Attorney at Law Magazine Salt Lake City Publisher John Marciano sat down with Colleen Larkin Bell to discuss her career at Questar Corporation.
AALM: Tell us about your career as corporate counsel at Questar.
Bell: I have been a member of the Questar legal department for 25 years. I was just recently inducted into the Questar quarter century club and that sounds so old! I began my career at Questar as an in-house staff attorney primarily doing entry-level transactional work and administrative hearings. Over the course of my career, I was fortunate to be lead attorney on many multimilliondollar cases that gave me tremendous experience. Our legal department has become increasingly hands-on over the years. We run a tight ship and handle many significant matters in-house.
AALM: What qualities do you look for when choosing outside counsel for litigation needs?
Bell: When we choose our outside litigation team we look at the expertise of the individual attorneys and how they fit with our culture and augment our in-house team. The old school notion that the outside firm is going to come in and take over is long gone. My attorneys work hard to manage their caseload and the approach we take is a team approach. Once the team is in place, the overall goals and objectives are established and the budget is set, we have a formula for success.
AALM: How would you describe your ideal relationship with outside counsel?
Bell: We work very closely with outside counsel on strategic matters, regulatory compliance, litigation and environmental compliance among others. It is important to develop a strong working relationship and to have mutual trust. The outside team needs to trust that the inside team has done its homework and we have put the best people forward. The inside team needs to trust that the outside team will meet deadlines, be responsive and produce quality, reliable work. We need a product that is not a law review article but instead practical recommendations and a risk assessment that can be implemented to meet our clients’ business objectives.
AALM: What major concerns does your company’s CEO or board raise about outside counsel? How do you address those issues?
Bell: The major concern typically raised by our business leaders regarding outside counsel is cost. Managing outside fees is particularly challenging when we engage national firms. We try to streamline the outside team to include only key individuals and reduce the number of outside attorneys who need to weigh in on a particular matter. We also try to do as much of the work internally as possible and then engage outside counsel to review our analysis or recommendations. We try to engage our business leaders upfront prior to engaging outside counsel, prepare a budget, plan for staffing, and discuss how the process will proceed. Getting buy-in upfront from the management team is key.
AALM: What challenges do you face when working with outside counsel?
Bell: My biggest challenge with outside counsel is managing the budget. Often, when we place a call to one key outside attorney, he or she feels compelled to consult with at least two or three colleagues to weigh in on a discussion that really should only require one outside attorney. This actually creates unnecessary tension and has a chilling effect on when we call outside counsel for quick questions.
AALM: What changes do you see in the future in regards to the relationships between the business and legal community? Bell: Businesses are always trying to contain costs. Cost containment is key to meeting net income goals especially in a competitive environment. I believe that large businesses will build in-house legal staffs to meet myriad regulatory compliance matters and to create expertise unique to that business. Small businesses will likely bargain for an outside team using negotiated rates. The days of deferring to large outside law firms and paying excessive outside legal bills are gone.
AALM: In what areas, do you believe the legal community has fallen behind the business world?
Bell: I recently hired an outside attorney from a local well-established firm. One of the senior partners told him he would likely be miserable and perish if he went in-house. While the partner was being somewhat facetious, nevertheless this old school view of in-house counsel is antiquated. Building stronger internal handson teams will be the biggest disrupter for the old large law firm model.
AALM: How would you recommend a law film maintain a relationship with their business client?
Bell: I have noticed two distinct trends with law firms. One is to assume the old school way of doing business will continue. The firm name and its named partners will attract the largest clients and the firm will be able to maintain its practice merely on its legacy reputation. The other trend is a more adaptive team approach that marries the resources and expertise of the outside team with that of the in-house team. This creates good will and ensures that the business objectives are met. Law firms often fail to understand their business clients’ business, culture and objectives. There seems to be a pervasive belief that the business will come to the firm when in fact the law firm should bring a menu of choices to the client, really learn the business of the client, and identify the attorneys with the expertise we need. The outside team needs to augment the in-house team.
AALM: What advice would you give to attorneys wishing to switch to general counsel?
Bell: When you are general counsel you are embedded with the client. You are part of the decision-making team. You are not only called upon to provide legal guidance but also to help with resolving complex business challenges. It is difficult at times to maintain a dispassionate, objective role when you are connected closely to management in strategic initiatives. There are some incredible examples of general counsels who are leading companies and bringing their analytical and thinking skills to the c-suite. But it is a role that blends legal and business strategies together. If attorneys are more comfortable in the traditional role as an attorney, interfacing daily with the local legal community, then general counsel may not be a role best suited for them.
AALM: What advice would you give to attorneys looking to win your business?
Bell: Outside attorneys who succeed at winning our business are attorneys with whom our inside legal and management teams have developed a relationship built on trust and loyalty and who really understand our various business units and their objectives. These are the go-to attorneys who respond to an email or voicemail quickly and help provide an action plan. These are the attorneys who see a problem and propose a solution and become a valued member of our teams.