After several years in private practice, I had the good fortune to find a role as an in-house counsel. Although the hours are about the same, the work is certainly different. As the sole attorney in a company with many activities, I regularly engage outside counsel to assist on a variety of things. My years in private practice have given me insight into how an outside counsel’s organization works, including an understanding of law firm politics. I think this makes me a good client, since I am better attuned to firm workloads and tend not to give unreasonable deadlines or make demands. More importantly, I realize I am not the attorney’s only client and that the attorney’s priorities may not always align with mine.

That being said, I tend to set the bar rather high. Lawyers are in the service industry, and I want to receive good service. At one of my prior firms, for example, we did not have clients. Rather, we had customers. I think that is an important distinction. While quality of service may be in the eyes of the beholder, I believe there are some objective matters that most can agree constitute quality services. In my years in-house, I have seen and experienced the entire spectrum, from bad/poor to outstanding. Needless to say, those who fall in the bad/poor end of the spectrum do not see a lot of repeat business from me.

Without further ado, I present my five rules of engagement that provide me the high level of service I look for.

Treat me like the managing partner.

This is the first and most important rule. If the managing partner sends an email request, how long does it take you to respond? Your answer doesn’t need to be substantive, but at the very least I would expect that you acknowledge receipt within a few hours or a day at the latest, letting the managing partner know when he/she can expect to receive a substantive answer (to the extent your initial reply is not substantive in nature). If you have worked on a specific transaction with the managing partner in the past and several months later come across a news article relevant to that transaction, I would similarly expect you to share that article with them. These are just two small examples of how to make the managing partner appreciate you. And what is good for the managing partner is good for the in-house counsel.

Don't bill me for every little thing.

My battery in my car key recently died, and I could not figure out how to open the key to replacing it. I stopped by my local garage and was on my way within 10 minutes with a new battery. However, the garage neither charged me for their time nor for the battery. That is great service and will make me want to go back there for (billable) work again. Similarly, if I send an email inquiry on a matter unrelated to any ongoing transactions that takes a very short time to attend to, or if we have a quick chat on a similar topic, please do not send me a bill afterward. Yes, I know, you are selling your time, but I consider such “courtesy” time as having already been factored into your hourly rates.

Be transparent in your billing. 

Staying with the garage analogy, if I take my car to the garage to have the tires replaced and then receive an invoice for that work as well as a new carburetor, I would be mildly annoyed, to say the least. If the carburetor needed fixing, the garage should have called me first to confirm that I wanted the work done. Similarly, if we are working on a large transaction, don’t throw all available associates at the project so when I receive your invoice, it contains names of attorneys I never dealt with. If you feel the project needs additional resources, let’s have a discussion about that. Please also make sure that your narratives are sufficiently descriptive of the work. Like any lawyer, I tend to work on a number of different matters simultaneously, so when I get your invoice a month after the matter has ended and the narrative just says “discussion with client and follow-up,” I will in all likelihood not remember what that discussion was about or what the follow-up was. That, in turn, makes it very difficult for me to approve the invoice, and I end up spending a significant amount of time going through my emails and calendar entries for that day to figure out what the discussion was about and whether it really warranted two and a half hours of your time.

Notify me if we get close to the estimate.

If we have agreed on an estimate, you have to let me know once we get close to reaching it. I don’t ask for estimates for no reason. When we agree on an estimate, I will need to factor it into the budget or seek approval for the costs. If you then fail to notify me that we reached the estimate, and weeks later I receive an invoice in excess of it, I am going to have a hard time getting the invoice paid. If I go to the florist and ask for a bouquet of flowers for 100 euros and the florist then wraps a beautiful bouquet and asks me to pay 150 euros, you can be sure that I would simply turn around and walk out of the store.

Don't make me chase you. 

If we agreed that you would deliver a product to me by a certain date, you need to make sure you meet that deadline. If for some reason you get tied up with something more urgent (which can happen), you better make sure to let me know that you will be late on delivering what you promised. If you do delay delivery to a different date or time, then you need to do everything in your power to make sure you do not miss the deadline a second time. This may sound like Attorney–Client Handling 101, but you would be surprised at how often this tends to happen.

Along a similar vein, if I send an inquiry, I expect to hear back from you shortly after sending it. Again, as per the first rule, your response doesn’t need to be substantive in nature, but I would rather not spend time or Internet bandwidth sending an email to ask about the email I sent last week or even two weeks ago.

I could add many more rules and expand my list, but, as you may have noticed, they all have a common thread. Namely, the first rule: treat me like the managing partner of your firm. Be attentive. Be proactive. And above all, be service-minded.