Product Summary: Corporate Purchasing Project: How S&P 500 Companies Evaluate Outside Counsel

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The Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession’s (CLP’s) mission is to make a significant contribution to the modern practice of law by increasing understanding of the structures, norms, and dynamics of the global legal profession. In pursuit of this mission, CLP conducts rigorous, empirical research on the profession, implements new content and methods of teaching legal professionals at all stages of their careers, and fosters bridges between the global universe of legal practitioners and the academy. To learn more, visit the Center’s website.

Post by Bryon Fong, Assistant Research Director (HLS Center on the Legal Profession), and Nour Soubani, HLS Case Studies Assistant

“How are relationships between clients and service providers evolving—and why?” The HLS Center on the Legal Profession’s publication entitled “Corporate Purchasing Project: How S&P 500 Companies Evaluate Outside Counsel” is based on more than four years of empirical research aimed at answering exactly that question. The publication is drawn from a combination of quantitative and qualitative data on how large U.S. corporations make law firm hiring and assessment decisions, including a large-n survey as well as information gleaned from over 160 interviews with chief legal officers. The publication aims to address four main topics:

  1. How do companies evaluate the quality of legal service providers when making hiring and legal management decisions?
  2. Under what circumstances do these companies discipline or terminate their relationship with their law firms?
  3. How do these companies evaluate whether to follow “star” lawyers when they change law firms?
  4. In what ways do these companies manage the intersection between law and public relations?

As an example of the sort of in-depth, empirical findings presented in the publication, the research found that general counsel rely heavily on their own experience when making hiring decisions—fully 97 percent of general counsels (GCs) told us that the most important source of information in making hiring decisions is personal knowledge (either their own experience with the specific outside lawyers or law firm or their personal knowledge of the lawyers’ or law firm’s reputation). Three-quarters talked with colleagues at their own firm, and half with peers at other firms. Yet only 17 percent consulted public sources of information such as rankings or court records. As a result, and as interview data corroborates, the ways in which GCs hire outside counsel has not yet materially changed.

It is interesting to note that, for those who did consult outside rankings, prior experience became a less important criteria, while firm size, geographic reach, and commitment to diversity assumed more significance. External factors like these may gain in importance when selecting new clients if industry-wide rankings become more trusted and well known, but for now, relationships still dominate.


This is just a snap-shot of the sort of practical takeaways the publication offer. The full publication provides a fascinating and in-depth look at the thought process of chief legal officers, and provides a dataset that is challenging and important for the legal profession as a whole.

Want to learn more? Check out the Center on the Legal Profession’s digital magazine, The Practice, including the forthcoming May 2016 issue on The Changing Role of the Global General Counsel. This exciting new issue contains previously unreleased data from the Center’s survey on how in-house legal departments in India, Brazil, and China make purchasing decisions—and how these findings related to U.S. trends.

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