Legal departments exist within the overall businesses they serve. With that has come a recognition that the business of doing law is a core component of how in-house legal services are delivered, and ample guidance must be given to legal operations. Womble Bond Dickinson gathered a team of in-house legal operations professionals to discuss what has fueled the growth of legal ops and where they believe their industry is headed. The panelists for the event were as follows, and this article is taken from their discussion:
- Diderico van Eyl—General Manager & Chief Intellectual Property Counsel, SABIC
- Tom Stephenson—VP, Community & Legal Operations, Legal.io (former Director of Legal Operations, Credit Karma at the time of panel discussion);
- Laurie David-Henric—Head of Law, Compliance, Audit and Government Relations Operations and Strategy, Manulife; and
- Stuart Stogner—Director of Strategic Client Relations, Womble Bond Dickinson (Moderator).
“Legal operations” is a relatively new term in the corporate counsel world, but one of ever-increasing significance. Simply put, legal operations are the business activities that support an in-house legal department. But in recent years, legal operations have become a far more complex and vital aspect of the in-house delivery of legal services.
As David-Henric always put it: “Legal operations is not about the practice of law but about how law is practiced.”
“Legal operations is not about the practice of law but about how law is practiced.”
The introduction of advanced metrics has added a new element to legal operations. Now, the legal operations department can use data to drive critical decisions and help the organization improve efficiencies. Today’s legal operations teams support not only the company’s legal department, but also compliance and government relations. They play a key role in their organization’s outside counsel management, digital transformation, billing/payments, auditing, and knowledge management operations.
“We make sure we’re always checking the pulse of the company, so we can run legal like a business,” Stephenson said.
This role will continue to change and grow in the near future, the panelists said.
“The evolution in the delivery of legal services continues at an exponential pace,” Stogner said. The ascent of legal operations is one of the key factors in that evolution.
“The evolution in the delivery of legal services continues at an exponential pace."
Relationship Between Legal Operations and Legal Department?
One trend apparent in “The Evolving Dance” of providing in-house legal services is that at many businesses, the job has gotten too big for one team. In addition to the traditional legal department under the leadership of a General Counsel, many companies have expanded their in-house capabilities to include a separate compliance department, a government relations team and, in recent years, legal operations.
Stephenson said the focus of legal operations is less on administrative duties and more on “big picture” efficiencies and best practices.
“When we talk about legal operations, it’s really focused on actively trying to partner with law firms and the broader legal ecosystem to find solutions,” he said. “Innovative law firms are starting to notice smart GCs that recognize the value of legal operations, and they are trying to drive efficiency to lower costs.”
“When we talk about legal operations, it’s really focused on actively trying to partner with law firms and the broader legal ecosystem to find solutions.”
Legal operations also help connect the legal department with the larger company it serves and the people who work there.
“What we bring to the legal department is we help people see their value,” David-Henric said. The metrics extracted by legal operations provides valuable insight into how the legal department operates and helps the GC make the case that adequately funding the legal department is important.
For example, van Eyl and his team created tracking metrics for their company’s patent and trademark portfolios. They also developed metrics of how patent assets are aligned with the company’s business objectives.
Billing is another area where legal operations can add value to the company’s legal department, Stephenson said.
“We want to make sure that when we are being billed by law firms, we are adhering to our guidelines,” he said. He suggests conducting a short seminar for outside counsel on the company’s billing guidelines at the start of each fiscal year. Such training should focus on practical steps related to billing—what formats to use, deadline dates, etc.
Stephenson said the relationship between legal operations and the GC’s office “has to be both parties working together” to benefit the company.
“We need to position ourselves as a strategic partner,” David-Henric said. “Legal operations is such a new profession and there’s no curriculum for it.”
Legal Operations and the Rise of Technology
The boom in legal operations largely has been built on technological advances. Such technology both brings great value to a company and requires sophisticated skillsets beyond the expertise already required by the legal department.
“The evolution of cloud-based and software-based technologies has opened up a lot of opportunities that didn’t exist 10-15 years ago to create more efficient and effective workflows,” van Eyl said.
In a society in which technology enables so much convenience, whether it’s ordering a meal or lining up a ride, legal operations need to be user friendly, with an easy interface and easy onboarding.
Making this happen requires more than technology, though—it requires a cultural shift. Many legal professionals come from a billable hour background in which getting work done quickly isn’t a priority. But speed and efficiency are important to clients, and legal operations can play a key role in transforming a company’s legal culture to a more client-friendly focus.
Legal operations also can help DEI efforts through tracking diversity data. “The focus on DEI is a watershed over the past decade,” Stogner said.
Change Management Critical to Legal Operations
Legal operations can be disruptive—in a profession where disruption generally is frowned upon. Stephenson said legal operations have to understand that effectively communicating about change and working collaboratively with other teams is crucial.
“The words ‘change’ and ‘management’ go hand-in-hand. Change is key, but so is management. Managing the change is often more difficult than the change itself,” he said. “You have to take it piece by piece and you have to be collaborative.”
“Change management is always one of the key things you need to address,” David-Henric said. “Two things have always worked for me: 1. Being transparent and up front in communicating and 2. Showing why the change is needed. The idea is to say, ‘This is going to happen because this is the benefit.’” Usually, people go along with change a lot more easily if they see an end benefit to the process, she said.
The Future of Legal Ops
Legal operations is no passing fad, but rather, it has quickly become an important part of how many companies provide legal services. If anything, the panelists expect this trend to grow in the near future.
“I see the demand for legal operations increasing and the entire function becoming more strategic,” van Eyl said. Technology innovations are becoming less expensive and give companies more options, he said, meaning that sophisticated legal operations services are increasingly viable for middle market companies.
“I see the demand for legal operations increasing and the entire function becoming more strategic.”
In addition, van Eyl said, “The other thing I see is the transitioning of old, traditional companies becoming more digitally focused. That is creating a lot of disruption within those companies and that is creating more demand for people to help them through that fog.” Legal operations can be a key part of providing that guidance.
He also sees increased regulation creating business challenges – “and that’s something legal ops can help with considerably,” van Eyl said.
David-Henric said more focus needs to be given to legal ops training. “As we grow and our strategic position within the company grows, we will need people with the background and training to lead those efforts,” she said
Stephenson sees that training evolving along a similar track to e-discovery.
“Everything takes time,” he said. “But we are in the right time and the right place, with hungry individuals who are looking to elevate legal operations.”
Stogner asked where will legal ops training come from? Will it come from law schools? Or are business schools better equipped to provide such training?
“Legal operations brings such a diversity and skillsets together. How do you get that under one roof? It’s to be determined,” he said.
Many companies may be considering implementing a formal legal operations program. If so, David-Henric recommends they take their time to gather information and plan before making changes.
“When I joined my new company – a Fortune 500 in which the department I oversee operations and strategy for consists of 1,300+ employees worldwide – I took time to meet with all my key stakeholders, and not only those in the Legal Department. When I did, I got a list of what their pain points are and what is working, and by my 100-day mark I came up with a new structure and an optimized operating model for the ops team, as well as a detailed 12-month roadmap and a 2-year vision for the department,” she said. “Most people want to demonstrate their value right away, but because I took the time to plan, I ended up with a relevant, strong recommendation that got immediate buy-in from our GC and the rest of the leadership team.”
The panelists also said it is important that companies form legal operations teams that best meet their specific business and legal needs.
Stephenson said, “Every legal operations team is a snowflake—no two are alike.”
This article is part of Womble Bond Dickinson’s series “The Evolving Dance: The Changing Roles of Company Counsel and Compliance Officers.” For more insights, visit our Evolving Dance hub.