A Fledgling Attorney’s Observations: How Not to Please In-House Counsel

This writeup is also available at my LinkedIn page.

Realizing I’ve been absent from making timely write-ups in my blog but I feel that being quite busy with work in 2017 represents not only myself but many of my oil and gas cohorts, especially those with work relating to the Permian Basin in particular. Like many of you I’ve barely had enough time to clock certain legal updates, as well as keep up with colleagues and contacts. Something I observed this week gave thought to writing this particular entry since it was a bit of a new experience for me (although this will be old hat for quite a few of my readers).

When I started out in oil and gas I was running title and determining ownership of interests in various West Texas courthouses.

The Reagan County Courthouse in Big Lake, Texas, where I spent the first six months of my career cutting my teeth in land titles.

I did that for nearly three years before attaining my current position with EnCore Permian, but never have had the “pleasure” of working in a law firm. Something I’ve had to learn on the fly is the artful management of external service providers and counsel – although my cohorts Bill and Rob do a majority of the outward interfacing along those lines, I’ve had an opportunity to dip a toe myself in that realm and I’m better for it. During my field landman days I would attend conferences geared toward oil and gas attorneys (and still do), and one of the panels would be composed of in-house counsel telling an audience of mostly private practitioners, as well as associates and partners in law firms, what they did and did not like from external counsel. In recalling some of those panel discussions, and through both direct experience and vicarious observation in my current role, I’ve picked up on some things and actions that would qualify as “pet peeves” for us as we try to deal with external service providers and counsel (this list is by no means exhaustive):

  1. Estimates. An estimate is a prediction of a final result based on assumptions made that are reasonable at the time it is provided, and can relate to cost, length of time, and even the likely result of a course of action. Obviously the information undergirding those assumptions can change, sometimes materially, and that is not the fault of the one giving the estimate – however, if a material change does occur that would cause the final result to materially deviate from the estimate, it should be brought to the attention of in-house counsel immediately, in person, via phone call, or written/email correspondence (in descending order of preference). We recently dealt with a bill from external counsel that was significantly higher than the estimate, which happens from time to time, but there was no “ground softening” before receiving the bill – the bill was delivered and the firm basically told us to have a nice day. It was roughly 2.5 times higher than the estimate, and a heads-up and even a quick explanation of why that was the case would have gone a long way towards alleviating the sticker shock we felt when it came in.
  2. Failure to Provide All Information. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Decisions require an appreciation for what the constituent facts and issues are, and divining what those facts and issues are depends on having all of the underlying information with which to consider and analyze. Providing part of – but not all of – that information does not allow us to intelligently make a decision, and in many cases is no better than having no information. A less esoteric and more practical example would be submission of a title report that fails to include numerous copies of the documents – this frustrates our consideration of the facts and issues related to the asset if we don’t have a full title picture.
  3. Lack of Communication. The biggest change that I think I’ve had to make is going from knowing everything about one or two things to: i) a lot about several things, ii) a little less about a dozen other things, and iii) something about the remaining things. There’s often a feeling of anxiety knowing that you can’t realistically keep track of every nuance or detail – this is where outside personnel can really shine, yet some fail to take the opportunity. Flag unexpected but important issues; provide me with an update with useful information even though I didn’t ask for one; understand what my company does and how we operate so that your work is best tailored to our needs. It is far easier for me to log daily updates on a project from an external contractor into my Gmail subfolder that may not provide much more new info, as opposed to going two weeks without an update and wondering if I’d been forgotten about (which has happened).

Before I was metamorphosed into a legal robot, I worked various customer-oriented jobs: food service, sports memorabilia store clerk, and even a stint as a lifeguard. For most of these our first duty was to ensure customer satisfaction (although a lifeguard might attain customer satisfaction in a totally different way). I think service providers, as well as associates and partners at law firms, could do a lot of good for themselves if they view this relationship as a mutually beneficial relationship between the customer (us) and the service provider or salesperson.

What are your thoughts? Have any readers (whether in-house or external) had any negative experiences that are instructive?

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