In-house lawyers urged to police external firms

IN-HOUSE lawyers must assert vigorous control over external lawyers and should involve their business colleagues in their company's legal affairs, an in-house conference heard.

Lawyers who gathered at the Law Society earlier this month to discuss relationships with external lawyers spoke of the need for a flexible but strictly policed working relationship with outside firms.

A crackdown on overstaffing and the use of trainees by law firms, monthly billing and greater use of regional firms where access to more senior lawyers was easier were some of the tactics suggested by a panel of experts.

But in-house lawyers were also encouraged to resist the temptation to try and handle all their company's legal affairs themselves, denying their colleagues any input.

The speakers were: Peter Coleman, former director of legal affairs at Grand Metropolitan Estates; Julian Collins, former C&I Group chair and British Coal pension schemes solicitor; Bill Mackie, group solicitor and company secretary at Wates Building Group; and Peter Styles, vice-president of Enron (Europe) and Bacfi vice-chair.

Coleman said he had made great use of regional law firms while working for Grand Metropolitan. “I wasn't getting junior lawyers, I was getting partners,” he said.

He added it was vital the promises of external lawyers at the start of a relationship were put to the test through regular and strictly policed reporting procedures.

“Never allow them the luxury of slowing business down. It is only because of you that they've got the job,” he said.

Collins said monthly billing was the most practical way of keeping control over costs.

He warned in-house lawyers to watch out for overstaffing and the use of trainees for work which effectively transferred the cost for training over to the business.

Discussing the particular problems faced by in-house lawyers working on their own, Mackie warned against becoming too possessive about contact with external lawyers.

He said the directors whose company was embarking on litigation were taking the risks and had a right to be involved.

“To insulate businessmen is to deny them business opportunities,” he added.