Beauty Pageants

Business
By Wendeen H. Eolis
New York Law Journal

Looking back to a time when a high-stakes beauty contest took aim at a procession of bathing-suited lovelies, the selection of outside counsel was mostly the prerogative of a company's CEO, and a law firm got the nod mostly through the "old boys network."

Today, the sophisticated company turns to law firm beauty pageants to find the attorneys most perfectly suited to their needs. And these days, on the beach and in the Bar, beauty contest judges are looking for substance beneath the skin.

Law Firms Are Judged for the Substance Beneath the Skin

 

The law firm beauty contest is an orchestrated interviewing process. The company is the buyer. The law firm is the seller. The process allows each to take the measure of the other before becoming engaged.

Law firm candidates are generally selected for these interviews based on a prior vetting process by the company's "counsel search" team. Individual candidate names, as well as the law firm name, are put through the paces of a Lexis/Nexis or Westlaw due diligence review in advance. While company business and legal executives wisely keep their ears to the ground for recommendations, the discerning business puts them into the hopper, along with all the rest, for the same orderly due diligence review before inviting participation in beauty contest interviews.

The interview process provides the company a reviewing stand to weigh its objectives and requirements against a law firm's expertise, policies and procedures. With careful research and skillful interviewing, the beauty contest will net "the fairest of them all."

The organized pageant positions law firms center stage to "strut their stuff" and sell their wares. The savvy firm takes these performances to heart, recognizing that they are ideal mechanisms by which to offer a snapshot on the expertise and inter- personal skills that will ultimately benefit the client prospect.

A company's judges should be prepared to penetrate past the candidates' appearances - further than the canned "dog-and-pony show," deeper than the layers of the brochures and beyond the resume inserts - to determine the fit between company and firm and the individual lawyers who will play key roles in a proposed representation.

Shrewd law firm interviewers use the time slot for substantive consultations as well as for an overview of the firm. A particularly useful technique is that of asking multiple law firms to comment on a single aspect of a real legal problem to gauge its experience with the issue, the firm's interest level in the subject, and to gain insights on the variety of strategies the firm might consider.

Generally, the assembled law firm partners respond thoughtfully during these free consultations, as they are anxious to showcase their intellect and persuade the prospective client of their enthusiasm. However, there is a fine line between seeking an informal sounding board and soliciting free legal advice. Law firms are rightfully wary of potential clients who attempt to manipulate or seize a free lunch. While the company should not have to walk on egg shells and is entitled to evaluate the law firm based on concrete evidence of its suitability, the law firm's generosity in brainstorming during this process should neither be taken for granted, nor treated as gospel.

The most important criteria in selecting outside counsel are the firm's relevant experience in the applicable area; its record of successes and failures balanced against the associated costs; its level of commitment to collaboration as well as accessibility in work matters; and its timeliness, both in completion of work segments and in responsiveness to deadlines.

Most law firm suitors are as anxious to discuss these issues as prospective clients are to probe them. And, of course, on both sides there is an implicit requirement of like-mindedness with respect to matters of integrity.

The firm's management style determines who from the partnership will be on parade. One good indicator of a firm's organizational skills and cost effective efficiencies is visible in the processional of lawyers into the initial meeting. A good barometer to use in determining the ideal complement of lawyers in attendance is "one partner, one discipline." The company should be assured that the law firm's anticipated point person for the overall representation, and the key partner[s] most likely to oversee the proposed work matters in each field of expertise are marching in. While it may be flattering to see the firm's top partners and the presentation may be smoother if it is led by the firm's top marketers, the company is better served by seeing lawyers who will be on the scene in the crunch of a matter. Do not ask and do not expect to see more than one partner from a single discipline, and if the meeting is double-teamed with heavies at the law firm's initiative, question it directly. It may be the signal of what is to come in future staffing of your matters when the meter ticks tirelessly.

Look for a poised associate in each discipline to be tagging along with a walk-on part. This is a good sign, as it means that the firm has pride in its development of underlings and cost effective personnel for the breadth of your work. The success of the beauty contest is tied directly to the involvement of suitable parties at the interviewing table. A savvy interviewer will ask for a clear picture as to how the workload is distributed or assigned between timekeepers [from most senior partners down to newly hired associates and paralegals] and between time-keeping personnel and non-time-keeping personnel.

Lawyers and paralegals are generally the timekeepers and other support personnel are typically treated as part of the overhead cost. Therefore if a paralegal reproduces papers, places phone calls for lawyers, or assumes other clerical duties rather than a secretary, the task is in the timekeeper's column. Ultimately, it is essential to have the firm use its partners, associates, and paralegals at the appropriate skill level in order to control costs effectively.

