By Claire Kowarsky
In my time as in-house counsel, I worked with many kinds of firms and found both advantages and disadvantages in different set ups. For example, where we had a difficult anti-trust question or other high-risk topic, we would seek advice from a top tier firm. However, I increasingly observed that, where possible, we would avoid using big firms, in favor of smaller and more nimble providers.
Now as a co-owner of a boutique consulting firm myself, this trend seems to be continuing as we find our size is not a barrier to being engaged by global businesses and brands.
Advantages of using boutique firms can include:
· Access to management – in-house counsel are busy, and they want fast answers from decision makers. In a small firm often the person providing the advice or overseeing the matter is an owner of the business, and thus highly vested in ensuring client satisfaction.
· Competitive pricing – with lower overheads, and less double or even triple handling of matters, big firms cannot compete with the flexible solutions offered by their smaller ‘cousins’, including fixed fees and/or preferential rates.
· Sounding board – often in-house counsel want to be able to pick up the phone and call a trusted adviser, without feeling like the call will result in a huge bill. With small firms it can be easier to have this kind of arrangement.
To illustrate, I recently participated in an intellectual property (“IP”) counsel round table event during which one of the attendees (from a leading global brand in its category) said, “We actually prefer to work with boutique firms” to which the rest of the room nodded with understanding and agreement. While I was encouraged by the counsel’s comment from a self-interest perspective, I don’t think it means that there won’t be a need or place for big firms in the future.
For some IP counsel, it may be prudent to work with a big firm who has overall responsibility for the IP portfolio and who offers a ‘one-stop-shop’ including access to its own international network of affiliate firms. However, adding a secondary provider (or several) can bring a desirable aspect of competitiveness, meaning that the firms remain ‘hungry’ for work and looking for ways to add value to their offer. In house counsel may be able to achieve better rates and service overall as a result of such competition between providers – which is exactly what their internal stakeholders are looking for too!