Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

‘It’s not enough to say law firms have to do better’

Building better relationships with external providers cannot be deprioritised. If it is, it’s going to reflect poorly on the law department.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 30 April 2024 Corporate Counsel
expand image

Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Damien Sullivan (pictured) reflected on the all-important need for efficiency and how the ways in which a law department engages with its external providers is – or at least should be – a “key priority”.

This requires “work on both sides of the equation”, he said, and stressed that “it’s not just enough to say the law firms have to do better”.

“Sure, there’s plenty of rope for law firms to pick up and do more, but without that being a two-way street, you’re only going to get so far. I just think there are huge opportunities for in-house teams to build better foundations for their own success through how they engage with externals,” he submitted.


When asked if there are certain things that law firms will be looking for from their clients, Sullivan – who served as the former group general counsel of Boral for nearly eight years, now running Cognetic Legal & Consulting – said firms need to know how to navigate their queries internally and which in-house lawyer is responsible for particular matters.

“I hear quite a bit from external law firms that it’s hard to know which door to go through,” he explained, making it harder to create improvements in service delivery.

“In my experience, when communication channels aren’t clear, or instructions aren’t really clear, or the context for a particular matter isn’t communicated, what usually happens is the advice or work product that’s delivered is not spot on. It’s going to be broader, it’s going to be full of sort of generalisations because they’re not sure what they’re doing.”

What then happens, Sullivan continued, is that work product will be subject to criticism and working relationships can and do erode.

While it is incumbent upon law firms to point out when there are communication breakdowns or issues with instructions, it is correspondingly necessary for in-house teams to react appropriately and without defensiveness or senses of pride or hurt feelings, he advised.

“You need to be able to, as an in-house team, establish that trust with law firms to say, ‘Hey, listen. If you see we’re doing things that are making it harder for you to deliver smooth, efficient, effective services, we need to know about it’,” he said.

This can’t just be every six or 12 months at review times, he added – “it’s about building a dialogue, of being really open and putting ego aside”.

Sullivan ceded there were probably times in his career in-house when he fell short on these points, given the pressure one can face from various angles. The truth is, though, that if a general counsel does this, “you’re making it harder for yourself”.

“Ultimately, if the law firms you engage aren’t performing, it’s going to reflect on you because your CEO [and] your internal stakeholders look at you as being responsible for the performance of those externals. And so, I would suggest it is worth the investment of time.

“It does require you to step back and put the pride away. I don’t think I always got that right. It’s far more obvious to me now as I’m looking at both sides of these equations as a consultant, trying to improve the relationships on both sides,” he said.

To this end, Sullivan suggested, when law department leaders deprioritise the improvement of relationships with those external providers, “just think about what happens when a law firm’s performing really well and how that reflects well for you and your team”.

“And, the opposite: when they’re not performing, you’re going to end up wearing that problem internally anyway. So, it’s worth the time.”

The transcript for this episode has been edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full episode with Damien Sullivan, click below: