Mary O’Carroll readily acknowledges that legal operations professionals have a key role to play in helping in-house teams manage functions such as outside counsel spend and technology use.
But at a time when the scope of the profession is still being ironed out, the former director of legal operations at Google says she doesn't want to see legal ops professionals confined to back-office posts.
Instead, O’Carroll is calling for legal operations chiefs to actively seek opportunities where they can provide guidance to general counsel and company leadership about new ways to achieve business goals, including through leveraging data to inform decision making.
“We could actually be defined in two ways,” O’Carroll tells Legal Dive. “We can go down the road of, ‘We just take direction, and we just help everybody else.’ Or we can become a leader. I think this is a very important juncture in time to define that properly.”
Taking a proactive approach
O’Carroll, chief community officer of CLM provider Ironclad, says the strategic role she wants to see legal operations chiefs play is a significant shift from how most currently operate.
Many are focused on responding to the needs of their legal departments and other company departments, rather than spending time developing ideas for how to change the way business is done.
“We don't have to be reactive to everything,” O’Carroll says. “We can be proactive.”
However, O’Carroll says she is encouraged there are reports emerging of some legal ops chiefs becoming “wayfinders” who provide strategic direction to company leadership.
As an example, O’Carroll points to a legal operations professional at a rapidly growing company who leveraged clickwrap technology more common in the consumer contracting space for a B2B use case. This permitted vendors to sign up and contract with the company in self-service fashion, enabling them to bypass both legal and sales. In turn, the company was able to scale its growth.
“It got the attention of their CEO, got the attention of the Board of Directors and it had a direct impact on the bottom line of the company,” O’Carroll said. “And they all knew that without her, the company never would have been able to grow and scale in the way that they did. She is a perfect example of thinking outside the box."
Elevating the legal department
O’Carroll believes legal ops professionals are well-positioned to play strategic leadership roles because they already interact with many different business units, including sales, finance and HR.
Information they glean from these interactions can be used to develop solutions for solving company pain points.
Legal ops leaders would also be wise to share insights from the data they collect with other business units who may find it actionable.
O’Carroll points to contracts as an example of documents that are full of important information about how the business is operating that could be shared with other departments.
“Why do we have all that information if we're not using it to empower the rest of the company?” O’Carroll says.
When legal operations leaders follow through in providing data to other units, she says it can result in them having a seat at the finance and sales tables, among others.
Surfacing key data with strategic implications can also help the legal department move away from being seen solely as a cost center that is a roadblock to company progress.
“GCs are constantly asking right now, ‘How do we demonstrate our value?’” O’Carroll says. “This is it. Surfacing information and helping the company make decisions and go the right way. This is what you need to do.”
Case for higher compensation
Legal ops professionals can also make a case for their own value by playing more strategic roles at their companies.
While O’Carroll says salary surveys that indicate legal ops leaders make in the $200,000 range should be taken with a grain of salt because she personally knows legal ops leaders who make far more, particularly in Silicon Valley, she also believes that many legal ops chiefs should be better compensated than they are currently.
“I want folks who are going into this role to know there is a career path, that there's an upper boundary that is attractive,” O’Carroll tells Legal Dive. “The lawyers can make in the millions, so why should we see ourselves any lower?”
She notes that the legal operations professional she mentioned earlier who helped her company leverage clickwrap technology received a big promotion in the aftermath, providing proof that “innovation pays.”
O’Carroll says she advises GCs and chief legal officers to try to hire legal ops leaders who can make a broad impact, but emphasizes that to attract high-quality candidates they will need to be willing to bring these skilled professionals in at the right level and compensation.
“There's an absolute increasing level of value when you can hire someone who is much more senior, much more sophisticated in their business acumen and experience who can now add real value to how you're running your shop,” she says.