In our latest 60-second interview, Blake Morgan partner George Panteli talks to The Lawyer about the impact of the pandemic on client – law firm relationships and the importance of having a community of like-minded people to call on. This is in line with the concept behind the Counsel+ initiative, a networking forum for in-house lawyers to link, learn and lead.

Has the pandemic changed client – law firm relationships?

In truth, we won’t know the full extent of the impact until we’re totally out of it. It’s been an incredibly testing time for all businesses but I hope the client-law firm relationship comes out of it stronger as both sides have stood shoulder to shoulder navigating through completely unprecedented times for everyone personally as well as professionally.  In that way, COVID-19 has been a completely different experience to the last financial crisis.

George Panteli

Personally, I’ve never felt more part of our client’s businesses. And I’ve probably never worked so hard either! The pandemic has pushed us to work in a different way, at a different pace, come up with new solutions, and go above and beyond on a daily basis.  As in-house lawyers have been pulled in different directions, law firms have had to adapt, scale up and call on their wider knowledge and full service offering to plug the gaps. The pandemic has hugely accelerated what we do for clients and magnified where we add value.

Coming out of this, for many, the relationship between clients and their legal advisers will be one of even greater trust and better communication.  People are more honest in crisis mode, and feedback is more forthcoming and immediate. This means you can cut to the chase much quicker and really home in on what the need is. We’ve had more access to other parts of our client’s businesses during the pandemic too and can see more of that happening in future.

But clients are also now going to want to see law firms become more agile and innovative outside of a crisis situation. The expectation is there now, and that’s exciting.

As a firm, do you see value in building close relationships with clients outside of official panels?  

The pandemic was a new experience for everyone – there was no precedent to fall back on. So the only thing businesses could do was talk to one another and compare notes.  It’s highlighted the importance of having a community of like-minded people, and a strong network to call on – which might be outside of official panels. As lawyers, it’s in our DNA to like solving problems and delivering solutions, and the starting point to that is always to understand the marketplace and its challenges. Speaking to people who aren’t necessarily your clients, and understanding what others are doing in a certain sector or field, is an important part of that.

It’s also just common sense. While you might be on a panel for three or four years, your relationships are always with the people – and it is these that can really stand the test the time, and open up future opportunities. People move and take up different roles. Businesses can also have a very specific need in between tenders, which lies outside of their panel firms.  I really can’t see why any law firm seeking to develop their business wouldn’t see the value in building and maintaining close relationships outside of official panels.

What was the thinking behind launching Counsel+ and what results are you seeing so far? How is it benefiting GCs and their teams?

I spent two years working as an in house lawyer before joining Blake Morgan, and that gave me a valuable insight on where the gaps are.  Your network is more limited – an in house legal team is never going to rival the scale of a law firm, and evolves very specifically within an organisation and its culture.

So Counsel+ is a way of bringing in-house lawyers together to hear what each other are doing.  But it’s more than just a networking forum. There are three key principles – link, learn and lead. And we’ve had fantastic feedback on our learning resources and seminars so far too. The programme offers training, aimed specifically at in-house lawyers, which might not be provided within a non-legal organisation – for example, negotiation techniques, public speaking, or managing risk management within business.

Ultimately, Counsel+ is there to give GCs the opportunity to learn from others, share industry best practice, and identify market trends. And also support their junior lawyers with building their own networks while getting valuable training and new skills.

Why did you choose to work in the legal sector?

It probably had something to do with reading a lot of John Grisham growing up and thinking that one day I could be the next Jake Brigance.  A better question would be why, when life as a commercial lawyer proved to be quite different from my childhood dreams, I have stayed in the legal sector all these years.

As a non-contentious lawyer, I enjoy the transactional and problem solving nature of the role. Certainly as a more junior lawyer, I liked the idea that my specialist knowledge and skillset was needed and valued by clients seeking to convert a broad commercial agreement with another party into a suite of legal documents which delivers the desired commercial objectives while also providing robust protection should things not go to plan.

As my career has progressed however, I tend to get involved a lot earlier in the process, working more collaboratively with clients as an extension of their internal teams to help structure transactions and overcome obstacles to help their business get to where it wants or needs to be.  This is definitely the element of my role I now find most rewarding, not least because of the longstanding relationships I have made with businesses and individuals who I hope now view me as a trusted adviser more than lawyer.