Zeroing in on the right kind of external counsel requires time and a great deal of savvy, writes Kiran Radhakrishnan
Engaging the right external counsel is vital for the seamless functioning of any business in today’s extremely competitive and complex world. Every business needs external legal advice and representation and depending upon how you zero in on one, they can either end up as a lavish line item or as one of the cornerstones of your company’s success.
Investing time and money in finding the right legal counsel and forging a good relationship with them is crucial, as good and timely advice is likely to keep a business on the right track and help win your case. This becomes essential when the fee incurred to stay out of trouble is only a small fraction of the penalty or cost towards mounting a defence once the damage is done.
Big firm or small?
A law firm must be identified based on the type of case and the stakes involved. Big firms, small firms, and solo practitioners – all come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. The larger the law firm, the greater their expenses, therefore the higher the fees. While working with a large law firm, it is difficult for the client to know to whom the work is assigned – will it be an associate who is fresh out of law school, a junior associate or a subject matter expert? On the other hand, a single lawyer or small law firm will usually have limited resources. With a limited caseload, legal practitioners working on their own may not be too effective in handling complex regulatory and litigation matters.
The ideal option would be a blended and mixed approach – working with a single lawyer or small firm on a regular, ongoing basis, and using a big firm for complex regulatory and litigation matters for specific, occasional, high-stake projects.
It helps to find external counsel who are familiar with the courts and also the legal framework of the area of your company’s business and litigation. This would limit the communication challenges and confusion that might occur between the company and its external lawyer. Having said that, it is important to bear in mind that most legal practitioners are not certified specialists. However, this does not necessarily mean that a specific lawyer is not an expert in a specific field, due to the lack of certification, especially when a lawyer handles a high volume of cases in a particular practice area.
Weighing the options at hand is crucial. What matters is the quality of the external counsel working on the case, not the number of people working on the matter, or the identity of the firm. So refrain from getting spooked by these issues. Before finalizing decisions on the external counsel you wish to hire, it is imperative to talk to multiple lawyers and draw a comparison, as it provides a sense of the multiple perspectives on the legal problem you are confronted with.
Points to ponder
Find external counsel preferably through professional referrals. Talk to people from your own industry and check whom they are hiring and why. This not only provides a kind of social proof to your choice, but also helps you widen your own network within the industry while you scout for options.
Have a single-minded objective and background understanding of the optimal result that you expect out of the engagement. Investing time in preliminary planning and a cost benefit analysis helps in cost optimization and resource preservation while generating substantial positive results towards the end. For example, in the case of litigation it helps with decisions on whether to settle or contest the matter, or request for mediation.
Do not hesitate to ask questions. No matter how stupid it sounds, ask a lot of questions on areas such as years of experience, typical clients in terms of industry, size and geography, prior experience in handling similar issues. Ask for references, billing methodology, discount and flexibility in billing. Whatever you do, understand precisely how you will be charged. This will help avoid all sorts of problems later on.
Map and understand the external counsel’s online presence and professional network. Explore whether the lawyer understands your business. Understand whether he or she is willing to take time and explain nuances of your business and ways to overcome them.
Lastly, do an unbiased SWOT analysis on hiring the legal practitioner you have zeroed in on. If the strengths and opportunities are greater than the threats and weaknesses associated with the person, you can work on overcoming the negatives. While it is easy to work with positives, managing negative aspects can be highly taxing at both the personal and professional level.
Kiran Radhakrishnan is legal counsel, India and South Asia, at Diversey.