Understanding clients’ needs: The core of successful compliance to outside counsel guidelines

November 08, 2019

It’s no longer a debate of whether US law firms have to live with outside counsel guidelines. Law firms, big and small, need to comply with these increasingly complex guidelines, from working with prescriptive budget rules and contractual duties to dealing with multiple e-billing systems and custom practices across a gamut of clients.

These critical challenges were the main theme of the Second Annual Outside Counsel Guidelines Roundtable in Chicago, hosted by Sandpiper Partners and sponsored by Williams Lea. Williams Lea’s Managing Director, Tim Ryan, joined a diverse panel that featured law firm and client legal department leaders. The law firm clients shared a unique viewpoint on how they use these outside counsel guidelines to manage multiple aspects of firm relationships.

Here are the top three takeaways from the event:

Outside counsel guidelines are an opportunity to strengthen partnerships. Listen, learn, and understand each other’s needs.

Law firms and their clients are two different breeds and prioritize outside counsel guideline components differently. One panelist remarked: “95% of the time, law firms focus on conflict and risk management, while clients’ focus tends to be on budgets and staffing.”

Another panelist described outside counsel guidelines as the roadmap for the kind of relationship a client expects to form with their law firms. These guidelines can be challenging and restrictive, but they also form a framework of how to work with clients – how they would like law firms to approach certain aspects like e-billing/ billing, cyber security, anti-bribery, and accruals.

Law firms should look at outside counsel guideline issues as opportunities to talk and collaborate with clients, whether it’s to align interests or reach a compromise. Partners need to be aware of their clients’ strategic priorities and understand their pain points, so they can they can add more value to the relationship.

In the end, when it comes to outside counsel guidelines and e-billing, clients just want to – as one panelist put it “work with the right firm at the right price on the right matter.”

Law firm business is relationship-based, and more technology won’t replace human interaction and communication.

E-billing software advancements have led to the automation of outside counsel guideline compliance. Additionally, various technology packages have allowed firms to take advantage of newer software solutions that enhance their existing system functionality in support of e-billing and guideline compliance.

The panelists all agreed that technology will never replace the interaction between law firms and clients, and that as more tasks and functions become automated, clear communication – the foundation of any relationship – can’t be sacrificed to technology. Both parties should work to develop multiple lines of communications and involve more stakeholders in the relationship, whether they’re in operations, e-billing/ billing, or support. These stakeholders should also know their counterparts on the other side. This way, partners can focus on the delivery of the core legal services they are hired to deliver.

Processes across many outside counsel guideline activities remain a challenge, but can be streamlined and improved.

The clients were clear that the law firms that work harder to comply with outside counsel guidelines are the ones that have better client partnerships and retention. It follows then that process improvement directly benefits stronger compliance and, ultimately, client relationships.

With this in mind, law firms should improve and refine their e-billing processes, from intake and routing to centralized review and management. Education is also key: Partners should be educated on how tasks like e-billing are done, so they are aware of these operational challenges and the impact on outcomes such as reduced overhead and lower DSO periods, once they are resolved. Billing and finance teams need clear access to, and understanding of, all the components of outside counsel guidelines so they can provide the most effective support for partners.

Once law firms streamline their processes, they will be able to capitalize on efficiencies and build a stronger, more results-driven relationship with clients.

Find out more about how Williams Lea helps law firms navigate the realm of outside counsel guidelines by visiting our 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

  • Align skills of support staff

    Upskilling support teams to thrive in a digital-first era

  • Improve secretary-to-attorney ratios

    Optimizing staff structure through centralized secretarial support

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