Last week, I read the transcript of a Legal Marketing Association in-house counsel panel conducted in Toronto in late 2013. As I reviewed the panel members’ responses when asked by the moderator what they expect from their outside counsel, I was not surprised by their responses. We’ve all heard or read them before: Be responsive, don’t surprise me, stay on budget, understand my business, and know my industry. 

What I was struck by, however, was a common thread among those comments that I had not considered before. It seems that what in-house counsel are seeking from their outside counsel is empathy. They want outside counsel to understand their daily work challenges and environment, and to take into consideration the resulting pressures they are under and how legal work fits into the overall organizational goals and operating procedures at their companies. 

Not unlike their law firm counterparts, in-house counsel are quick to provide feedback, especially if they feel that their law firms “don’t get it.” And it seems that many of them feel that is the case.

Connecting with in-house counsel

If you’ve never worked as an in-house counsel, how do you credibly demonstrate empathy? 

Ask good questions. Lawyers are skilled at asking the right questions in the legal setting. Use the same skill to learn more about a day in the life of in-house counsel. What are their pressures? Which of their internal clients look over their shoulders most? What internal processes are at play?

Be an active listener. This is another aspect of being a good lawyer that will serve you well in walking in the client’s shoes. Listen for ways that your work and communication style could be modified to make their lives a little easier.

Be respectful of their lawyer “stripes.” I’ve heard in-house counsel say, on more than one occasion, that outside counsel tend to view the in-house role as somehow being less of a lawyer. Make sure that no one on your team is laboring under this notion.

Consider their internal clients. In-house counsel have the added pressure of working in a business environment, frequently reporting to business people. While they understand legal jargon, their business peers and internal clients might not. Keep this in mind when preparing memoranda, legal analysis or other work product. 

Be predictable. We all know that in-house counsel like predictability in the outcome of matters and in costs. But consider how nice it would be if they knew exactly what to expect from you in terms of availability, responsiveness, communication, project management, supervision of your team and the many other aspects of your relationship with them.

It can be challenging to emotionally put oneself in someone else’s position and then act accordingly. I would love to hear your ideas on demonstrating empathy.  Leave a comment or email me at