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In praise of... Big Law - a client-side perspective of magic circle service

Author: Tim Bratton |

17 Feb 2012 | 13:23

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If I look back at the 12 months or so I've been blogging, it is fair to say I've sometimes been a tiny bit critical of aspects of the Big(ish) Law model. Work/life balance, inflated salaries for junior lawyers and the funding by clients of high six or even seven-figure PEP levels have featured in my musings.

But this blog is in praise of Big Law. And if that comes over as at all patronising then I'm sorry, it is genuinely not meant to.

In the last quarter of last year, I worked on two corporate transactions. One was big and attracted a lot of coverage in the media. The other was small and attracted less (but still some). Both were challenging and I suppose even fun in a rose-tinted glasses after the event sado-masichistic kind of way.

We used a different magic circle firm on each project. It is on transactions like these that you really see what well-oiled machines Big Law are for dealing with the blue riband events. The raft of skills and disciplines on offer is incredible.

You want to discuss an issue with the corporate partner? You get strategic, not just legal, advice. The documents need turning - again - after a meeting which ended in the small hours? The associates turn them whilst the rest of the deal team sleeps. A last-minute tax issue comes up and all of a sudden indemnity discussions are rife? Within minutes you have the tax specialist in the room kicking around the various permutations. An obscure IP issue gets raised? And so arrives the copyright specialist. Everyone is hungry? A trainee will soon arrange for lukewarm pizza to be delivered. And all of this is done under deal pressure, under time pressure, under tired pressure, under client pressure (not me, I'm far too nice) without any complaint to the client.

Now I realise that stating this is to state the obvious. As one partner said to me recently when I pointed all this out: "well, that's what we do". Whilst that might be right, I think it is wrong to take excellent service for granted, law firm service isn't always like this. The best deal teams in law firms are not a number of expert individuals, but are a team of expert individuals genuinely clicking together as an even more excellent team.

These deals aren't easy for in-house counsel either and that might be the subject of a future blog post where I try to garner sympathy for the poor in-house lawyer's lot in life. Suffice to say, the job of in-house counsel in the run-up to signing of a big deal is to make strategic decisions, risk calls and field a crazy number of emails from the Big Law team. But that role is made easier with a strong Big Law team working with you, trying to make your life as easy as possible.

You hear a lot of talk in business about partnerships or a partnership approach. Often such talk is trite. But corporate transactions create a perfect environment for a partnership relationship between in-house and out-house lawyers. We each bring different things to the table, different perspectives, different skillsets, different personalities. But when these are combined with the entire team focused on the same objective, it can create a powerful force.

The old saying goes that nobody ever got sacked for hiring McKinsey. Well to an extent the same is true of Big Law in a corporate transaction context. And there's a reason for that. Because quite simply, they are awfully good at what they do. Whilst it is absolutely right in these changing times to challenge the status quo, to examine the way legal advice is delivered, to challenge billing models, l don't think clients should be afraid to acknowledge excellence when we see it. And this is an unambiguous acknowledgement.

This post is dedicated to any corporate associate reading this late at night looking at the hundred page SPA in front of them and wondering whether they can turn it before the 8am breakfast meeting with the client. Course you can. Good night and good luck.

Tim Bratton is general counsel of the Financial Times and blogs at thelegalbratblawg. Click here to follow Tim on Twitter.

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