The Insider Guide To What In-House Lawyers Want  

“What do in-house lawyers want?” It is the question that repeatedly comes up when I speak to law firms, legal providers, and vendor representatives. 

One of the common answer to this seemingly existential question often boils down to this: “I would like my providers to know my business.” This often comes with an explanation: “I need solutions to business problems, not just legal problems because in a company every problem is a business problem.”

This discussion makes sense logically. In fact, many providers politely nod their heads in agreement when this advice is dispensed. But, practically speaking, what does “I would like my providers to know my business” mean? I went to the hosts of the Legal Ops Rising podcast to see what they’re hearing in the industry.

Kate White and Andy Peterson of Design Build Legal help law firms design and build client-centered solutions (often involving people/process/technology). They also work with in-house counsel to get more value from their outside firms.

In many ways, Andy and Kate are like relationship therapists. They teach law firms how to have new kinds of conversations with clients to develop empathy. They also help in-house lawyers develop the language needed to articulate their needs to law firms. Here’s what they suggest you do to truly understand your clients’ businesses.

Engage with Legal Operations

“Many legal departments now have a legal operations team, focused on managing the department’s finances, bringing on new technology, creating efficiencies, and managing vendor relationships,” Kate observes. “An established legal operations professional is looking at how the legal department is structured, how the legal team can streamline processes, and how they can use data to measure their own performance and that of their providers.” 

“And when your client puts someone in a legal operations role for the first time,” Andy adds, “it’s a big neon sign saying that they’re starting to think differently about their departments. It opens up a tremendous opportunity for your firm to play both offense and defense. Reach out to your contacts and set up a meeting. If you’ve got operations folks on your side, bring them. On defense, you can show that you appreciate the role of legal operations people inside of legal departments and that you want to work proactively with them.”

“But on offense, you may be able to partner with and support the legal ops person in achieving early successes,” he continues. “You may even be able to help them shape their role somewhat. That could be huge for your firm down the line when the client decides to do a convergence. Hopefully, your firm has become a trusted advisor to the legal ops function and not just another one of the hundred firms submitting RFP responses.”

Ask Different Questions

“So many of the in-house counsel and legal ops professionals we speak with are eager to work directly with business professionals on the law firm side, but they say that many of the law firms serving them are still not bringing those folks to the table,” says Kate.

As opposed to the classic “Client Service” or “Client Feedback” interviews — which tend to be about the firm, the work it’s doing, and the matters it is handling, Kate and Andy facilitate what they call “Client Insights Interviews.”

“A Client Insights Interview isn’t about the law firm at all,” Andy explains. “It’s about understanding the business challenges and operational pain points of the legal department. When do they feel like they are truly being supported by outside counsel? What are the changing priorities, new products and services on the business side that the department is supporting? Is the team understaffed? Is the department constantly recreating the wheel? These conversations, on their own, will give the law firm insight into the client’s business.”

Find Something to Partner On

The other thing a Client Insights Interview will often do is help the firm to support the client in new and different ways. “We have had firms surface opportunities to partner with clients on everything from redesigning how contracts are developed and managed to share best practices across outside providers in service of the client, to unlocking and leveraging data to identify and mitigate risk,” Kate explains. “These solutions make your firm ‘stickier,’ sure, but they also have opened up new revenue streams for firms.”

Sometimes, opportunities are unexpected. “We facilitated one of these a while back where in-house counsel said his biggest pain point was a move to Office 365 — the company was really struggling to get through it,” Andy recalls. “Coincidentally, the law firm had recently made the same transition, and because we had asked these different questions, the firm took the opportunity to send a couple of its IT people over to the client for a day, to discuss the technical and change management approach that had worked at the firm. Needless to say, the client never expected its law firm to help in that manner.”

So what do in-house lawyers want? Law firms that empathize with them, that ask the right questions, and that can see past discrete legal work and into broader ways of partnering with and supporting them. You can find out more about this and numerous other legal operations topics by listening to Legal Ops Rising, hosted by Kate and Andy. 

Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. Olga founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. Olga also co-founded SunLaw, an organization dedicated to preparing women in-house attorneys to become general counsels and legal leaders, and WISE to help female law firm partners become rainmakers. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can email Olga at or follow her on Twitter @olgavmack. 

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