthen that relationship?

So, as we begin a new year and new decade, it is a good time to ask yourself: How’s your relationship with outside counsel? What could you be doing differently?  We scoured our colleagues (and friends) for some practical advice to get you moving in the right direction.  Consider this your relationship advice, from your friends in-house and outside:

Courtship is important:

Please take outside counsel up on our offer to visit your office or please invite your outside counsel to come visit you at your office. That way, you have an opportunity to show your outside counsel your business operations, introduce them to your team, and it is a great way to get to know your outside counsel outside of work. – Sharita Whitaker, Partner at Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan, LLP

Make sure you align on values:

Level of inclusion of diverse attorneys is particularly important in determining who we will engage. Notice I said your level of “inclusion”. And that is because many companies, like mine, are concerned not necessarily with how many diverse attorneys you have in your employ, but how included your diverse attorneys are in the work for which you’ve been engaged. That signals to me that diverse attorneys are valued and supported at your firm, which is what I look for when gauging a firm’s level of diversity AND inclusion. – Day Matthews, SVP of Legal and Compliance at Local Government Federal Credit Union

Become trusting partners:

Work with your outside counsel to help them understand the important aspects of your job and how outside counsel’s advice may be of specific use to you and the company’s objectives. When outside counsel understand how an individual project fits within the overall goals of the company, the outside counsel can be of better service to both you as in-house counsel and to the company. Trusting relationships lead to better counsel for everyone. – Rashad Morgan, Shareholder and Intellectual Property Attorney at Brinks Gilson & Lione

But don’t get too close:

It’s nice to be friends with outside counsel but the only thing that really matters is their competence and dedication to you as a client. If you’re unable to have a difficult conversation with outside counsel, then you can’t be objective about their competence, performance, or rates. – Jon Olefson, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Syneos Health

Someone has to play bad cop:

Really good outside counsel will understand why they’ve been engaged by in-house counsel. Sometimes in-house counsel knows the “answer” and just wants outside counsel to say “no” so the in-house counsel doesn’t have to be the only person telling the businessperson they can’t do something that they think they want to do. An outside lawyer who is willing to tell a businessperson something they don’t want to hear can be a valuable partner for an in-house lawyer who doesn’t feel they have the political capital to convey that message alone. – Anonymous, managing attorney at a large global company

If there’s a problem with your business partners (i.e., the decision-makers that are not lawyers) tell outside counsel ASAP. Don’t be afraid to pass the buck (“I understand, Mr. Business Person, but outside counsel says X”). My job is to make the case, both internally and externally. – Harrison A. Lord, Founder and Managing Member at Lord Law Firm, PLLC

But not bad for the sake of being bad:

Outside counsel should not be overly combative with opposing counsel. Although I appreciate it when our outside counsel is defending our position on a matter, I don’t appreciate it when outside counsel engages in unnecessary back and forth over a certain point. It suggests to me that they’re more focused on “winning” for their personal pride than on getting me the best outcome. It also means my legal budget isn’t being spent efficiently. – Courtney Thomas, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Trilliant

Sometimes you just have to move on:

Don’t be afraid to break up with outside counsel. If you get a great result but they are way over budget, they’re not meeting your parameters. Just remind them that you’re not married, you can shop around! You have to manage the situation, and you have plenty to pick from. – Jena Edelman Taft, Assistant General Counsel at Affordable Care

And you might find what you need elsewhere:

At a large law firm, you have many colleagues within your practice area you can contact as a resource. Whereas in-house, you don’t have as many individuals within your specialized area. Create a network of other in-house counsel in your “practice area” that face the same type of issues you face so you can ask for advice on interpretations of law and bounce ideas off them. – Orla O’Hannaidh, Data Privacy and Security Attorney at Red Hat

Have any relationship advice you’d like to share? Email them to or comment on the NCBA’s Corporate Counsel Section’s LinkedIn page.