Failing is Learning: 3 Legal Ops Considerations for Creating Consistent Success

Corporate legal departments have always relied on nonlawyers, whether they be paralegals or administrators to enable them to work more effectively. But with the rising amount of work they face, alongside budget strains that show no sign of letting up, legal departments are realizing they need far more support than ever before.

The growth of legal operations teams in-house is filling this gap—and for the opening keynote panelists at the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Legal Operations Conference in Chicago, the rise of such teams is only beginning. But deploying legal operations staff in-house is not as simple as hiring a few skilled technicians or administrators. For the corporate professionals managing and directing legal operations who spoke at the keynote, there are many parts to this equation:

1. Get Support from the GC and C-Suite

Like any new in-house team, the legal operations department will flourish or fail depending on the amount of support they receive from the top officers of the legal department and overall company. And this support needs to be more than just purely financial or operational.

Dawn Smith, executive vice president and chief legal officer at McAfee, noted that equally important for a legal operations team is to elicit respect from the legal department for its mission.

Legal operations success “comes from tone at the top,” she said. “If you don’t have a GC who is devoted to you and the vision, I don’t think it will happen.”

This support, however, must be from beyond the legal department as well. Catherine Levitt, vice president of legal at Astellas, noted that the legal operation team’s goal of changing the way lawyers work is inherently difficult for the start.

“I do think sometimes lawyers can be a little bit intimidating,” she said. “Hopefully you will have a buy in from your GC; but it’s not just your GC, it’s the senior leadership of your GC.”

To accomplish this goal, Levitt added that the legal operations team has to continuously “work very hard to form and maintain strong relationships with leaders and organizations and outside legal.”

2. Don’t Frame Legal Operations Just in Terms of Cost

For many, convincing the C-suite and GC about the need for legal operations team can often start and end with one goal in mind: cost savings. But as those already involved in maintaining and growing out legal operations know, the team’s worth is about more than the bottom line.

Levitt compared evaluating legal operations team to how her company evaluates the pharmaceutical products it sells. “It’s not about how cheap [a drug is], but how did it impact the patient’s life,” she noted.

The focus is value, Levitt explained. “I liken that to providing legal services, and so law firms need to show me what their value is there.”

Michael Tucker, executive vice president, GC and chief compliance officer at Avis Budget Group, noted that if a company discusses its legal operations efforts purely in terms of cost, they run the risk of undermining their legal services. “That cost-driven model drives you to do things that are detrimental to your core mission, which is to provide good legal counsel,” he said.

What legal operations teams should be focusing on, Tucker added, are questions like, “How do we make our company better? Did we drive efficiency? Did we lower the risk profile of the company?”

3) Be Hands On with the Technology and Dive In

A legal operations team that is too cautious to push the envelope and bring significant changes to how a legal department works is likely doomed to mediocrity or failure. For Tucker, this first and foremost means understanding the tools that can be brought in-house to spur change.

“You’ve got to understand, and you’ve got to be curious about technology,” he said, noting that there is an ever-growing multitude of vendors that have “all types of tools to help you with different aspects of managing legal functions.”

With these tools, the legal operations team also needs to show how certain implemented technologies drive efficiency and cost-savings. “You have to understand budgeting, and you have to understand how it works,” Tucker said. “You have to be able to monitor those changes and the cost of legal services.”

But most important in this endeavor, he added, was having the courage to actually implement technology-enabled processes. “You got to have your own self confidence. You are dealing with lawyers who have egos the size of Texas, and often, you’re going to be telling them how to do their job better, and many [legal operations professionals] don’t have legal degrees.”

Sometimes, however, legal operations’ efforts can come up short. But McAfee’s Smith noted that this is necessary part of change. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” she advised, noting that in Silicon Valley, failure is “not seen as a bad thing.”

She added, “Failing is learning. If you’ve never failed at a task you’ve never worked hard enough.”

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Rhys Dipshan

Rhys Dipshan is a journalist who covers in-house tech issues from early disruption to ghosts in the machine for Legal Tech News, The National Law...

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