Picking a law firm

On day three as general counsel I knew that we had outgrown the incumbent firm and that I would have to find and appoint new external counsel.


Brett Farrell
Brett Farrell

We needed external counsel who could advise on advertising law, financial services regulation, ecommerce, corporation law, data protection and litigation. 

I wasn’t optimistic that we would find the one firm who had all the real world expertise in these areas and a better idea was to search for two firms with complementary skills. The thing is I had never run a law firm panel appointment process. Picking a law firm is not taught at general counsel school.

Experience and instinct give you a good sense of which firms to invite into the process and perhaps some days that is all you need to make a choice about a law firm to work with. But I would need to persuade my chief exec and senior managers, who would also work with the lawyers. It was important to get their support with the initiative and to provide some qualitative objective and subjective data to support the appointment.

Applying most of the principles I had observed during a large office relocation tender process I prepared a grid setting out some objective qualities like hourly rate, rankings in law firm directories, and assessment of their key expertise in the mix of requirements. The subjective factors included reputation, fit with our team and whether they practised what they preached – ie did ecommerce/technology lawyers use technology? Write a blog maybe?

I urged the firms to be creative in their pitch responses because the company I work for is creative and, well, I didn’t want to read through slabs of pre-fab legal marketing text.

All the firms produced incredibly creative responses, one even a website. As I settled in at my desk with a coffee ready to review them all I decided to see which of them was paying attention. I live-tweeted commentary as I read the pitches using the twitter hashtag #lawyerhomework. The firms all said that they embraced technology – and they did. They were all watching and the braver firms joined in on Twitter.

The firms were scored and the blended results produced a top three out of the five firms that I had originally asked to pitch. The top five were invited to meet with us and ahead of that meeting all were asked to answer five questions that we faced at the time.

I limited each answer to two sentences only – mainly so that the firms did not spend too much time on the answers but also to see if the firms could answer a question directly and succinctly. That is after all what I needed and what I believe that most in-house lawyers want too.

Meeting the key lawyers at each firm was all that stood in the way of finalising the appointment and it felt that two firms in our case was perhaps overkill and aimed instead for one firm. All the firms were eminently competent and qualified but one firm, at the end of the interviews, was not only ahead in its market experience but simply would fit with our team better than the others.

The firm we ultimately selected through the process of investigation, scoring, pitching, presenting and meetings was the one I had thought instinctively would probably be right for us. Trust your instincts and use the data and process to confirm your suspicions are accurate.