Delivering strategic value through legal operations

Legal operations executives must look outside the halls of their own organizations to brainstorm on best practices

The rules of running a world-class legal department have changed. Legal departments are expected to run like a business. There has been a movement toward operating more efficiently and helping the business achieve a competitive advantage. Until recently, however, legal departments haven’t had a specific role or individuals with the expertise to help general counsel achieve these objectives and deliver strategic value. Enter the Legal Operations Executive.

Last month in Chicago, a one-and-a-half-day conference was held with expert legal operations executives from across the nation. The conference was organized by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) and Huron Legal and was guided by a steering committee of leading legal COOs.

In an industry that is notoriously risk averse and slow to change and adopt business practices, more CEOs, CFOs and GCs see the value in not only providing great legal support that leads to a competitive advantage but also operating highly efficiently to provide value to their companies. To achieve that, forward-looking companies are adding operations professionals and chief of staff responsibilities in direct support of GCs and their legal teams.

Because the legal operations/chief of staff role is relatively new to the legal industry, legal operations executives must look outside the halls of their own organizations to brainstorm on best practices, identify cutting edge technologies and find innovative solutions to contemporary issues to help GCs drive a competitive advantage for their clients. Of the meeting participants in Chicago, well over half (61 percent) “invented” the legal operations role for at least one company. All have approached the cross-functional challenges with novel ideas, tackling issues involving not only legal and IT but accounting, sales, procurement, finance and other functions as well.

Like several others who helped plan this conference, I co-founded the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium in Northern California. This organization provides a forum for legal operations executives from Fortune 500 companies to meet in person every other month to exchange ideas, share best practices, and figure out how to drive change in the legal industry, to help their GCs benefit their clients. The success of that endeavor led me to jump at the chance to contribute to the planning of a national conference. As fellow steering committee member Elizabeth Jaworski of Motorola Mobility asserts, “we all have different cultures and strategic goals in our organizations. Hearing approaches within those varying factors gives attendees a menu of solutions to implement, like a shopping mall with a mix of high-end and mid-range stores.”

We discussed metrics and analytics and dashboards, concepts well known to business operations, implementing effective strategic plans, and adding value through pro bono and diversity programs. We spent considerable time comparing notes on the latest and greatest tools and IT issues. For example, the closing session on “tackling emerging issues” discussed methods to improve law firm data security and how to handle the growing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend. It was fascinating to hear about the many different ways departments are using social media tools, such as wikis, YouTube training channels, Google Hangouts, and a Facebook-like connector for agile staffing, to name a few.

Most importantly, however, the group took away a broader understanding of how their fellow legal operations pioneers are harnessing technology, which emerged clearly as a critical—if not the most important—component of how legal can help drive a competitive advantage for the companies they serve.

Steering committee member David Cambria of CDW says the key benefit of the conference was “the ability to share, in real time, innovative and thought provoking ideas.” Cambria challenged all of us to help shape the technology of the future, pointing out that there are many new legal technology vendors who are seeking beta clients to prove their product mettle, and will shape product development around the needs of savvy legal operations executives. Ultimately, the executives at this conference were creating new rules and redefining the game.

Connie Brenton

Connie Brenton is chief of staff and director of legal operations at NetApp. Email her at connie.brenton@netapp.com.

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