Blue Circle head of legal Richard Henchley has realised a 10-year ambition – working alongside his key external legal adviser, he has come up with a comprehensive set of guidelines for steering the approach to legal work.
The seven-page guide, produced by Henchley and his City lawyers Slaughter and May, lays down the framework in which the firm should operate for Blue Circle Industries.
The document – unlike a legal services agreement – goes beyond the usual 'dos and don'ts' of billing, and sets out written guidelines for communication, consultation and generally serving the needs of the client.
“There is nothing peculiar in what we have agreed. The difference is that clients don't usually express what they want in this way,” he says.
Five years ago, it probably would not have been possible, but now the atmosphere has changed. Clients are more discerning when it comes to picking their legal advisers and law firms are keener than ever to respond to their needs. Henchley's initiative is an example of the growing sophistication of the relationship.
“If we went back a few years lawyers would not consider it was their clients' business to ask for this kind of thing. But now in any working relationship it is important to define what each expects of the other,” he says.
“It may be the case that lawyers are providing services which aren't wanted and are failing to provide services which are wanted,” he adds.
Slaughter and May's senior partner Giles Henderson agrees: “It is an important part of legal services to be client-driven. Flexibility is the name of the game and you have to be responsive to the individual circumstances, requirements and wishes of the clients.
“In this instance, what is unusual is the depth of the discussion between the client and provider in the whole of the relationship. The document is only one aspect of that. We feel some pride in the way this started with the client, but involved us responding positively and carrying it through.”
The catalyst for producing the guidelines was Henchley's appointment as head of Blue Circle's in-house team earlier this year. The guidelines were a key part of his review of legal services after he joined the company from Rolls Royce. But he says he had been thinking about it for about 10 years.
Part of the understanding between Blue Circle and the firm is that Slaughters will carry out a “kick-start” – a quasi audit – reviewing processes and materials in the company's legal department on a pro bono basis.
“It's very useful to have a fresh look at your systems. It's what a big firm should be doing for you,” says Henchley.
Nor will Slaughters be charging for its quarterly reviews – a series of briefings which double up as a feedback forum and an opportunity for future legal developments to be discussed. The reviews are the initiative of the City firm which offers the service to some of its other clients. Henchley says the meetings are one example of Slaughters' positive response to developing the lawyer-client relationship.
The guidelines for billing also include fixed estimates for regular types of work and a retainer which will cover items involving less than an hour's work. Henchley is convinced that commercial organisations are as frightened of sky-high legal bills as “the man on the street” and this can discourage them from seeking advice.
The retainer lets the company have its legal needs assessed and enables the law firm to demonstrate how it can assist in a given situation – without risk of billing. This guarantees legal input at an early stage.
“It will give Slaughter and May the opportunity to do work which might not have otherwise come their way,” says Henchley.
As part of the agreement, Blue Circle expects its external lawyers to take a positive and pro-active approach. The “can do” mentality has now been put in writing and the lawyers are expected “not to raise a problem without suggesting a solution at the same time”.
Henchley wants to ensure his advisers think ahead and take the business perspective – that they seek to really get inside the Blue Circle culture.