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How to tell firms what you need and like

Law departments that invest meaningful time in communicating processes, objectives, and outcomes with their external providers will “all see the upside”, argues one GC turned consultant.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 14 May 2024 Corporate Counsel
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Every law firm that Damien Sullivan speaks to, he told Lawyers Weekly, reports that they are “truly interested” in building better relationships with their clients and being closer to them – not just from a billing perspective, he advised, but also in fostering more pleasant working environments and consequently more effective partnerships.

Not all law departments are taking advantage of such a window of opportunity, he noted.

Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Sullivan – who served as the former group general counsel of Boral for nearly eight years and is now running Cognetic Legal & Consulting – said that it is “always worth looking at” what departments are investing in when it comes to their external providers, particularly given that external budget management is constantly under pressure.


“Really understanding how you’re spending that money, and how you’re getting value, is something that internal stakeholders will have a lot of visibility over,” he said.

As such, in-house leaders “need to be able to articulate what’s happening, how you are improving it, and what is the value to the company”.

“Yes, there’s always going to be lots of priorities, but I do encourage in-house teams not to get so caught up in the day-to-day combat of just dealing with the matter in front of them and build capability for more resilient delivery of efficient legal services,” Sullivan said.

What this must involve, he detailed, is a rethink of how one’s team delegates to those external providers.

“There will always be times when you do place really tight deadlines on law firms, [and] you should be judicious about when you do that,” he said, recounting that when he was a GC, he made a point of calling partners to advise that certain tasks were not urgent “because if you didn’t say that, ultimately, some junior associate was going to have a destroyed weekend”.

Pick your moments, Sullivan stressed.

Practically, when a matter starts, law departments should make the time to have a proper kick-off meeting with the provider, explain the strategic context of the task, how the team would like to communicate and how often, as well as any other operational and administrative items.

For example, he suggested, law departments could provide firms with a presentation and playbook relaying what the business likes and doesn’t like.

“So much of that is unspoken, unless you really invest a little bit of time in it,” Sullivan said.

Using process maps can also be helpful for in-house teams, he went on.

“Look at the steps of the matter and think about what works well, what do we prioritise, what are the friction points we’ve seen work poorly? Very often, in-house teams move rapidly, assuming a lot of knowledge on the law firm side,” he said.

When asked how the law department can avoid transferring pressure from internal stakeholders and business units onto the external provider, Sullivan responded that the legal team has to be transparent with firms.

Likewise, he said, law firms should be proactive in asking about the pressures that the client is under.

“If a firm comes to an in-house team wanting to talk about the pressures a team is under, as opposed to [simply listing] capabilities, I think that’s a really good sign, turning the conversation around to be truly understanding of the role of the in-house lawyer,” Sullivan said.

In-house teams are always going to have to manage internal pressures, Sullivan mused, and explaining to firms what that pressure looks like “helps them understand why you’ve created this time frame or why something has to be done in a particular way, so that they are then with you rather than you being meat in a sandwich”.

In the same episode, he stressed that building better relationships with external providers cannot be deprioritised and that if this occurs, it will reflect poorly on the law department.

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