Fair use of ideas in law firm proposals

When law firms submit proposals for work, they may suggest a management idea that has merit, but should your law department abscond with the idea if you don’t hire that firm (See my post of Oct. 1, 2005 about the ethics of disseminating good ideas in proposals.)?

Hard-nosers say, “Yes, absolutely, because the firms know that their ideas are not protected by some form of proprietary confidentiality. If they give you a good idea, it’s yours.” Those who disagree feel guilty that your law department takes without compensation, except the nebulous possibility that you think better of the firm and it might fare better in a later round of proposals.

The same ethical question arises when several law firms, competing to represent you, analyze a new law suit and suggest what strategies and legal arguments they might advocate. Good ideas are everywhere and once expressed can’t be taken back, but only one law firm will be selected.

I have to side with law departments on this one (surprise!). Part of competition is the risk that if you give good ideas or free services you still might not be selected, but if you don’t show your qualities, you are doomed. My belief – as exemplified by this blog – is that in the longer run, creative and go-the-extra-mile efforts pay off (See my post of July 19, 2007 on creativity as a grounds for choosing a firm.).

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