A more subtle indicator of a firm's respect for cost efficiencies is its commitment to avoid excessive disbursements for nighttime and weekend support staff except in the most time sensitive matters.

The prospective client should primarily concern himself with the partners who will do major time-keeping work on their behalf. But before signing up with a firm, the company is wise to insist upon conferring briefly with any mid-level or higher associate that the firm expects to assign regularly to his matter.

It is even reasonable to meet junior associates who are likely to rack up substantial time on your behalf. No matter how proud a partner may be about the capabilities of his firm, and no matter how clearly the liabilities accrue exclusively to the partnership rather than the individual attorney, the client's relationships are with people not with entities. Despite the best laid marketing plans, few firms are engaged because of the good name of the firm alone.

The current emphasis on branding is having an effect on clients who are increasingly interested in interviewing proposed counsel based on the reputation of the firm, but they focus upon individual lawyers to determine their comfort with the firm. When several lawyers in multiple disciplines are being interviewed, they create a persona of the firm and the prospective client begins to contemplate a firm representation. When it comes down to the selection process, however, it is ultimately all about the specific people who have modeled their goods on the runway.

Over the years I have developed a five-part questionnaire, portions of which I offer as a model for the judging process. Each part is tailored to a particular objective.

General Data

These questions familiarize the interviewer with the firm's history and the background of individual lawyers. They are designed to gather crucial information about the firm's practice capabilities, including its availability for the proposed representation.

     1) When was the firm established?

     2) What are its major disciplines?

     3) Have you represented clients in this industry prior to this representation?

     4) Is there any reason to believe that my company or I could present a current
         conflict to your firm?

Performance History

This section obtains sources for corroboration of a firm's expertise.

     1) Describe some of the matters on which you have previously worked
         in which you have obtained exceptional results.

     2) Did you have to work with in- house lawyers, other law firms you
         selected or other law firms that were separately retained by the client?

     3] Are there any recent favorable or problematical articles about your
         firm? Where?

     4) Are you active in lecturing in your specialty? Where? For whom?
        [Note: One benefit of these questions is finding potential contacts
        for due diligence].

Management/Staffing

This part elicits insights into the law firm's inner workings and the partnership's general views about the role of a client.

     1) What is your plan regarding team size for our initial representation?

     2) What are the firm's policies regarding use of summer associates,
         contract lawyers, and/or part-time and temporary legal services personnel?

     3) What are your general practices in providing clients with incoming
         and outgoing correspondence in connection with their matters?

     4) Does the firm favor overseeing the administrative work related to
         a matter or encouraging the client to rely upon its own personnel to
         complete relevant administration?

Fees/Billing

These questions help educate about perspective costs and client billing policies. The matter of paralegal activities should be covered in detail, because these activities account for substantial cost of the representation. The subject of disbursements is another good topic for isolated discussion, particularly useful in sizing up the firm's sensibilities.

     1) How often do you bill? Do you review the bill with the client before sending it?

     2) Are you comfortable in providing your clients with task-based billing?

     3) Do you normally advise your clients in advance of any proposed billing
         rate changes?  How about for firm wide increases?  Associate
         graduation adjustments?

     4) What is the firm's policy on the assumption of the burden for client time that
         results from the following: turnover, skill level staffing gaps, intra-departmental
         conferences and interdepartmental collaborations?

Technology

This the final portion scans the surface of the firm's technology sophistication.

     1) Does the firm use e-mail to communicate with clients, other participating
         lawyers and/or outside professionals?

     2) To what extent has the firm invested in data security protection?

     3) Do lawyers have ready Internet access on behalf of clients?

     4) Do you have a brochure and/or Web site that would help expand
          knowledge or services about the law firm?

Once a company decides to conduct a law firm beauty contest the powers that be must figure out who to include in the process.

Most mid-size and larger companies today have an in-house general counsel. He or she is generally vested with the responsibility and authority of holding the baton in counsel selection, sometimes in tandem with a senior executive, and/or with an outside professional who possesses specialized experience in these matters.

Companies that do not have an inside legal executive are well advised to reach outside for qualified help in this effort. A business may benefit by seeking assistance from its certified public accountant, or a lawyer who has previously done highly regarded work for the corporation, or a specialized management consultant or legal fee auditor.

The ideal interviewing team is comprised of individuals who collectively bring intellectual strength and relevant practical experience to the process as follows:

     • knowledge of the legal profession and marketplace;

     • knowledge of law firm inner workings, or knowledge on how to research them;

     • knowledge of legal fee auditing principles and available software programs to
        monitor legal fees;

     • substantial experience in investigative interviewing;

     • significant experience in performing due diligence.

With an interview group that combines these skills and abilities, the company can sail through the process of finding beauties of the Bar for their businesses.