Evolving outside counsel guidelines: Shaping law firm-client relationships

December 10, 2019

Outside counsel guidelines and e-billing come with a slew of issues and challenges for both law firm partners and their clients. Managing them smoothly presents a great opportunity, particularly for law firms. The core of this relationship-based business, after all, is to make it easy for all parties involved to work together.

These pain points were the central theme of a roundtable discussion on outside counsel guidelines in San Francisco, hosted by Sandpiper Partners and sponsored by Williams Lea. Williams Lea’s Managing Director, Tim Ryan, joined and moderated a panel of leaders of global law firms and corporate legal departments. The lively discussion provided unique perspectives on complex and ever-evolving outside counsel guidelines and how they are shaping law firm-client relationships.

Here are three key takeaways from the event:

Outside counsel and e-billing guidelines are evolving, making room for more negotiations and alternatives.

Gone are the days when clients expect law firm partners to just accept and comply with their guidelines. Now they look for feedback and are willing to reach a fair compromise. As one panelist put it, “Communicate to your clients the things you can and cannot do, a reasonable outcome can be expected.”

Another panelist agreed, pointing out the important role communication plays. The negotiations between law firm and client have improved so much in the past years. “There’s a maturity in the negotiation process.”

The rise in Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs) is another thing panelists and participants agreed have added relationship complexities. For outside counsel guidelines, clients are encouraging flat fees, and more AFAs are also being negotiated. Both parties want to create a fee that works, so law firms would benefit from looking at the history of their fee structures and develop ones that are more consistent or better than those from the past.

Technology helps in preventing difficulties and complications, but it isn’t the cure.

Various technology solutions have made it a bit easier for law firms to manage outside counsel guidelines and e-billing. For instance, e-billing platforms with built-in AI can track certain words in the narrative, while some solutions can capture and format various provisions in outside counsel guidelines into a one-page document to send them to stakeholders.

Managing multiple systems and formats, however, can be daunting for law firms, so robust training, particularly for timekeepers, is paramount. Training complements both the technology and communication capabilities.

Interestingly, all the panelists agreed that while these technology solutions serve as reliable repositories, they can never be a substitute for a manual review of outside counsel guidelines.

Create an open dialogue with clients and exercise good communication.

It was mentioned earlier, but it bears repeating: Communication is key. Technology is good, but sometimes it can create friction, so it’s important to keep the human element in the equation.

Panelists encouraged law firms to create an open dialogue with their clients throughout the year, to avoid creating a backlog of issues. One panelist gave an example, “E-billing systems are hard-set to automatically reject invoices, so reach out to your clients. There’s always a bit of wiggle room.”

Process refinement comes into play here, as well. When you have a streamlined process in place and designated people that a client can speak with, it shows that you value their time and you can work cross-functionally.

To learn more about how Williams Lea helps law firms overcome outside counsel guideline complexities and e-billing challenges, visit our Legal Sector page. You can also download our Trends and Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing Survey Report.

How we help

  • Manage outside counsel guidelines, e-billing and collections

    Delivering effective billing processes that strengthen relationships and get you paid faster

  • Improve secretary-to-attorney ratios

    Optimizing staff structure through centralized secretarial support

  • Access scalable resources

    Meeting evolving resource needs through flexible service models


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