Lawyers’ love in? Working collaboratively with competitors

18 05 2010

Whether it’s the ongoing media focus on our new coalition government, or just the emergence of some spring sunshine, I’ve been thinking about happy togetherness this week. One of the things that used to warm my heart most in-house was when my key law firms used to work together collaboratively and effectively on projects for the company.

The panel firms thought this collaboration was going too far....

Talking about this subsequently, many private practice lawyers find the idea strange (perhaps even unpleasant): “what if the other firm dropped the ball?”, “what if we disagree and give conflicting advice?”, what about our opportunities to cross-sell?” and “surely it would be quicker/cheaper/easier with one firm?”. The short answer is of course that it just worked. However, a little more meat on that answer might be helpful.

Firstly, trust was critical to the network of relationships. I had invested time and effort in developing deep relationships with a handful of firms, and the law firms involved reciprocated this effort. These relationships were typically centred around different areas of work, geographies or specialism. The firms knew which other firms provided services in those core areas and that as long as those relationships continued to function effectively, the switching costs and loyalty involved would mean that this work would stay where it was. That fact, along with an understanding of my approach to buying legal services, meant that the firms never tried to eat each other’s lunch. That’s not to say they weren’t entrepreneurial or wouldn’t compete for work that was put out to tender, but that for the regular work, all the players in the team knew their role.

While I encouraged them to communicate, over time they began to discuss service delivery best practice, and work between them became seamless, and I think the ultimate validation came when problems did arise (as of course they would if a single firm was dealing with a complex transaction). Issues were resolved quickly and professionally, with no finger-pointing or backside covering.

Let me give an example of how it works. Let’s say I was leading a build-operate-transfer technology outsourcing deal for my company. I would lead the deal and negotiations, acting as the primary legal contact and interface with the business. My go-to commercial firm (an excellent UK practice) would be my main support on the main documents and the ongoing service provisions. this would be the firm that best understood our commercial models and licensing terms and also had the greatest familiarity with the business people involved. On the employee issues would be a niche City firm that had harmonised our terms and conditions across many jurisdictions and who knew our HR practices and attitudes inside out. The “operate and transfer” part of the deal could have some complex corporate and tax aspects which required a global firm, and our London account partner would co-ordinate that advice from their overseas offices, calling on their background working with us on acquisitions.

Revolutionary? I think not. Part of a strategic master plan? Nope. Was it effective? Yes. Were the lawyers involved comfortable working that way? Yes. Worth considering in future if you are part of a group of firms working regularly with one client? I’ll leave that with you….