Two of my friends, Bruce Heintz and Nat Slavin, both experts in interviewing corporate law departments and clients, reacted to my post on client interviews on behalf of law firms (See my post May 19, 2011: pros and cons of partners or consultants.). I have merged and shortened their comments and avoided individual attribution.
Both consultants strongly disagreed with my comment that consultants might not know much about the business of the client being interviewed. They both stressed that professional preparation for such interviews dictates that they bone up extensively on the client. They might, indeed, better understand the industry and its environment than would law firm partners. Moreover, “We, as consultants actually have a much broader experience in interacting with business and tend to know about a multitude of industries than does the typical law firm partner.”
There was also disagreement with my view that a consultant might “aggregate” or “conceal” the specifics learned in interviews. One of them, particularly, takes great pains to “relay all of the law department’s concerns, with specific attribution, back to those individuals at the firm who can take remedial action.” He then added: “In contrast, after a busy partner of the firm completes his/her interviews (possibly scattered over a long period of time), the ‘message’ to the correct recipient partners may get shortchanged.” The other chimed in: “A partner has inexperience, little training and no systematic approach or methodology to delivering the information, and also has biases that come through. They also don’t have accountability to deliver clear and precise messages that an outsider does.”
The veteran consultants raised two points I had not considered. “The latitude granted to a law firm partner regarding who may be interviewed at the client might be narrower than if a third party were employed. For example, a General Counsel, wanting to maintain control of the relationship with a law firm, might not want one of the firm’s partners to meet with the CEO. Or, in the case of lower-level interviewees such as working-level lawyers or managers, the client may not feel that it’s fair for them to be interviewed by a firm’s chair, because of the disparity in their relative positions. However, when I conduct the interviews as an independent consultant, it seems very natural to corporate clients and, hence, I’m usually given the opportunity to meet with whichever executives or managers the firm suggests might be appropriate.”
One person singled out speed. “Using a third party gets the interviews done, often within two to three months of designating which client is to be interviewed. In contrast, by the in-house route, the availability and, sometimes, the foot dragging of the firm’s personnel – both on the part of the Relationship Partners and those who are assigned to complete the interviews – often stymies progress.”
In the course of rethinking these points, I also realized that I had overlooked costs. Out-of-pocket cost certainly could be said to be a disadvantage of consultants, but no partner’s time is free. In fact their hourly opportunity cost may be much higher.