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Your quick opinion?

The way external counsel deliver legal advice has to evolve with the times.

Question and answer

In-house counsel have to juggle business, quasi-legal and legal roles. They must address legal and regulatory matters while adapting quickly to transformations to their organization’s internal operations and changes in the external market. They also have to manage and filter outside legal advice. This is why external counsel need to get up to speed on how to deliver that advice to be responsive to their corporate clients’ needs.

Legal advice should be fast and user-friendly. A least, that was the takeaway from a panel of in-house attorneys at the CBA Competition Law Fall Conference in October. 

Janet Bolton, a legal advisor at TD Bank Group, said that external counsel will gain currency with their clients if they can give opinions in non-traditional formats — using decision trees, flow charts, PowerPoint presentations, for instance. More often than not, a 10-page written document isn’t helpful. “What I want is a tool that I can provide to my business,” she told attendees at the CBA Competition Law Fall Conference in October.

Neil Morgan, legal counsel at ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc., wants short answers when asking for advice regarding relatively simple questions. “Be direct. Give us a yes or no answer,” he said. “Even two pages is too long.”

And outside counsel have to be on top of everything that could affect their clients, said David Emanuelson, a global antitrust counsel at Intel Corporation. “Learn the business,” he said. “Know the business better than the business (does) itself.” By way of example, he suggested setting up Google news alerts for the client or the broader industry and then contacting the client when there are developments.

As industries evolve, they require legal advice on matters that are outside their core business. Bolton noted that banking today mixes traditional finance with advances in information technology. “When we make a change to the business, we’re always dealing with a multiplicity of regulators,” she said. If a bank is hit by a data breach, for example, it must deal with financial and privacy regulatory bodies, often at multiple levels of government.

Some industries develop more quickly than others, which can be tricky at the regulatory level. Kelly Kwan, Senior Counsel at Uber Canada, noted that ridesharing dates to only 2012, and the concept is still not legally well-defined. Because products are being developed so quickly in the industry, there is a core demand for immediacy in her role. “If you don’t give advice fast enough, even if it is not perfect, the product will launch already,” she noted.

In addition to providing timely counsel, Kwan stressed that external counsel need to give advice that fits the business of the client. “Give tailored advice. It is super frustrating to get cookie-cutter advice that doesn’t fit the risk profile or the products in that market,” she said. “Please give us what we actually want, and that’s unlikely to come from a filing from your last client.”