Many clients wish to use only certain lawyers or law firms to handle as much of their legal work as possible. Clients might build strong relationships with their counsel over a long time, and clients might not trust other attorneys to provide the same work quality that their trusted lawyers can provide. However, in certain instances, it might be better for clients to hire local counsel than to have their trusted counsel travel to distant locations, especially if counsel is not familiar with the jurisdiction in which they are to provide services.
Earlier in my career, I traveled a ton for depositions and court conferences for a few large clients. Once or twice a month, I would need to travel to a city about 350 miles from my home to appear at uncomplicated court conferences on behalf of the client. Typically, it would take me all day to travel to court and return home. Not only would the client need to pay for my appearance and travel time, the transportation costs could run to thousands of dollars.
At these court conferences, a ton of local counsel appeared for numerous co-defendants in the cases. The lawyers who were local to the city where we needed to appear probably spent less than 30 minutes walking from their offices to the courthouse and had no transportation costs associated with their appearances. Of course, I loved the easy billing, and traveling was usually a lot of fun so long as there were no flight delays, but I did not understand why our clients did not hire local counsel instead of paying exorbitant costs to have us appear at standard court conferences.
Costs alone are not the only good reason why it sometimes pays to hire local counsel. Sometimes, an out-of-state lawyer can present a distraction to a court, which might not reflect well on a client. I was once sitting in a courtroom, in which counsel for dozens of defendants were assembled for a given mass torts matter. Counsel for one of the defendants stood up to argue a motion before the court and in front of all the lawyers and others who were present.
The lawyer began speaking, and he had a very thick southern accent. The judge was a very senior jurist, and he interrupted the lawyer after a short while to ask where the lawyer was from, and I believe the judge also asked why the client had sent this lawyer to argue the matter. This was all pretty distracting, and I can’t help but think this might have had negative consequences on the matter.
On the other side of this coin, I once worked as a local counsel hired by an Oklahoma-based company. We had to argue an important motion, and the company’s outside general counsel, from Oklahoma, came to town to see the motion argued. While preparing for oral argument, the out-of-state attorney said that he did not want to pro hac vice into the case since he felt that a local counsel might do a better job advocating for the client. To some extent, the lawyer may have been correct, since the partner in my office who argued the case just presented the arguments and did not need to answer questions about where he came from and why he was there.
Of course, several solid reasons exist for having one trusted lawyer or law firm handle matters even if they need to travel to make appearances and even if they might need to submit pro hac vice papers. Some clients do not want to deal with multiple lawyers or law firms for administrative purposes since it is a pain to pay and oversee multiple attorneys. Some clients might think it is worth it to hire one lawyer for more matters notwithstanding transportation costs for this reason. Also, sometimes clients believe that a particular lawyer will perform a better job than other attorneys and are willing to pay a premium for this value.
However, clients can get better value from local counsel in a variety of circumstances. Attorneys should be more willing to suggest this option if it makes sense for a client in a given circumstance.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.