Mary O'Carroll is chief community officer at Ironclad and the former director of legal operations at Google. This is the second part of a two-part series. Views are the author’s own.
So you’re building out your first legal operations team – congratulations! This is a big step towards improving the processes of not only your legal team, but your entire company.
In my most recent column for Legal Dive, we explored what legal ops actually does, and the general mindset you should have for your first hire (and what their mindset should be, too).
But what specific skills should you look for in your first hire? And what do those skills look like in the real world?
Many general counsel confuse the areas of expertise their legal ops hires need. While having legal industry expertise feels important, it is not the primary factor to consider when hiring for your legal ops team.
In fact, in all my time running legal ops at Google, I did not hire a single person with a legal background. I primarily looked for individuals with business operations experience.
My reasoning is this: much of legal can be learned (especially the areas that your legal ops team will be handling), but you want someone with experience in building, managing, and scaling programs at a very strategic level. If you can find someone with these skills who also has a legal background, that’s just an added bonus.
There is also a temptation to insist on hiring someone with at least 3-5 years of legal operations-specific experience, but the field is so new that the pool of experienced legal operations professionals is quite small. Because of this, I encourage GCs to think a little more broadly – looking for someone who has 5+ years of general business experience will get you very far.
You also want to invest properly in this role. Hiring someone to split time between a lawyer or paralegal role and legal operations will doom the project to fail before it even starts. This is because the substantive legal work will always be more pressing and leave little time to invest in the longer term (“important, but not urgent”) legal operations initiatives.
Without dedicating headcount properly to the role, you cannot expect to achieve the same level of success in the same amount of time.
In terms of title, someone who is expected to build out a function and scale a department should be at minimum given a “manager” title. If you want them to do this for a department that is scaling quickly or is already of any significant size, you’ll want to consider a “director” level hire.
Here are the top areas you need to look for in a legal ops candidate:
● Project management: Does the candidate have experience managing, tracking, and delivering complex projects? Have they worked cross functionally to unify stakeholders with often conflicting points of view?
● Strategic planning: Can the candidate think beyond just execution and advise on strategy?
● Business and financial acumen: Is the candidate knowledgeable of general business and financial best practices? For example, can they manage budgets, develop project plans and roadmaps, articulate business cases and ROI, create playbooks, develop prioritization frameworks, etc.?
● An understanding of buying new technology: Has the candidate evaluated, bought, and implemented new tech in the past? And more importantly, were they able to scale adoption once implemented?
● Comfort with data and ability to analyze that data using storytelling: Can the candidate pick up on signals through data, and weed through the noise? Can they build strategies based on that data, and use that data to tell a cohesive and compelling story?
● Issue spotting and process improvement: Can the candidate identify issues and areas of improvement, where others might think “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
● Soft skills – namely the ability to influence decision making: Does the candidate have the know-how and EQ to successfully influence business decisions, build strong business cases for doing so, and advocate for change?
This is not an exhaustive list, of course, and it will be a challenge to find someone who checks all of these boxes. But at a high level, your legal operations team needs to be able to navigate these key areas.
Most importantly: find someone who likes a challenge
By far the most important characteristic of your legal ops hire is boiled down to one thing: you need someone who likes a challenge. You need someone who is able to find problems (that others most likely will completely miss), understand how they can be solved or improved, and strategically find and implement solutions to do so.
And, to put it bluntly – legal ops is not the easy way out. It’s not a walk in the park. This role is not an easy one – in many cases, it’s like constantly trying to roll a giant ball up a hill while someone else is trying to push it back down. They will face a ton of resistance, but need to be resilient and continue fighting the good fight.
The good news? You don’t have to go it alone. There is a burgeoning community of legal ops professionals out there who are pushing the space forward and willing to share. If you’re looking for best practices – or to see what folks on the bleeding edge are talking about – the Ironclad Community and the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) are great places to start.