Archer Daniels Midland GC: Be Responsive, Keep the Steak

In interviews with Big Law Business over the past few weeks, several prominent general counsel have sounded off on law firm invitations to lunches, dinners, and sporting events. 

The verdict? Unanimous disapproval.

Add the voice of D. Cameron Findlay, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary at Archer Daniels Midland, to the growing chorus. Not only does Findlay agree that lunches and sporting events are time-consuming and outdated methods of client development, he thinks they can be “counter-productive.”

In the final installment of a two-part series, Findlay shares his thoughts on law firm marketing, the importance of responsiveness, and what it was like clerking for Justice Antonin Scalia.

Part II Excerpts:

In-house lawyers, and especially GC, are so busy that they really don’t want to spend their time, you know, with somebody they don’t know having a steak and talking about anti-trust.

I think the most important thing is for firms to know their clients, and kind of watch for trends.

If we call with a question, don’t wait 24 hours to return the call. Get back to us, and if you can’t handle it, then get one of your colleagues to handle it.

Below is an edited transcript of the final installment of our two-part series with Findlay.

Big Law Business: A lot of GCs we’ve talked to have had negative opinions about more personal marketing efforts, like invitations to lunch or sporting events. Do you have an opinion on that?

Findlay: I completely agree, and I would say it’s not only outdated and not effective, it’s almost, I think, counter-productive to ask people out to lunch or dinner. In-house lawyers, and especially GC, are so busy that they really don’t want to spend their time, you know, with somebody they don’t know having a steak and talking about anti-trust.

I think the same is true of sporting events as well, and the firms that have spent a lot of money on boxes. While it’s great to go to events from time to time, I don’t think it’s an effective means of practice development.

What I find to be the most effective are seminars that law firms put on, and the newsletters they send out in particular practice areas. I think the most important thing is for firms to know their clients, and kind of watch for trends.

A law firm can call up someone and say, “You know, have you thought about the possibility that some shareholder’s going to sue to enjoin your annual meeting?” Quite often law firms are in a better position to see those trends coming, because they have hundreds of clients, but for every client it’s their first time.

So that’s actually a true example in my case. It wasn’t here at ADM, but in the past I’ve had a firm say, “There’s this trend where a lot of investors are coming in, and plaintiff’s firms are trying to sue to enjoin the annual meeting. They’ll extort a settlement from you just to be able to hold your annual meeting. We’ve thought a lot about how to defend against that, and we have a prepackaged playbook. Would you like us to talk to you about it?”

So, had we ever had that issue, I knew exactly who I was going to call, because I knew they had expertise, and they’d be ready to handle it on a moment’s notice.

Another example I’d give is when I was in my first general counsel job, a few months in, Eliot Spitzer issued a subpoena to us. It was obviously a big moment for our company, and we didn’t know who you hired to handle a Spitzer investigation.

I got a call from a guy at Kirkland who had just handled a Spitzer investigation for Morgan Stanley, and he said, “You know if you want to talk about this I’d be delighted to tell you some of the ins and outs of dealing with these.”

He knew enough to know that Spitzer had issued a subpoena to us and offered his help. So those targeted interactions are really important to.

Big Law Business: Aside from these kinds of specific, targeted interactions, what’s the best way for firms to approach you?

Findlay: As you can imagine, any in-house lawyer is going to get a lot of calls from outside firms to set up meetings. I always try to be up front with firms.

Now that we’ve set up a preferred firm network, if a firm that’s not in that network calls, and says, “We’d like to bring five people in to talk to your lawyers,” I’ll say, “We’re happy to talk to you, but you should know that we’re not trying to increase the number of firms we use. We’re trying to decrease them. We just put this preferred firm program in place, so of course we’re willing to spend some time with you, but you’ve got to understand it’s very unlikely to lead to any work.”

Some firms will say, “We’d still like to get the opportunity. We figure for the long term it might pay off.” And we’ll spend a little time with them.

Other firms will say, “You know, we appreciate the candor, but it doesn’t make much sense for us to bring somebody from Hong Kong to come see you for that meeting.”

So I don’t want firms to get the idea that we take every meeting that’s offered to us, but if it’s a firm we know is a high quality firm, and we can imagine we might want to work with them, we’ll say, “We’d be happy to meet with you, but there’s not a lot of chance in the near future that we would be able to give you any business.”

Big Law Business: With your background you’ve had the chance to be around some very talented people. Who is someone you looked up to?

Findlay: Sam Skinner, who was at Sidley when I was a summer associate, and then hired me to work for him in the government, has had a lot of influence on me.

He was a U.S. Attorney in Illinois, and then he was Secretary of Transportation, and then White House Chief of Staff. So Sam Skinner’s had a big influence on my life and remains a close personal friend to this day.

Tom Cole at Sidley really has been a trusted adviser on matters of corporate governance and M&A and corporate law issues for many years for me.

And then on the litigation and investigation side, there’s a guy named Rick Godfrey at Kirkland. I got to see him in action during our Spitzer matter. He is just 100 per cent client responsive, brilliant, hard-working, and always precise and to the point in terms of his advice.

Big Law Business: Are these the individual traits you think are important in a lawyer?

Findlay: I think being a great lawyer is just the ticket to admission these days. Really, one should aim to understand our business and what makes our business tick, and then be very responsive.

If we call with a question, don’t wait 24 hours to return the call. Get back to us, and if you can’t handle it, then get one of your colleagues to handle it.

Big Law Business: Do you still keep up with Justice Scalia? Is he someone that had an influence on you?

Findlay: Clerking for him was one of the most important things I’ve done in my life. I was there for his second year on the Supreme Court, so I just got invited to this year’s clerkship reunion, which he holds every year at the Supreme Court in Washington. It’s a really nice black tie affair where all of his former clerks come.

The first time I was there it was a small room with very few people. When I go back now, he’s had four clerks coming through since 1986, so what does that mean—more than a hundred former clerks?

So I still see him every once in a while when I go out for clerk reunions. I don’t really talk to him on the phone every week or anything like that.

Notwithstanding his image in the media as being kind of a dark, glowering, acid-penned writer, he’s a delightful guy. He’s good friends with the other Justices and has a great sense of humor. He loves to have people to his house and sit around the piano and sing, and maybe have a couple drinks too many.

He is a really fun person to be around. He’s obviously one of the most influential and brilliant legal scholars of his generation, so I learned a lot about writing and thinking from Justice Scalia.

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

Findlay: I like walking my dogs. I’ve got two West Highland Terriers named Clark and Addison, which is a nod to the corner where Wrigley Field is located. I also like to read non-fiction, especially histories and biographies. And I play golf very badly.

Big Law Business: How are the Cubs looking this year?

Findlay: I think they’re 7-5, maybe. You know, they’ve had some miserable seasons. There’s at least hope at Wrigley Field again. Of course anyone who is hopeful at Wrigley Field usually has their hopes crushed. But that’s another story.

Big Law Business: What are your sports allegiances, besides the Cubs?

Findlay: I’m a Bears fan, a Northwestern Wildcats fan, and given that the Blackhawks are doing well, I can pretend to be a Blackhawks fan. But I’m not really as avid a hockey fan as I am baseball and football.

Big Law Business: What are the best books you’ve read recently?

Findlay: The most recent book I read is called Dead Wake. It’s a book about the sinking of The Lusitania and America’s entry into World War I.