Ten rules for partners dealing with GCs, according to BT and HSBC

The first day of The Lawyer Business Leadership Summit saw HSBC associate general counsel Gary Partington and BT director of compliance Gareth Tipton call for firms to adopt ten “commandments of the general counsel”.

The pair and Jomati Consultants principal Tony Williams discussed the changing power dynamic of in-house legal teams and law firms, concluding the power has shifted in the relationship between general counsel and client relationship partners in recent years. 

With more legal service providers in the market and more transparent services and fees, today’s general counsel holds “many cards” when choosing external lawyers, they said.

Law firms can improve their chances when pitching for panel spots or specific mandates by understanding the changing role of general counsel, the new nature of in-house legal teams, the pressures of regulatory compliance and their exact legal services requirements.

The “ten commandments” of general counsel

Thou shalt know who’s boss

Not everyone understands that we are the client and that we call the shots. There’s no absolute right to a seat at the table – some firms don’t understand that.

– Gareth Tipton, BT Group chief operating officer and director of compliance


Thou shalt give less for less (sometimes)

A lot of the work we give firms is low value and commoditised. That work doesn’t need to be perfect and pioneering: it needs to be good enough. Firms sometimes forget that. 

– Gary Partington, HSBC associate general counsel

Thou shalt refer others

I once asked firms if they could do a certain job for £50,000. One firm came back to me with four sides of A4 about why they couldn’t do the job for £50,000 but could do it for £150,000. Another firm came back to me on the precise bits of work they could do really well and referred me to another provider, saying that they could do it better. You can guess which made the better impression.

– Tipton


Thou shalt know thy purpose

Firms need to be clear about why we instruct them. There is an assumption that I instruct them because I can’t do the job myself. That’s not true – I instruct them because I can’t afford to hire someone, therefore they need to cost less than that.

– Partington

Thou shalt pick up the phone

I absolutely expect our firms to pick up the phone when they see something that makes them think of us and say: “I’ve just seen this, a light bulb came on, just wanted to run it by you”. I have examples of calls like that actually changing our strategy.

– Tipton


Thou shalt tell the truth

Firms often promise more than they can deliver. And fixed price never seems to mean fixed price because there are too many conditions on it.

– Partington


Thou shalt have faith

Traditional law firms will always be important. How much we spend has substantially diminished, but our relationship is now steady and sustainable.

– Tipton

Thou shalt let other people talk

I have seen partners bring non-fee earning client relationship advisers to pitches to try and show how innovative their firm is, and then not let those people speak. That’s not showing me how innovative you are.

– Partington

Thou shalt not be proud

We want to set the bar high but we also want to support firms and work with them to achieve the best results. Firms that don’t want to work like that don’t have a long-term future with us.

– Tipton

Thou shalt take advice too

HSBC is a complex organisation. Some bits of the structure are idiosyncratic and we have to help people to understand that, and understand what might be best for our structure. I have had partners at big firms close down after I suggest we need something different. Don’t do that. 

– Partington