Advice On Managing Outside Firms

Why Tonja De Sloover’s hands-on approach to working with outside counsel benefits her company

Tonja De Sloover tends to know about potential legal actions that could be taken against Energy Transfer Partners long before they become lawsuits. “We try to resolve everything we can before it gets to litigation,” she adds, “but sometimes you can’t avoid it.”

Suits brought against the oil and gas company vary from commercial disputes over contracts to a landowner’s claim to a spill. There are so many types of claims that it would be impossible to handle them all in-house, De Sloover says, so her department depends on outside counsel.

Still, Energy Transfer’s legal department doesn’t hand off responsibility. De Sloover retains oversight at each stage of every case and is involved in cases that could have a major impact on the company or industry.

One of De Sloover’s first responsibilities is to hire outside counsel who have the appropriate experience and mind-set for Energy Transfer’s needs. “If it’s a choice between someone who has done a ton of work in oil and gas and a person who has tried all kinds of cases with great results—who has a good philosophy and strategy—I’d hire the latter,” she says. “The most important thing is to find someone who can explain your story, the decisions the company made, and why, in a simple and compelling way to jurors.”

Depending on whether it goes to arbitration, a jury trial, or a bench trial, De Sloover wants to find lawyers with proven success in that arena. She tries to find lawyers who are willing to take a case to trial. “We don’t roll over every time we get sued,” she says. “If we think we’re right, we will take cases to trial when we need to.”

3 TYPES OF LAWYERS TO HIRE IN-HOUSE:

1. Litigators who have done the work they’re going to manage.

2. People who are competitive and invested.

3. People who are socially savvy and can get the best work out of outside counsel, witnesses, and clients.

Coming to a resolution in mediation is preferable, she says, but if it doesn’t happen, De Sloover and her team begin the written discovery process. The next step is deposing witnesses and experts, and De Sloover is part of this process.

The outside attorneys’ reaction to her involvement, which can be welcoming or bristling or somewhere in between, can determine whether she can continue with them or needs to change midstream.

“A lot of companies probably don’t have inside counsel as involved as I am,” she says. “I’m at every witness prep session. At trial, I’m helping with documents and closing argument outlines. At that point, I hope that I’ve become a member of the team. It can be difficult when outside counsel doesn’t want you as involved and you need to be involved, but in the end, they’re not employees of Energy Transfer Partners. I am. And I am ultimately responsible.”

De Sloover worked on a case she inherited for a decade. When she took over the case, she realized they needed a different strategy.

Despite the time and money Energy Transfer had invested in the previous legal team, she hired another firm from out of state.

“It was a huge cost and a huge risk,” she says. “But it worked. We got out of the case on a motion practice we should have gotten years before.”

De Sloover does not back away from either a challenge or a risk. That approach shapes Energy Transfer’s legal strategy and that of the firms her company employs.