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Pitching a Prospective Client? GC Says Narrow Your Focus

June 12, 2015, 5:45 PM

Law firms often pride themselves on how many different services they can offer, but Peter Wexler , Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Schneider Electric , says it can be a mistake for firms to go big when pitching prospective clients.

Especially when the target is a giant multinational corporation with sprawling global operations in a variety of industries, Wexler suggested it’s better for firms to seize on a specific business development, or on a particular piece of litigation, than to try and understand the company’s entire business.

“If they’ve seen something in the paper, or they see we’ve built a factory somewhere,for example, and they say, ‘We know you have other counsel, but we’re the best firm, because we’ve done these certain things,’ I’m going to listen. If they come in and they say, ‘We can do it cheaper,’ I’m probably not going to listen.”

The best way to get a lot of work, Wexler suggested, is to do a little work well — “Once you get your nose in the tent, and then you do some ancillary work and show your value, that’s when you’re going to get business.”

A graduate of The University of Vermont and American University’s Washington College of Law , Wexler recently talked with Big Law Business about the do’s and dont’s of law firm pitches, the mentors he’s had over the course of his career, and his favorite places to snow ski.

Read the first installment of the interview here .

Part II Excerpts:

Bringing in multiple firms can create a tension, but we hire firms that are willing to work together to get the best result. That’s the thing. You need team players. Everyone has to work together to get the deal done.

A lot of firms will come back to me and tell me they can do more for me. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to buy things I need, rather than be cross-sold on products I don’t need.

That’s the best way to market services — come back and say, “We did a great job for you here, so can we do something else?” That’s better than coming in cold and saying, “I can do everything for you.”

I don’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think law firms have a very tough task [in doing their homework on a corporate client]. I don’t envy them. Probably the best thing they can do is pick a very small, a very select few areas where they can add value.

Below is an edited transcript of the second installment of the interview.

Big Law Business: You’re the only GC I’ve called who has an assistant in Paris, for example. Do you put any special demands on law firms because of how global you are?

Wexler: I ask very few firms to operate that way, because the way we’re set up doesn’t require it. We have local firms who operate locally. It’s really only in the M&A context that we require firms to operate cross-jurisdictionally. To assist them, sometimes we’ll bring in multiple firms.

That brings up an interesting point — bringing in multiple firms can create a tension. We hire firms that are willing to work together to get the best result. That’s the thing. You need team players. Everyone has to work together to get the deal done.

Big Law Business: What are some big differences between the relationship between inside and outside counsel in the U.S., and the relationship between inside and outside counsel in Europe? Is the balance of power the same in both places?

Wexler: I think we’ve achieved a balance of power that’s more or less the same globally. That may be my philosophy. I don’t think it’s necessarily about a change in the market. But we don’t see a substantive difference between our interactions from the European side or the U.S. side.

Big Law Business: You said a lot of firms try to woo you, but you’re a tough date. What’s the best way to make a good first impression?

Wexler: Do really good work. A lot of firms will come back to me and tell me they can do more for me. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to buy things I need, rather than to be cross-sold on products I don’t need. I think there’s a great deal of pressure on law firms to develop business that way. But the best way for them to get business is provide exceptional work and build credibility over time.

Most of the lawyers I meet know me, and don’t cross that line. However, if I’m doing an M&A deal, for example, and a firm offers to do the employment work on that deal, I may give them a shot.That’s the best way to build a relationship with us — firms doing follow-on work.

I may have hired a firm for M&A work, but then realize they’re doing a good job on some follow-on litigation. That’s the best way to market services — come back and say, “We did a great job for you here, so can we do something else?” That’s better than coming in cold and saying, “I can do everything for you.”

Big Law Business: So do you entertain law firm pitches at all?

Wexler: Rarely. Extremely rarely.

Big Law Business: Why rarely?

