A former general counsel of a $100mil company wrote to me privately recently commenting on my blog post The Remarkable Inaction of General Counsels in the Face of Crisis and Budget Crunches. She offers an interesting perspective that I share here, with permission. 

Sheryl Katz has experience as a BigLaw associate and partner (WilmerHale, Bryan Cave, Perkins Coie, and Graham & James), general counsel, and business person. Here are her comments:

I read your blog post about the possibility of large companies getting sick of big firms and going to small firms. Having been a General Counsel I think this is highly unlikely as more than a minor trend.

If small firms that would do the same quality work for less were truly available, I would have farmed out more work to them. In some cases former law school classmates, or former attorneys at Wilmer or other firms that I knew, were available in smaller firms to help on matters. Sometimes this resulted in good quality work and lower bills. However, small firms often don’t have the depth of staff, so some matters that are not even necessarily that big can really only be handled by a bigger firm. Also, on a lot of transactions you really need your tax lawyer, corporate lawyer and banking lawyer to be at the same firm.

Then there is the issue of outside parties on transactions. If you are working with a large bank or Venture Capitalists or Private Equity, you may find that they want to work with a “name brand.” Often they are indifferent to the legal fees because they are not the ones paying the bills.

There are very good lawyers everywhere; there are great solo practitioners. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of mediocrity. If, as General Counsel, I had to put too much work into the project training outside counsel or fixing their work, then I didn’t want to use them again. The firm I used the most was expensive but always did an excellent job, and its associates were efficient enough that the bill was often cheaper than less competent counsel from smaller firms.

On the other hand I regularly used a small IP firm that had split off from a large mega firm. The work was consistently great and it was a bargain. But I knew the lawyers really well and before I used them I tried several small IP firms and was very frustrated.

Going to a large firm in a lot of cases is sort of like going to a chain restaurant. You pretty much know that the minimum you are going to get is going to be acceptable. And if the firm messes up, as General Counsel, you are covered. After all, you can always say “It may be a mess but Blank, Blank and Blank is reputed to be a great firm so don’t fault me for hiring them.”