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Legal Operations

Preparing your legal team for legal operations success

Despite legal operations being a relatively established function (only 2% are not focusing on it at all) 44% are assigning the responsibilities to a corporate lawyer rather than having a dedicated person. However, the trend is towards creating dedicated legal operations positions and building teams. So how do you prepare and train your existing team for legal operations success?

What is legal operations?

Legal Operations is arguably the corporate legal industry’s latest buzzword, but the function has been around longer than you might realise. The Corporate Legal Operations Institute (CLOC), though gaining in prevalence recently, was formed in the USA back in 2010. On inspection of what legal operations is; driving efficiencies, controlling spend, etc. many legal departments have been doing it for years without calling it so. 

One such legal department is ECE Projektmanagement G.m.b.H. & Co. KG (“ECE”). General Counsel, Joachim Kämpf explains, “we have been dealing with “Legal Operations” for quite some time, but we have not called it that. The focus of Legal Operations so far has been to monitor external counsel fees and derive KPIs. Now we use “Legal Operations” to encompass other topics such as contract management (from the preparation of the contract to conclusion, through internal processing to termination), risk management and intra-company knowledge management.”

Legal operations is all the functions of the legal department that are not law itself. CLOC breaks these areas down into 12 competencies at three maturity levels, you can find this resource on their website. Typical skills and responsibilities of legal operations include:

  • Define and drive initiatives to improve efficiency and process workflows.
  • Manage outside counsel guidelines, legal spend (visibility, control and reduction) and department budget.
  • Optimise law firm performance for maximum value for money.
  • Implement, measure and analyse metrics that inform decision making, turning them into actions that deliver improvements.
  • Implement technology to achieve departmental and business goals.
  • Work cross functionally to demonstrate the legal department’s value within the organisation.
  • Understand and monitor the risks, risk appetite and risk profile of the legal department within the framework of the organisation.

So why the recent focus on legal operations? As businesses continue to grow in scope and complexity, volume and breadth of legal expertise required also grows – and with that, costs. General Counsel are under more pressure than ever to justify their legal costs, improve the efficiency of their department and collaborate with the wider business. As General Counsel, Joachim Kämpf, General Counsel, ECE explains, “legal operations will bring us closer to the business and thus to the other specialist departments and legal will take on a different, more important role in the company.” With this demand to make the legal department act more “like a business” comes a need for cost control and process improvement. The problem with this for a traditional legal team is two-fold. One. The legal department’s priority purpose will always be to give advice on legal matters. During busy periods, or if a team is insufficiently staffed, operations will take a back seat. Two. Achieving operational and business goals requires skills which are not necessarily part of a lawyer’s standard repertoire.

Developing legal operations skills in the corporate legal team

Despite legal operations being a relatively established function (only 2% are not focusing on it at all) 44% are assigning the responsibilities to a corporate lawyer rather than having a dedicated person. However, the trend is towards hiring dedicated legal operations resources and building teams. [Source: Legal Operations Trends Benchmarking Report] Whether your legal department has a dedicated legal operations resource, a whole team, or legal counsel doing legal operations as part of their ‘day-job’, now is a vital time to future proof your entire legal team and get them thinking beyond the practice of law. In-house lawyers have many skills that will enable them to succeed at legal operations, including law firm management, company knowledge and a deep understanding of the legal department’s day-to-day operations and challenges. However, this alone is not enough and lawyers’ skills gaps tend to be in technology and software, change management, budgeting and analytics.

Finding people with all these skills will be rare, so whether your legal operations head should be a lawyer or non-lawyer is a matter for debate, but most agree that the end-goal should be a diverse team of lawyers, non-lawyers and specialist experts, supported by the whole team having at least a basic knowledge of all the functions of legal operations.  Ben Eason, Legal Transformation, Barclays puts this astutely; “Where legal operations can go wrong is when there are two sides of the legal team; the lawyers and the non-lawyers. The whole team should be operating together.” Amy McConnell, Head of Legal Operations, Vodafone Business agrees, “we believe that all lawyers should have a greater understanding of project management, agile methodology, how to run experiments and trials, and how to design and improve processes. We are running training programmes for all of those who wish to learn and grow.”

Some of the ways to build these additional skills into your corporate legal team include:

  • Job sharing/Shadowing
    Consider placing lawyers with finance, sales, marketing, operations, product management, data analysis – any area of the business that will broaden their skillset in a way that addresses one of the functions of legal operations. The challenge will be finding colleagues from these other departments that are qualified enough to do a genuine ‘job swap’ into legal. Shadowing is a good alternative in these scenarios. Iain MacDonald, Legal Operations Consultant formerly at Lloyds Banking Group urges leaders to upskill the non-lawyers in the legal operations team too, “Providing the “non lawyers” with opportunities to shadow lawyers will allow them to better understand the different roles, responsibilities and challenges facing the lawyers and hopefully build stronger working relationships within the function.”
  • Leading projects
    It’s more than likely that members of your team will have already been involved in large projects such as a merger or acquisition, but only from the legal perspective. If they lead the whole project, they will be exposed to other areas of the business and their impact on the overall recommendation and outcome. It doesn’t even have to be such a big project. An internal re-brand, product launch or HR initiative will all work. Involvement in a software roll-out would be beneficial. Managing projects that involve stakeholders from multiple departments to deadlines and budget is a key part of legal operations, so leading any cross-functional project will build these skills.
  • Training Courses, Conferences, Newsletters
    The most obvious way to build the skills you need in your team is through training courses, but conferences can also impart knowledge and inspire. Training doesn’t have to be an external cost as a lot of the skills will exist in the company already and colleagues from other departments can help to train. This is a technique used in Barclays Legal Transformation team, says Ben Eason, “We use up-skilling initiatives to educate lawyers on subjects such as data analysis, cloud, cyber security, AI and commercials – and the business background professionals about the practice of law and the legal market. It’s important for us that the whole team gets to know the people, departments and systems throughout the whole company so they can provide the most value.”
  • Implement and use technology
    Empower your team to think about what slows them down at work on a daily basis and investigate if technology could solve these challenges. Encourage them to research and recommend software tools that could help them and the wider team and to lead the roll-out project.
  • Regular presentations and open Q&A about company revenue, profits and goals
    If your company does regular ‘town halls’ where they present financial updates and mission statements, encourage your team to attend these or start doing them just for legal if they don’t exist. Get your team interested and educated in the financial health of the organisation and how legal can contribute. A modern legal team needs to be fluent in financial terminology and confident with budgeting and reporting.
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