Nearly 1,200 attendees packed the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida, late last month for the Legal Marketing Association’s annual gathering.
The agenda was filled with programs exploring niche areas — ESG guidance for firms, the science behind rainmaking, and DEI communications best practices, to name a few.
A keynote by the author Laura Gassner Otting and networking events like an ’80s dance party helped round out the three days of professional offerings (and good vibes).
“The energy and sense of community at this conference was unique, motivating and palpable,” LMA President Roy Sexton wrote on LinkedIn.
One perennial LMA favorite is the general counsel panel, and this year’s drew inspiration from daytime TV.
Presented on a festival-style stage, “How to Win Big at the Legal Marketing Gameshow” saw Jennifer Dezso of Thomson Reuters leading three GCs through a wide-ranging discussion of what law firms are doing right and what they’re getting wrong.
Here are a few takeaways.
GCs Want Outside Counsel to Be Curious
If there was one clear theme throughout the panel, it’s that private practice lawyers who show curiosity about their clients will score big points with general counsel.
Peter Nguyen, GC of the Descartes Systems Group, described curiosity as the key differentiator in evaluating the law firms he works with.
“I want to have that engagement,” he said. “I want you to really understand — want to understand — what it is about my business that you can help us with.”
This curiosity is often central to the value law firms provide.
That’s because general counsel aren’t looking to just get answers to legal questions. They want guidance based on an organization’s unique goals and circumstances.
“Sometimes lawyers are a little hesitant to actually weigh in and give an opinion on what you should do,” said Jodi Trulove, general counsel at Bates White LLC. “We want you to tell us what you think we should do, but you have to understand us first.”
For law firms looking to demonstrate this trait to potential clients, the RFP process provides one big opportunity.
Fender’s general counsel, Aarash Darroodi, described receiving template-based RFP responses from law firms — an approach he called “fundamentally a mistake.”
Instead, he would like to see a law firm respond to an RFP with an offer to come look at the company’s operations in-depth, gaining a better picture of his organization before a proposal is prepared.
“First of all, it shows initiative on your part. It shows the fact that you care,” he said. “And plus, it shows us that you’re going to submit something that’s directly related to our existing organization.”
GCs Are Actually Fine With the Billable Hour
Don’t believe the hype around the end of the billable hour. But do know that general counsel are closely watching how it is implemented.
Nguyen said he has no problem paying for his lawyer’s time — particularly coming from a company that charges for professional services.
But he is also wary of “getting nickeled and dimed for minutiae.”
“I’m happy to pay for a partner to spend their time on my file,” he said. “I don’t want 10 associates researching the same matter.”
Darroodi had a similar take, saying the mere fact that he’s being billed by the hour isn’t a problem — but that the billable hour’s implementation can be.
GCs May or May Not Enjoy Socializing With Their Outside Counsel
When it comes to client events and law firm communications, it’s important for firms to remember they’re ultimately dealing with individuals.
As such, opinions can be all over the map.
“I don’t want to spend time with my lawyers,” Darroodi said to laughter, comparing the idea to hanging out with his dentist.
He would, however, be happy to join a lawyer for a nonbillable visit to discuss his company’s business operations. He also urges outside counsel to get to know their clients as individuals.
As an example, he noted his own Persian background, saying he’d welcome a Persian New Year greeting but has never received one.
Meanwhile, Trulove said she sees the value in client dinners and events, but would also look for ways to improve them, while Nguyen noted the benefits of discussions with external counsel outside of formal settings.
Views on law firm communications were similarly varied, with panelists discussing personalized outreach, targeted client alerts, and even text messages as preferred options.
At one point, Deszo jokingly interjected: “It’s almost as if clients are individuals who have unique preferences.”
GCs Will Continue to Focus On Diversity
In response to a “fill in the blank” question, Darroodi described law firms as “misguided” on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
He noted his own organization’s push for improved DEI — both internally and among outside counsel — and what followed in his interactions with firms.
Darroodi described Zoom calls with law firms where diverse lawyers would join the call but “simply nod.” He eventually reached out to one such lawyer — a sixth-year associate and Ivy League graduate — to find out why.
“After 25 minutes of peeling back the layers,” Darroodi said, the associate confirmed that they were asked to only sit in on the call, but not participate, in response to Darroodi’s request for a diverse team.
Darroodi described the scenario as “fundamentally wrong,” adding later that he bases law firm hiring decisions on these types of issues and wants to see firms improve business development training for diverse lawyers.
Nguyen, who described firms as “behind” on diversity, also focused on business development, saying law firms must develop their pipeline.
“My team is diverse in many ways, and I want my service providers to reflect that as well,” he said.
Trulove also noted that law firms have a long way to go on DEI, but said she does see things improving.
“In-house counsel are pushing law firms to do better, and I have seen some improvement in that regard.”
GCs See Big Potential in Generative AI (but Can Be Wary of Its Use)
Like just about everyone else, the panelists expect AI to eventually change legal work, mostly through streamlining more routine tasks.
Nguyen noted that his own use of ChatGPT has already changed his practice.
“I really encourage my team to use ChatGPT, but to figure out the boundaries around it,” Nguyen said.
He hopes law firms will do the same, leveraging technology to speed up their operations, while freeing lawyers up to pursue high-level tasks and deliver better value.
Figuring out the quality controls in legal work, however, was an area of concern.
Trulove noted ChatGPT’s tendency to provide inaccurate information, adding that if a law firm were using it, she would like to know exactly how it’s being used.
AI is “evolving significantly and has a lot of risk to it,” Trulove said. “And so we’re looking very closely at when it would be appropriate to use it.”
Darroodi noted a “skunkworks” team in his organization that helps them stay at the forefront of technology trends. It’s a particularly important goal when it comes to artificial intelligence.
“As I always say, AI doesn’t grow linearly, it grows exponentially,” he said.