Evaluating a corporate law firm can be a daunting task. Not only are there thousands of options, depending on your company's size, geographic reach and specific line of business, your company also must consider the financial implications of hiring one.

Complicating matters further is that it's increasingly difficult to differentiate one corporate law firm from another, given that much of their public-facing marketing ends up sounding the same. Even in-house law firm marketers will attest that if you’ve read about one “leading law firm” claiming to provide “unparalleled counsel” on “bet-the-company” legal matters, you’ve read about 1,000.

That said, as the legal industry becomes increasingly competitive, certain law firms—large and small—are differentiating themselves in new ways that are beyond the traditional bounds of marketing a legal practice. Technology, value-driven legal services and an investment in client relationships are examples of ways leading firms are focusing resources to provide standout service to corporate clients.

Whether you are making legal decisions for a publicly-traded company or as an executive for a privately-held business, consider the following characteristics as you search for a partner that is not only able to meet your legal needs but can also do so efficiently, effectively and in a manner that complements your business objectives and company culture.

Embracing technology

Law firms that have yet to embrace technology for managing projects, collaborating with clients and storing and sharing information in a secure yet client-accessible manner are naturally going to run slower than their tech-driven competitors. While these firms may not realize the slower pace at which they are operating, their tech-savvy competitors are simply running in a higher gear when it comes to project management, client communications and so on. This differentiation is important for its impact on project timelines, fees and a law firm’s own bottom line.

With that in mind, when interviewing a firm, ask whether they have invested in client extranet capabilities, secure file sharing, collaboration tools, and project management software, each of which is intended to drive efficiencies, communications and improved outcomes. One example of this type of technology is HighQ, which provides solutions to the largest law firms in the nation, as well as mid-size firms that are realizing the need to be capable in these ways. HighQ’s collaboration platform drives efficiencies, transparency and process improvement in a manner that is visible and measurable to the client. In fact, a common denominator across the most innovative law firms in the world is their embrace of this specific type of technology.

It is fair for your company to expect the same from your outside counsel, which are value-adds that are increasingly being made possible by emerging technology. In turn, forward-thinking law firms are jumping on these new tools to modernize their approach to connecting with clients and enhance their client-focused approach to practicing law. That said, the same tools are available to your own businesses with the largest companies leading the way by deploying the same tech within their own in-house law departments.

Demonstrating a commitment to value

It is becoming increasingly easy to identify firms that are committed to providing exceptional value in their delivery of legal services. This commitment is not universal, and there is certainly a difference between firms that talk the talk and those that walk the walk.

At the highest level, law firms are investing significantly in programs intended to drive value for clients, with the leaders among these earning national praise for their efforts. For instance, the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), which is the world’s largest organization of in-house attorneys, has developed a Value Challenge program that encourages its members and law firms alike to proactively develop ways to drive efficiencies and value in the delivery of legal services.

This program has started a new conversation about how law firms can better serve their clients which, in turn, has resulted in an increased offering of alternative fee arrangements intended to provide companies confidence both in fees and in the way projects are scoped, managed and resolved.

The ACC offers businesses resources to help in evaluating and selecting law firms based on their commitment to value, with a specific focus on the following:

  • Managing outside counsel
  • Value-based fees
  • Project management
  • Value-based staffing
  • Knowledge management

By identifying a law firm that is committed to these objectives, your business will be in a stronger position to contain costs, achieve consistency in legal services ,and, refine approaches in a manner that improves overall outcomes.

Investing in YOUR business

While you may immediately think of this in terms of purchasing stock in your company, which would certainly be a nice demonstration of a law firm’s belief in a client’s product, we’re instead talking about another type of investment—evaluating law firms based on the time and resource they spend in understanding your business and specific industry.

In evaluating a law firm, it is certainly of utmost importance that you hire attorneys who have experience in their own practice areas, but it’s also a fair expectation that they demonstrate a certain savvy with yours. Some firms are taking this to heart by investing resources into studying their clients’ businesses as well as becoming active in their industry associations and professional organizations. Others are going a step further by contributing ideas and thought leadership as authors and speakers on topics of concern to these groups.

For instance, a healthcare organization evaluating whether a law firm is truly invested in the healthcare industry can assess whether they are involved in a meaningful way with a state hospital association or perhaps by contributing to its healthcare association publication or sharing ideas as a speaker with the American Health Lawyers Association, an organization comprised of healthcare attorneys from across the nation.

Again, these are only a few ways to spot law firms that are standing out from the crowd in terms of providing exceptional and efficient service to their clients. And this list is certainly not comprehensive. In fact, two of the most important measures of a law firm’s value are its experience in the area of law in which you have need for counsel and its strength in managing—building and maintaining—client relationships.

With the latter in mind, as your company considers performing this type of evaluation, start with a conversation with your existing outside counsel about their plans in regard to each of the above strength categories.