Mary O'Carroll is chief community officer at Ironclad and the former director of legal operations at Google. Views are the author’s own.
When I started in “Legal Department Operations” in 2008, we were charting new territory via an entirely new function. We wanted to make legal teams more effective, more impactful and, ultimately, more strategic.
Fast forward 15 years, and the legal operations community is thriving with 80% of corporate legal departments now having a dedicated legal ops role and a burgeoning legal ops community. CLOC — the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium — for example, is now thousands of members strong.
And while it may seem like legal operations has become a fixture of any legal department, the truth of the matter is that we’re still in discovery mode. Where do you even start when building out your legal operations team? What types of skills are best suited for a successful legal ops hire? And when you do bring on that team (or more often, that person, at least to begin with), how can you best work with them? How can you set them up for success, and guide them to steer their own legal operations ship?
In the first piece of this two-part series, I’d like to start in the shoes of a general counsel. Because without the right mindset from the get-go, it will almost certainly be an uphill battle. So with that said, how can GCs work best with their legal ops team? Let’s dive in.
1. Position the role properly to your entire department
Even before you’ve made the first legal ops hire, it’s important that you level-set the role within your department and position it properly.
This is not someone who’s joining to help review contracts, manage your schedule, or file paperwork. This role is highly strategic – and when done correctly, will transform your legal department from blockers to accelerators.
They are not here to take away your toys and make things harder – they will refine your processes, implement new ones, and allow your organization to be a force multiplier within your entire company. If you position this role as strategic from the get-go, it will set the stage and clear the path for that person to be the strategic leader that you need.
2. Hire the right person – and set them up for success
I’ve spoken about key skills that GCs should be looking for in their first legal ops hire, but this is such a critical first step that it bears repeating.
Rather than exclusively looking for someone with career experience in legal – focus more on finding someone who has the business acumen to effectively run legal operations. These are people who are strategic in nature, and have experience planning, managing, delivering and analyzing projects in the past.
This hire needs to know their way around technology – and how to buy the right technology – and is comfortable analyzing data and using that analysis to tell a story. In your search, make sure you’re indexing for those who can spot process improvements from a mile away – and have the soft skills to influence decision makers who will sponsor those process improvements.
3. Bring them into the fold – and give them a seat at the leadership table
Legal operations is by nature a very strategic role. But you can’t be strategic without having a seat at the table, and understanding exactly where you stand.
You’ll want to bring legal ops into the fold with respect to strategic initiatives of the company: train the ops team on your SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), your sources of revenue, past issues, growth trajectory – all of it. With this, they can create plans and understand what changes need to be made – rather than you, the GC, telling them what needs to be done.
You also can’t make these types of changes without being seen as an equal. Give your legal ops the visibility they deserve within your leadership team, and set the proper expectations that this person is coming in to problem solve and develop strategy. Having the proper buy in, visibility and recognition from your leadership team will allow them to do that.
4. Don’t hold them back – have their back and provide support
I can’t tell you how many times this scene has played out: a GC brings on a legal ops professional, saying they want change – but when the rubber hits the road, legal teams resist that change. “It’s an inconvenience!” “We’ve always done things this way!” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
This mindset is the enemy of progress – and points to the importance of correctly positioning the role, what they’ll be doing, and why it matters.
If you’re ready to bring on a legal ops team, you need to have the conviction to let them tinker with your processes – and even start some from scratch, however difficult that may seem at the time.
Most importantly, you need to champion the role, meaning when the rest of your leadership team or anyone else starts pushing back, you reiterate how important these initiatives are. You need to set the tone that you’re behind the recommendations of your legal ops team.
This also speaks to the skills you need to be looking for in your first legal ops hire – they need to be storytellers who are able to influence decision makers and get buy-in from your team. The only way your legal ops team can be successful is if you make the space for them to do so. Have their back and give them space to do their job – they will prove you right.
5. Have a mindset for innovation
The basis of any legal operations function is to drive innovation and continuous improvement. They are constantly asking, “How can we get better?” So my advice is to embrace that change, and that mentality! It’s nearly impossible to drive any kind of significant change when you have a closed-mindset culture.
Take “the middle way” when evaluating your current processes – think outside the box and don’t be attached to “the way it’s always been done.”
In the words of Henry Ford (whether metaphorical or actual), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Don’t just try to make a faster horse – true innovation lies beyond that.
And make no mistake – achieving stakeholder alignment on what the path forward looks like is no easy task. People will always have different points of view, priorities, needs, etc. But if you can at least get your stakeholders to agree that there is a better way forward, you're 90% of the way there.
Setting an open-minded culture in your department will encourage people to question the status quo and experiment, iterate and improve.
6. Don’t treat them as an order taker
This is not a pencil pusher position. Sorry, folks. Your legal ops team is there to create and implement initiatives for your department, based on a sound strategy with end goals and measurable outcomes.
Many GCs who are hiring for this role for the first time may not have seen a legal ops team in action before and wonder: What will I have them work on? Do we even have enough work? But the beauty of a highly qualified legal ops pro is that they will tell you what you need to work on. If you’re hiring the right person, you can set them free to talk to people on your team – and teams you work closely with – to uncover the areas of improvement for your org.
Legal ops teams are natural problem solvers and legal detectives; they will find what processes can be improved – especially the processes that you didn’t even realize needed to be.
7. Give them budget - they will put it to good use
A big part of the legal operations function is finding, evaluating, implementing, and iterating software. The rate at which SaaS vendors are innovating is mind-blowing, and it’s a legal ops team’s responsibility to sift through the good, the bad and the ugly to identify the solutions that will exceed your expectations. But this, of course, requires money – and knowledge of what implementation and success actually looks like.
In a world of build vs. buy, the secret ingredient of software pressure testing goes a long way.
And budget doesn’t necessarily only apply to software – as legal teams grow, they truly become force multipliers for your organization. If you have one stellar legal ops hire that can help transform the way you work – imagine what having two will do. And so on and so forth.
The end goal of every legal ops professional is simple: make your GC look good. How? By improving their team’s processes, driving impact, and positioning the team as a strategic leader – and thought partner – within your organization.
And if you’re in legal ops and are wondering to yourself, “How do I work well with my GC, and make them look like a rock star?” Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, which will examine how legal ops should work with GCs.