In-house counsel slam firm performance in panel reviews as ‘complacent and lazy’

Complacency and laziness are two of the most damning charges levelled at private practice lawyers by corporate clients conducting panel reviews, leading in-house counsel have told The Lawyer.

panel people

In-house counsel have a litany of complaints around frustrating law firm behaviour, with both lawyers and their hordes of business development executives in the line of fire. 

The round-up of leading GC opinion kicks off a forthcoming series from The Lawyer, analysing the nuts and bolts mechanics of panel review processes. 

An assessment of significant reviews conducted since the beginning of the year, including Siemens (14 January 2013), Financial Conduct Authority (2 April 2013), and Colgate Palmolive (20 May 2013) shows a strong trend of corporates reducing and consolidating the number panel place available. Leading in-house counsel are pressing for enhanced services and keener fee deals. 

One leading GC told The Lawyer that one of her biggest bug-bears was “current [panel] firms being complacent and assuming that they don’t have to try because you know them and regard them so highly you will make sure they get through the process”.

Another pinpointed law firm laziness, confusion and arrogance as significant concerns. “A problem is pitch teams that don’t prepare for interviews properly. For example, not knowing the written pitch, being inconsistent, not thinking hard enough about the client and how to show you understand them and then not working out when you are boring the client and shutting up.” 

Other in-house heads of legal agreed, with one saying a top-of-the-list pet hate is “law firms that don’t read our questions properly or insist on answering the questions they would rather you had asked”.

Even when law firms and their BD departments make an effort and tone down the arrogance, they can still miss the mark. Firms are advised not to include “lots of standard marketing or business development stuff in the pitch, which is not tailored to your needs or the questions you have asked, so it doesn’t tell you what you need to know to make your decision – or it makes it hard work to find the answer”. Also coming in for criticism are “long and/or disorganised responses that take a lot more time and effort to read and mean you have to search for the answers to your questions”. 

Particularly caustic was one GC who slammed law firms for not being “open and honest about their areas of weakness”. Commented the in-house lawyer: “That is really irritating. It is very disappointing when the chat is better than the legal work. Law firms shouldn’t simply rely on their supposed reputations and their positions in the directories.” 

However, it wasn’t all one-way traffic as the criticisms didn’t flow exclusively from GCs – senior law firm business development staff at leading firms had their own list of complaints about corporate behaviour during panel reviews. 

Heading that list was the growing use of procurement staff in the reviews.

“It is always a bad idea for GCs to allow the process to be led by procurement,” said one leading City figure. “Indeed, some effectively abdicate the process to procurement. Procurement departments will prepare a load of basically generic documents, with very little, if anything at all, being tailored to legal services. What I want to see on the first page of a panel review document is a simple statement of what the GC wants to achieve by the process. Procurement teams are a help when they understand the process. But if they are only used to buying less complex products, such as stationery, it complicates things.” 

The growing popularity of on-line tendering systems also drew fire. “They are a complete waste of time,” said one senior BD specialist. “I’m convinced that the submissions are not downloaded, read and compared.” 

And there were reciprocal calls for transparency and honesty – with one law firm partner saying: “What is really annoying are clients that have absolutely no intention of changing their panel members, but just want to get a the odd stalking horse firm in to shake up the process. We’ve got a good detection system, but I’m not obviously not revealing it.”