To ensure outside counsel guidelines compliance, remember the three Cs

January 28, 2022

For law firms, there’s no getting around outside counsel guidelines. They’re here to stay, and over the past few years, they’ve become increasingly complex and detailed, with policies encompassing not just e-billing but cybersecurity mandates and diversity metrics.

How can law firms effectively manage outside counsel guidelines and e-billing?  How can outside counsel guideline management improve rather than deter strong client relationships? What are the best practices and technologies law firms can employ, so they can overcome operational hurdles and get paid in full and on time? These questions and more were answered at the Third Annual Outside Guidelines (Virtual) Roundtable, where Williams Lea’s CEO Clare Hart joined a strong panel of law firm and client legal department leaders. Instant polling of the more than 150 law firm attendees also provided a “pulse check” on the realities of outside counsel guideline and e-billing compliance.

Here are three takeaways that can help law firms ensure compliance and, in the long run, strengthen client relationships.

COMMUNICATION: Listen, understand, negotiate

When asked what their firm’s biggest concerns about outside counsel guidelines were, 70% of the audience answered it was understanding and keeping track of requirements and updates for each client. While it can be tedious and cumbersome, clear communication between law firms and clients can help address these concerns.

“One of the things we really focus on is to spot issues or ‘cries for help,’” a law firm panelist said. “There is a level of personal narrative and character that a client inserts into their outside counsel guidelines that come through if you look for them that we decipher and use as a step to communicate with our clients.”

Law firms can also use this as an opportunity to assert what they can and can’t do, negotiate with clients, and come to an agreement that is beneficial to both parties. The key is dedicated personal connection. One panelist recalled how that connection can make a huge difference: “If they’re sending a redline, you’re sending a redline, there’s no personal communication. Sometimes it’s solved in just one phone call!”

The clients agree. Some firms’ relationship managers have periodic meetings with their outside counsel to make sure there is a forum to discuss challenges and escalate issues. One client panelist encouraged law firms to share best practices with them. “If there are marketplace standards you are seeing so we can improve internally, if you can demonstrate things that are more sensible, then we can discuss it and make it easier for everyone.”

CENTRALIZATION: Process, People, Technology

All the law firm panelists stated they have centralized review and management of outside counsel guidelines (if not all processes, then most parts). With streamlined processes, firms can capitalize on efficiencies and focus on results. “We’ve learned along the way to centralize and make our clients’ lives easier,” one panelist said. “The more dispersed things are, the more difficult it is to comply with the guidelines.”

When it comes to monitoring compliance, technology plays an integral role. With platforms such as InTapp, processes can be automated, results tracked, and updates and notifications can be pushed to the right client matter teams. “We want to be sophisticated and do away with spreadsheets,” one panelist said. “When a client asks us a question, whether it’s about DE&I metrics or about a matter, we have a statistical response.”

Williams Lea CEO Clare Hart agreed and said that when it comes to outside counsel guidelines compliance, it’s a two-pronged approach: technology and people. “Technology is important in managing outside counsel guidelines, but people are required to make them successful, because they understand the nuances in ways that technology can’t. The right mix of people and technology is essential,” she said. “At Williams Lea, we recruit professionals with specific skills sets, and what we get is improved compliance and speed in billings and collections for our clients.”

CONTINUOUS EDUCATION: Proactive learning and guidance

Most non-compliance stems from the lawyer’s lack of knowledge of their client’s outside counsel guidelines. It’s understandable, since it’s hard to keep track of so many updates and requirements, but non-compliance directly impacts billing. In fact, when polled. close to three quarters of the audience (72%) cited invoice compliance as one of the biggest challenges related to outside counsel guidelines and e-billing.

With continuous education, the panelists asserted, non-compliance can be avoided. One law firm sends automated reminders for partners to review certain clauses in clients’ outside counsel guidelines and other relevant provisions, such as invoicing and DE&I statistics. “This way a partner can’t say, ‘well, I haven’t looked at the guidelines for eight months,’” one panelist said.

Another panelist agreed: “Attorneys need to understand that clients have outside counsel guidelines that need to be complied with. When we’re invoicing the client, let’s make sure that there are guidelines that we need to comply with before we get to that point where we’re sending an invoice out the door and it’s completely different and we’re off the mark. Continuous education is really important.”

When non-compliance does occur, it is also helpful to provide guidance and a path forward, through a sit-down with the parties involved or regular check-ins where next steps can be determined and takeaways can be shared with others.

Outside counsel guidelines, while already a standard practice, can sometimes be a source of tension. However, law firms and clients should not let a lengthy document get in the way. Instead, they should use it as an opportunity to set the relationship tone of and collaborate as business partners. Law firms, especially, should use outside counsel guidelines to get to know their clients better. As one panelist put it, “The more we know about you, the better we can interact we with you.”

To understand the factors driving law firm strategy for the next 12 months, download the eighth annual Trends & Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing Survey.

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