How to Avoid a GC’s Blacklist

“It all starts with ‘The List.’ Every law department has one, whether it’s a formal document or something the GC keeps in his head: a rundown of firms that the law department will not hire.” This quote from a recent American Lawyer article by Robin Sparkman, sums up a recent conversation she had with IBM General Counsel and former Jones Day trial lawyer Robert Weber. Weber is the chief of IBM’s 500 lawyer in-house legal team, and he openly admits having a list of 10 firms and 10 individual lawyers that he and his department will not use. So Sparkman sat down with Weber to discuss his blacklist, how those who are on it got there, and what others can do to stay off.

The Don’ts

Weber identified three major sins, or pet peeves that he suggests all in-house counsel avoid when trying to get on an approved list. First, do not solicit the GC’s corporate counterparts for business. Weber mentions it is fine for lawyers to go through the proper channels, and even fine for them to socialize with executives. However, it is as quick a turnoff for him as anything when a law firm or lawyer begins squeezing his corporate colleagues, or as the article refers to them, the “MBAs down the hall” for business. Next, Weber says firms should never be insensitive to the ethics of the profession. Any insensitivity or hesitation Weber senses regarding ethics results in an almost automatic dismissal from consideration. For example says Weber, “If you ask IBM to waive a conflict and the company says no, and you whine about it—bye.” Lastly, sending cold pitch letters is another big no-no. In the interview, Weber brought to light how in the days and weeks after a company is sued, many firms will send out a form letter email offering their assistance and attaching a copy of the complaint. Weber generally dislikes receiving these letters, and it is hard to blame him given the amount he receives and the lack of personal touch or direct communication. Says Weber, “When IBM legal receives these missives, the law department sends a reply asking the lawyer to list the cases she’s tried in the venue where IBM was sued. IBM doesn’t typically get a lot of responses back.”

The Do’s

The news isn’t all bad though, as there are many things many firms do well—and that he likes to see. First, lawyers should give crisp, clear legal advice. Business advice on the side is ok, but first Weber wants straight legal advice from his highly-paid counsel. Second, spend time getting to know your client, including their industry, the pressures and challenges that they face, etc. And finally, recognize the all-consuming nature of the client’s business, which as Weber puts it, is 24/7. Often this concept is overlooked or misunderstood, so Weber believes outside counsel would do well not treat in-house lawyers as if they are “in a biosphere”. This is what Weber likes to see, and what he believes he has found in IBM’s current providers. Firms on his approved list include big firms like Kirkland & Ellis, Cravath, and Hogan Lovells, employment-focused shops like Littler Mendelson and Jackson Lewis, as well as lesser-known firms like Desmarias LLP and Houston’s Yetter Coleman.

While this is only the opinion of one GC, many of the same threads ring true at other companies. Thus Sparkman closes by suggesting that outside counsel talk with their potential clients about what issues matter most to them. Any information gleaned could help keep you or your firm off of the blacklist.

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