Authenticity, concise answers, and direct communication with the associate or junior partner actually doing all the legal work were three resounding answers to how outside counsel can stay on the good sides of Goldman Sachs’ Alvin Benton, Energy Transfer’s Katie McNearney and Republic National Distributing’s Michelle Peak.
During a panel discussion last Friday at the Texas Minority Counsel Program’s 31st annual conference in Houston, the three high-ranking in-house lawyers went into detail on each, and also offered a plethora of ways outside law firms could immediately land in the doghouse — if not lose their business immediately.
It was also important to the lawyers that diverse associates be given the opportunity to not only work on the legal projects they manage, but to be the primary point-of-contact so that they gain client-facing experience.
“I’m an advocate for young people of color to be the [client] contact,” said Peak, who is Republic’s vice president of labor relations. “If you brought them to the pitch, they need to be on the matter.”
She said she also views it as her “in-house” duty to be vocal about specific people she wants involved: “I like this person, I want her.”
For Benton, the most important aspect of diversity, equity and inclusion is the authenticity of a firm’s approach. He doesn’t appreciate it when a firm tells him that they’re “very interested in diversity,” while the makeup of lawyers on their firm website say otherwise.
“If [DEI is] something you have to work on, say that,” said Benton, a vice president and senior counsel at Goldman.
Like Peak, authenticity on DEI also applies to who is doing legal work for Goldman Sachs. Benton recalled one instance when he learned the “non-diverse” outside lawyer he was working with was not the one actually doing the work — instead, it was a diverse lawyer.
“When I learned that, I reached out to them on LinkedIn,” he said.
More of the panelists’ pointers are below from the one-hour discussion moderated by Frost Brown Todd partner Fred Gaona.
Establishing a Relationship
Benton: Again, it’s all about authenticity. “When someone is not being authentic, I can see it. My guard will be up.”
McNearney: “It’s important to be patient and play the long game,” said McNearney, who is chief counsel of Energy Transfer’s litigation. By default, she’s not going to hire someone “who is not going to do a good job” and she likes it when outside counsel is proactive; for instance, sending notices about updates in the law that are relevant to her.
Peak: It’s a three-step process: 1) “Be authentically who you are. And I’m not going to hire you if I don’t know you.” 2) If you meet her at a conference, don’t wait until the next one to reach out. It takes her three meetings for her to remember you. Meeting for lunch, dinner or happy hour are “great,” but she also appreciates it when firms offer to visit her legal department to give a CLE presentation because “we don’t always have time to leave the office. Bring it to us.”
Greetings, you have been sued.
Benton frowned when asked by Gaona if he likes it when lawyers try to solicit business by emailing him saying “Hey, I saw you were sued.” “Do you see my face?” he replied.
McNearny and Peak also do not care for the approach. McNearny says if she was unaware of the new lawsuit, she now has an obligation to put her C-suite clients on notice. That’s not helpful if she had planned to get other work done that day and the company likely won’t be formally served with the lawsuit for another two weeks.
Instead of such notices, Peak appreciates outside lawyers knowing her expertise (labor and employment) — for instance, Department of Labor notices on new rules regarding unfair labor practices. Those sorts of notices can help her “convey the message to our internal clients about how to communicate with [the legal department.]”
How to Maintain Their Business
Peak: Communication, consistency, trust and results. And don’t beat around the bush. “When it’s a yes or no question, I don’t want a six-page memo.” When receiving updates, “the person on the matter is who I want.” She likes to be contacted by text or email.
McNearney: Communicate concisely, clearly and in advance. “I currently have 55 cases on my docket, not including other legal issues I’m handling. When you need feedback from her on a matter, “don’t be the emergency person when it’s not an emergency. Also, don’t make your administrative issues my issues. I don’t have time to learn them, and I don’t care.” The types of lawyers she is looking to hire are “very good, aggressive trial counsel. Someone who isn’t passive.”
When she’s working with a new lawyer, she likes to get on an introductory call to tell them what she likes and looks for in an outside counsel. “I like lean litigation teams, and I like to know the person. Don’t give me revolving doors.”
She also doesn’t like weekly calls, because the firm ends up “putting five lawyers on the call and they bill me. And I don’t have the time.”
Benton: Three C’s: Consistency, concision and competency. “I have tons of emails, and I try to keep my inbox clean. The presumption is that we’re all competent and know what we’re doing, but you’d be surprised.” And again, authenticity. “We have to have a relationship.”
How to Lose Their Business
McNearney: “Not being a problem solver.” For example, on one case in West Texas, the lawyer forwarded the discovery request four days before it was due without doing any research to provide more guidelines, such as, “Here’s what we don’t have that we need. Can you help us get in touch with the right people?”
Benton: “Oh my God, I would have flipped my lid.” He finds lack of productivity “unnerving” and likes to know about deadlines or get things on the schedule 60 days out (when possible).
Peak: “Blowing the deadline and not communicating about it. You’ll lose my trust.”
More Pet Peeves
Benton: “Expecting immediate returns.”
McNearney: “If you don’t listen when I’m trying to give advice. We’re the internal guides [to the business.] We’re trying to help.”
Peak: “Giving me 24 hours to review a draft that’s due the next day.”