Wexler: I consider our outside counsel spend to be extremely large. We have a big budget. We operate in certain areas where we have tried and true, deep relationships. It would probably have to be a situation where we have a conflict, or something like that, if we’re going to try somebody new. We have a deep bench of people we can use.

So for a firm to come in cold with no context about what Schneider does, or how we operate, based on a referral — that’s a very difficult pitch to make. Those generic PowerPoints about how a firm has offices inx number of countries, and has xamount of people, and has all these competencies — those pitches don’t mean a lot to me, because the firm doesn’t understand us.

In fact, firms often don’t even take the time to ask the question: “What does Schneider really do?” Many people come in and can’t talk about our different business segments and how they add value.

Big Law Business: So then what are some practical ways for a firm to do their homework on Schneider Electric?

Wexler: I don’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think law firms have a very tough task. I don’t envy them. Probably the best thing they can do is pick a very small, a very select few areas where they can add value.

For example, in the area of IP litigation, if a firm knows something substantive about a particular set of patents, that’s somewhere they could add value. If a firm comes in and says, “We see you’ve been sued on this in the past, and you didn’t do so well, so here’s why you should give us a chance,” then I’m going to listen to them.

Or if they’ve seen something in the paper, or they see we’ve built a factory somewhere, for example, and they say, “We know you have other counsel, but we’re the best firm, because we’ve done these certain things,” I’m going to listen. If they come in and they say, “We can do it cheaper,” I’m probably not going to listen.

Big Law Business: It sounds like you’re saying firms should narrow their focus.

Wexler: Narrow the focus down to a couple of key things. Like I said before, once you get your nose in the tent, and then you do some ancillary work and show your value, that’s when you’re going to get business. I would use a baseball analogy. Go for a single. Don’t try to hit a home run on the first pitch.

Big Law Business: You have a large legal department spread out all over the globe. How do you use technology to make that work?

Wexler: We’ve put in a dedicated database for sorting out contracts. We’ve gone digital so that people can access the stuff that’s been signed. We’ve put in systems that allow us to handle certain segments of our business, whether it’s compliance related or related to sub-segments, like business agent contracts or commercial contracting, for example. We have a high degree of visibility worldwide so people can access the information they need and know who to call to get an answer on a question.

We’ve also done something that’s more low tech. We instituted mandatory meetings on a regional and global basis so we can share information. Just because you have the technology to communicate doesn’t mean you have a relationship with a particular person you’re communicating with.

We’ve tried to build relationships among all our lawyers, which is not an easy task, by the way — and highlight where they can use the technology to access one another. Our lawyers feel close. They feel energized. They feel like they have the right information. Then they can go forward.

Big Law Business: What do you do for fun when you’re not working?

Wexler: I have three kids that keep me very busy. We’re all very outdoorsy. We ski, surf, and mountain bike. My kids wake-board and participate in sports. Sometimes I coach one of the teams. We have a lot of fun, and try to stay healthy.

Big Law Business: How about travel?

Wexler: I do travel a bit. I travel about 40% of the time. I just got back from Hong Kong last week. I’m mostly in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Big Law Business: Were there any role models who had a special influence over your career?

Wexler: When I was young I went to a company, my first real in-house experience, and I was the first young person that they’d hired in a while. I had an exceptional general counsel there. I was young, maybe 27, and I watched these guys who’d been operating for a long time, learning both the do’s and don’ts of law practice. It was an excellent learning environment for someone like me. They all collectively represented a kind of role model.

And then when I moved on I learned a lot from the exceptional outside counsel I worked with, people like Terry Truax at Jenner & Block, Paul Bird at Debevoise, and Marc Pittie at Bredin Prat. They’re all exceptional gentlemen and exceptional legal minds, each with his own unique demeanor, each with a unique way of focusing on things.

Big Law Business: What’s your favorite place to ski?

Wexler: I have a home in Killington, Vermont . I also love to ski out west with my kids. We were in Tahoe this year. It wasn’t a great snow year but we always like to go out there. There’s something about the lake that really makes it cool.

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