By Philippe Legrez, former Michelin General Counsel
At the start of 2024, the firm would like to wish you all the best and a very happy new year.
Thanks to you, we have had an exciting year in 2023, rich in human and professional resources.
We have worked alongside you on a number of exciting projects in a wide variety of fields, in which we have worked as a real team with our clients.
So thank you for that, thank you for your trust, and long live 2024, so that the adventure continues!
At the start of the new year, we’d like to introduce a new topic (not new at all, in fact!) which deals with the question, which we believe to be essential, of what legal departments expect from their lawyers.
Of course, as the years go by and the legal, economic and technological context continues to evolve, you might think that the answer to these questions is inherently evolutionary.
In reality, the fundamentals are always the same, and we asked the former General Counsel of the Michelin Group to tell us what he thought.
We would like to thank him for sharing his invaluable point of view with us.
And, of course, your comments are always welcomed.
Enjoy your reading
What legal departments expect from their lawyers
Like all service providers, lawyers provide a service that aims to satisfy their clients’ needs as fully as possible. But do lawyers know exactly what their clients expect? Do they ask them at the start of their work what is expected of them? At the end of each assignment, do they submit a verbal or written satisfaction questionnaire to find out how the client perceives their service? Some firms do this, others forgo it for lack of time, or out of the conviction that their clients continue to appreciate them because they continue to use their services, or out of pride in not wanting to submit to their clients’ judgement.
However, a thorough and regular understanding of client expectations and their ex-ante and ex-post evaluations provides lawyers with opportunities to improve their services. By adhering fully to their clients’ expectations, lawyers have every chance of building a lasting relationship with their clients. Without knowing what his client really thinks of his work, the lawyer has no sensor, no early warning sign of the possible deterioration of his relationship with his client, and in the worst case scenario, will discover with astonishment that the client has left him without having had the opportunity to redress the balance while there was still time.
While companies expect their lawyers to be familiar with their specific needs and to take them into account in their practice, experience tends to show that companies – whatever their size and whatever their legal issues – have a certain number of basic expectations of their lawyers. These can be summarized as follows (without claiming to be universal or exhaustive):
(i) The lawyer’s knowledge of the business
A lawyer who seeks to understand his client-company (its strategy, activities, organization, personnel, etc.) will not only generally be better able to handle his client’s cases, but will also be more likely to be appreciated by his client. It is always surprising for a company’s legal department to discover that some lawyers have no interest whatsoever in the business of their client-company, or even in the business of the legal department itself.
(ii) The “business-minded” and “solution-oriented” lawyer
The company expects its lawyer to understand and defend its business issues, in other words, to find solutions to its legal problems that are favorable to the company’s economic activities. While understanding and accepting legal constraints, companies are wary of lawyers who tell them they can’t do what they want to do. Ideally, the company wants us to find solutions to the legal prohibitions and constraints it must respect.
(iiI) Technical competence
As a rule, corporate legal departments turn to lawyers, either because of a lack of expertise in certain areas of the law, or because of a shortage of in-house legal staff.
The growing complexity of the law and the proliferation of legal specialties are forcing companies to call on the services of specialist lawyers.
In certain cases, the legal department wants to be able to rely on lawyers who are competent in their specialties. The risk is that, in order to “get the file”, a lawyer may claim to be competent in a field in which he or she is not.
She expects her lawyer either to be genuinely competent for the case presented to her, or if not, to say so in full transparency and loyalty to her client, or to recommend a colleague who is competent in the matter in question.
Business times have speeded up for many reasons. Legal departments may be under pressure from their management to complete their work within tight deadlines. Legal departments inevitably pass on this time pressure to their lawyers. The ability of lawyers to meet the deadlines imposed on them is a key factor in the quality of their services.
(v) Fair pricing and predictability of fees
All legal services deserve to be paid for. The difficulty for legal departments is to pay the right price and to have a good predictability of the fees that may be charged by their lawyer.
Without going into the different ways in which lawyers are billed (essentially on a flat-rate basis, time spent and/or result-based), legal departments generally want to stay within their budget (when they have one), or at any rate not to exceed what they consider to be the approximate market price (this market price varying according to the size of the law firm, its experience, its reputation…), the wisest legal departments being aware that underpaying a lawyer is not the best way to get quality service.
Predictability of invoiced fees, especially in “long-term” cases, is important to them: they dread discovering at the end of the case that fees have been invoiced in excess of their expectations, thus “blowing their budget”. Hence the importance of establishing a fee mechanism with ceilings from the outset, and of being kept regularly informed of the extent of the lawyer’s work on the case in question.
Legal departments are often less staffed and less equipped with digital tools, legaltechs, databases and the like, than law firms. They are therefore often keen to share these tools, but also to receive training in areas where they lack legal expertise. This is a growing expectation on the part of legal departments towards their law firms.
Lawyers and in-house counsel work as a couple in the interests of the company they serve, each in their own way. As with any couple, success depends on understanding and satisfying each other’s needs and expectations. For this lawyer-company lawyer pairing to work at its best, it will also be necessary to carry out a symmetrical review of lawyers’ expectations of legal departments!