TED Conferences LLC is world famous for hosting quality presentations—but that’s not what the company is looking for in a good outside lawyer.
“I’ve once gone into a law firm where they brought in like nine partners to do the display, the fashion show,” says Nishat Ruiter, TED’s general counsel. “I don’t find that interesting.”
Instead, she prefers direct conversations—even one-on-one—that show the firm has the creativity, collaborative spirit and familiarity with TED that Ruiter seeks.
“I’ve had interviews with law firms where they’ve touted deals, and they’ve touted amounts of money that they’ve closed,” she said. “But when I’ve asked them direct questions about their knowledge of TED, they don’t have that much to say.”
Bloomberg Law is conducting a Q&A series highlighting some of the legal industry’s most important relationships: the often fruitful but sometimes complicated connections between in-house departments and their outside law firms. We’re talking with general counsel and legal operations leaders across industries about how they select outside lawyers and handle issues like billing, fees, and tracking performance.
Ruiter joined New York-based TED in April 2016. Before that, she was briefly a senior attorney at McGraw-Hill Education. She also has worked for LivePerson Inc., CA Inc., Axiom Law, Chubb Ltd., Capco, and Binary Tree, now part of Quest Software Inc.
Ruiter spoke with Bloomberg Law about what she looks for in outside counsel and how she examines a law firm’s values and quality of work. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Bloomberg Law: What characteristics are most important to you in an outside firm?
Nishat Ruiter: It’s easy to “us” and “them” between the clients and the lawyers because you have a certain level of expertise. I like to look at it all as a “we,” like all of us are on the same team.
Things that are known in the industry as prestigious don’t come off as important to me as the quality of their work, the care they take in demonstrating that they understand what we do, and the openness to be creative. If those elements are not there, I prefer not to work with them.
I’ve had interviews with law firms where they’ve touted deals, and they’ve touted amounts of money that they’ve closed, and they’ve touted various clients that they’ve had. But when I’ve asked them direct questions about their knowledge of TED, they don’t have much to say. It’s interesting how they represent themselves to be really formidable with qualifications that I just don’t align with.
BL: How do you evaluate firms and determine whether they’ll be a good partner?
NR: There’s four things I look for in outside counsel. If any one of these is not there, one could say that they’re lacking.
The first one is being creative. I need them to understand the situation at hand and really thread the needle with a solution that may be something that they haven’t done before. That’s sometimes really hard to get with traditional firms who like to do things a certain way because it’s tried and true.
Another element is establishing a non-traditional fee structure. TED is obviously a very lean nonprofit, so I like to be really careful with billing. I don’t appreciate it when you have four people working on a project and they’re all billing me at the same time. I may want to speak to them meaningfully and just call them up without having to think of the time clock running. So I’d like to talk to them about maybe having a retainer each month. If you’re doing a special project, let me know how much it is, and we’ll talk about it.
The third element is really collaborating to find a solution. I want to talk on the phone. I want to have a discussion. I’d like to hear all the voices. I don’t need just the senior partner talking. I enjoy when we have a true diverse collaboration. The more diversity you have, the more the truth rises to the top. You have to leave your ego at the door.
The fourth thing is to make sure we have a world lens. I don’t necessarily turn away from White males, but I often welcome people who have a different lens because of their life experiences, because of how they were raised, because of where they came from, because of what countries they’ve been to. People who are not in the majority often have a number of experiences that have shaped who they are, and I think that’s very meaningful.
BL: How can you tell whether firms have these characteristics?
NR: It’s interesting to observe the personalities, the culture in the firm itself, the way people interact. Is there a hierarchy? Does everyone seem to be connected and speaking authentically? How many people are in the room?
I’ve once gone into a law firm where they brought in like nine partners to do the display, the fashion show. I don’t find that interesting. I’d rather have one meaningful conversation with a person for 15 minutes that’s authentic. I tend to really look through the numbers. I also examine bills very carefully.
BL: How do you know you have what you need to make a judgment?
NR: There’s a few ways to manage outside counsel. I’ve seen colleagues at prior companies manage them by getting a status report. They rely on the reputation, the brand equity of the firm, the fact that there were 12 of them that they saw when they walked into the meeting.
When I have a firm, I’ll ask them questions of how they developed their strategy. What are the red flags? What are we concerned about? What happens if x, y, z happens? How are we going to address certain issues that maybe they didn’t flag?
You poke around. They have to not only prepare the opinion but understand the other aspects of it. That’s something, as in-house counsel, we are required to do all the time. Our business clients are asking us for solutions, contingencies, worst-case scenarios, and the best advice possible. So when I’ve talked to outside counsel, I’m going to look for that as well.
If they can’t give me a meaningful answer, and they just say, “Well, the answer is in the memo, or legally, that’s the only thing we can do,” then they maybe don’t have a full understanding of all the issues. You may have to ask them to revise or resubmit, or in some cases, which I’ve done, dismiss them and get a new firm, because you need someone who will provide excellent work.
BL: Is it difficult to convince outside firms to adopt flexible or non-traditional fee structures?
NR: It’s a matter of thoughtfulness. I don’t want to lessen or cheapen anything that they’re doing because they’re working so hard and they’re doing such great work. We want to pay them appropriately and fairly. It’s just a matter of making sure that we can find the right balance so that we can also align our budget.