Mary O'Carroll is chief community officer at Ironclad and the former director of legal operations at Google. Views are the author’s own.
The relationship between GCs and their legal ops team is a crucial component to the level of success and innovation that the department can obtain. Communication, trust, and strategic positioning all play major roles in that relationship, and it’s a two-way street.
In part one of this series, we talked about the ways that a GC can work with their legal operations team – how to set them up for success, empower them to make an impact, and give them a seat at the table to do so.
But the flipside of this is equally important – a solid relationship with your GC defines the level of success you’ll be able to have as a legal ops department. And with legal ops being one of the biggest drivers of impact and efficiency for your team, getting this relationship right is becoming increasingly critical.
So how can you, as a legal ops professional, work best with your GC? While this list certainly isn’t all encompassing, there are a few key themes I’ve seen move the needle during my career in legal ops. Let’s dive in.
1. Listen, Listen, Listen
Legal ops teams are not just professional problem solvers – we’re professional listeners. If I could only give one piece of advice to any legal ops team, it would be this: listen voraciously.
This is truly the only way you’re going to be able to identify the pain points in your organization, and where the areas for improvement lie.
Listen to your GCs, and listen to your GC peers. Listen to what teams are struggling with, and work to understand their challenges – both big and small. Listen to what projects and initiatives are coming down the pike for your company, and what the ultimate goals are.
But at the same time, this is not just about taking direction. People will come to you with solutions that they want you to implement – but don’t be an order taker. Instead, ask questions about why and try to get to the root cause of the problem, rather than just doing what is being asked.
Oftentimes your legal department clients aren't aware of what is possible and it's up to you to listen, identify the issue at hand, and come up with the best ways to resolve it. Become Socratic in your listening: ask questions that may lead to more questions. In doing so, they will eventually lead you to your answer.
2. Take Initiative
As I mentioned in part one of the series, your GC should be giving you a spot at the leadership table – and if they do this, make the most of it! However, this is not always the case.
More often than not, no one will be rolling out the red carpet for you and telling everyone to follow your direction – and it may be a situation where you have to create change without the expressed authority. In any case, don’t sit around waiting for directions, it’s up to you to make things happen.
You are the one in charge of the legal ops ship, so it’s imperative to be proactive in uncovering where the problem areas are, and finding suitable solutions – whether it’s through new technology or new processes (spoiler alert: it’s usually both!).
The reason your team has brought you on board is because A) they don’t know how to fix their existing problems, or, more commonly, B) they don’t even know what the problems are. So after you listen to your team, take the initiative to actively explore those issues and find strategic solutions.
Don’t forget – you are in the driver’s seat and should be the one advising your GC, not the other way around.
3. Build relationships and figure out how to get things done in your organization
Every organization has their own ways of getting things done. Work to understand your corporate and department culture and figure out how yours works. More often than not, it’s about building strong relationships at all levels of your organization and cross functionally with your business partners and clients.
As a change agent that may not have top down authority (or support), it is critical to build allies across the organization. Most often, you will likely not have all the resources you need, and instead may have to lean on your partners in finance, HR, IT, etc.
Within your department, find people who are willing to take risks and experiment with you. Once you make them successful, you’ll need them to help be internal champions. Aligning stakeholders, building consensus, and influencing are all critical to success – so build relationships, find people you can lean on, and build trust.
4. Manage up, and use your data to tell a story
Managing up is important in any business role, but it is mission critical in legal ops. Especially when you’re in charge of implementing new solutions that have multiple steps and different phases, are typically cross-functional, and can take time to bear fruit.
Provide detailed reports back to the GC (status, progress, blockers, and end goal), and make sure that you’re helping the GC report up to the CEO about legal’s value and accomplishments.
The best tool in your toolbelt for doing this is to leverage data to show your progress and your impact. Use data to demonstrate the impact of your initiatives driving value to the company.
Think about the amount of revenue accelerated, what costs were reduced or avoided all together, what risks were reduced, or how many hours of work have been saved. For instance, perhaps you created self-service options for your sales team that are speeding up deal cycles without needing to involve legal. That impacts the bottom line of the company in multiple ways – increased revenue and time saved by both sales teams and legal teams.
A big part of your job is to make the GC, and the department as a whole, look good. Using data to tell the story of your effort and accomplishment is the fastest path to victory here.
5. Ruthlessly prioritize
There will be a thousand things you can go out and fix – and all of them will be good, and all of them will feel urgent. Sure, there will be low-hanging fruit projects, but only reserve a small amount of your time for these and only if they are quick and help build goodwill.
But most importantly, you have to prioritize where your biggest impact is. Think of this impact in two ways: 1) how you can drive impact for your company, and 2) how you can make the legal team (and your GC) look good.
There will be lots of issues that the lawyers bring up that are important, but are actually on the periphery of their jobs – things like outside counsel management, document management, intranet sites, etc. These types of projects may make life slightly more convenient or make things that people “don’t want to deal with go away,” but don’t actually move the needle on the aspects of people’s jobs that take up 80% of their time – which is where you need to focus to drive real change.
This is where you may often receive the most push back like, “Don’t touch my day job. My process already works.” But when the rubber hits the road, legal ops needs to fix these processes, and will realistically be touching that 80% of the aforementioned “day jobs.” Contracting is a great example of this – if the core processes are broken, it doesn’t matter if you are able to store all your executed documents in one place.
6. Address the problems, and not just the symptoms (it’ll get you promoted)
At the end of the day, legal operations' goal is to improve legal processes, speed your team up, and automate manual work. And this ultimately leads to increasing revenue for the business – not just saving money by reducing outside counsel spend, for instance. Think BIG, and think strategically.
Thinking strategically about the root of the problem, and not just the symptoms, drives far greater impact than any small band aid will ever get you. Because when you do this, your team will realize that you will make their jobs easier, which helps bring in more revenue, which makes the team (and your GC) look like rock stars (notice a pattern here?).
If you take on a strategic mindset, you will become an invaluable asset to your team, and your organization. And when that happens, you get promoted.
7. Don’t go it alone – join your legal ops community!
“It takes a village” doesn’t even begin to describe the importance of community in the legal ops function. We are on the bleeding edge of innovation, and are galvanizing impact in a field that has historically been seen as a cost center (a very important cost center, but a cost center nonetheless).
Engage your fellow legal ops professionals every chance you get; go to legal ops conferences, read legal publications (if you’re here, you’re already doing that!), join legal ops organizations (CLOC is a great place to start). We are becoming a powerful force in the business world, and the rising of our tide will lift all legal ops boats. All for one, and one for all.
I hope you’ve found this series helpful, but I am always more than happy to talk about all things legal operations. Reach out to me on LinkedIn, on Twitter, or come find me at the next legal ops conference!