The evolution of legal operations

Author Ben Cockram
augustus 8, 2022

Legal Operations is not a new concept but is gaining widespread popularity within the global legal market as General Counsel look at ways to create efficiencies within their legal teams. Legal Operations originated in the US in-house legal market where there are now over 3000 legal operations professionals. Legal Operations functions provide a broad range of support to in-house legal teams and encompass strategic planning, people, processes and efficiencies, technology investment and project management.

More and more organisations are choosing to employ Legal Operations professionals than ever before. What has been often viewed as a technology-driven, project-based role, has now become a fully-fledged, multifaceted function. So what has changed? We speak to Global Head of Legal Operations at WPP, Faye Moran to find out more.

What is ‘Legal Operations’ to you?

That’s a great question, I think Legal Ops means different things to different people. Groups like CLOC and ACC have done great work at defining legal ops core competencies which essentially cover five main themes around people, tech, service delivery, data and governance. The management of legal operations and the remit of Legal Ops teams will vary by organisation as each has a different set of needs and priorities – although, for me, I think service delivery is the real cornerstone, it’s just so fundamental. Put simply, Legal Operations is about supporting and optimising how in-house teams deliver legal advice and support.

Why is having a dedicated Legal Operations function different to having, for example, someone from the Legal team leading on a legal-specific project roll-out?

I think a true legal ops team has a clear remit to run the function’s operations, taking some of that off the plate of the leadership team. Projects are certainly part of that, but operations in the broadest sense is bigger. A legal ops function will help manage budget, develop strategy, build a programme of projects to deliver that strategy, and develop underlying tech and data structures to support all that work. 

Your Legal Operations career has included roles with Pearson, M&S and Booking.com. Have your responsibilities in these roles been the same, or have these companies wanted different things out of the function?

Each business has needed something different, that reflects their unique business challenges and priorities. Some leadership teams have needed support on maturing budgeting and additional bandwidth on budget management. Other teams are struggling with the sheer volume of work and need support to define their key purpose, as well as look at how they achieve that through technology adoption and other methods of providing legal support. That said, in my experience process improvement is very much a universal theme and it’s a real area of opportunity in every legal team I’ve seen. Focusing on improving process and reducing ‘friction’ often brings success, change, and much needed breathing space.

Will you be a more effective Legal Operations professional if you have been a lawyer before?

I don’t think a legal qualification is a differentiating factor for successful legal operations professionals. Understanding how legal teams work, what they do and how they engage with their internal clients is a must. But successful operations people have excellent interpersonal skills – they understand why people do things both in terms of the work and behaviours. I feel that approaching management and ops tasks with empathy is essential – by truly understanding, you can influence and drive real change. Legal Ops and legal tech are sometimes seen as interchangeable and I’m a believer that tech, process etc are tools for helping people operate in the ways which work best for them and their businesses.

What efficiencies should the Legal Operations function be driving?

There are some obvious targets around better budget and cost management and helping design ways of working to ensure the right person is doing the right work. But I think Legal Ops teams can do much more to define and influence legal team culture and how people are recruited. In this climate hiring, and retaining staff is a real challenge and needs real focus.

How symbiotic is your relationship with the General Counsel? Should Legal Operations be an extension of the strategy of the General Counsel or independent of them?

That’s another great question, personally, I see my role as to support the General Counsel in developing their strategy and then driving the execution and delivery of that strategy. Having a shared vision and values are super important. Taking the time to invest in the relationship is worthwhile as the roles are so symbiotic and collaborative, when you have that kind of relationship you should have a place where you can challenge each other and share ideas. I know that I have grown most from those open conversations and challenges.

Is Legal Operations about quick wins? New tech roll-outs, new reporting systems? It seems that the Legal Operations professional could become quite a nomadic career path.

You know, I think this is a real challenge for many legal ops professionals. Many legal teams’ operations are relatively immature and there can be a desire to get a quick fix through, say, tech adoption, and while there is absolutely a place for a tactical response I wonder if enough focus is placed on looking at the long term or the root cause of the problems faced by legal teams. I have felt that I have bounced from one initiative to the next without much time to pause and reflect – I suspect I’m not alone. I can see why it may seem nomadic. That said people working in in-house roles really do have an opportunity to think longer term about the impact legal ops could have on their business.

What are the three biggest challenges facing Legal Operations professionals in the current market?

1. A universal problem but finding quality legal ops candidates is a challenge, particularly people who have worked in-house rather than say, consulting. Understanding organisational complexity is a rare skill.
2. Keeping up to date with the evolving tech landscape – keeping on top of the number of new legal tech firms and consolidations in the industry is a full-time job in itself!
3. Again, like everyone else the pandemic has taken its toll and people are burnt out following a long and challenging period. Being the person who is talking about change and new ways of working can sometimes be a test of resilience!

What is the future of Legal Operations?

I think there is still lots of work to be done around the use of technology, and the challenges around workloads and budgets aren’t going anywhere but I do think the pandemic has meant lawyers working very long hours and managing significant workloads on top of all the uncertainty and stress – that’s not sustainable and I hope we can find solutions to some of those problems. I’m also interested to see how legal ops as a career path develops – I hope we can see people coming into the field from a range of backgrounds – in every sense – people with diverse backgrounds, experience and skills can add huge value to legal teams.

This article appears in our global in-house market report 2022 – click the link to download.

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