Coming of Age
The Changing Role of the Law Department Operations Director
By David Cambria
Published on Dec 01, 2009Incremental improvement, exponential results: That could be the future gains for proactive law department operation directors, according to the First Law Department Operations Survey. With foresight and buy-in from general counsel, IT and business partners, it’s possible to make the leap from running the law department, as many directors do now, to managing it, as many hope to do.
While the role of the professional law department operations director has started to come of age, many of us in that role have been wondering to what extent we can achieve future gains. It was in that spirit that, along with Brad Blickstein of the Blickstein Group and our advisory board, we launched this First Survey of Law Department Operations.
The results show that these professionals have myriad managerial responsibilities in the law department. Most respondents report that they either “direct” or “manage” tasks related to budget management; resource and operations management; project management and systems administration; development of non-attorney staff as well as most purchasing, especially in the area of technology. Furthermore, it is clear from the results that operations professionals also have substantial responsibility related to outside counsel management and attorney development.
The amount of responsibility now invested in a role that hardly existed a few years ago represents the importance of these professionals to their departments, a fact that is amplified by their reporting structures. More than 77 percent of survey respondents report directly to the general counsel, and another 12 percent have dotted-line reporting to the GC. “The creation of this position is in many ways the general counsel taking the approach of running the law department like a business function,” says Aaron Van Nice, director, operations at Baxter International’s law department.
Law department operators are clearly effective—they can make the trains run on time. And business processes are certainly an important aspect of the job, according to our survey respondents. But the high-level, strategic thinking that would provide the most value is only happening in some cases: According to survey respondents, data analysis, a process that could lead to substantial cost savings and other improvements at many law departments, is not considered an important job trait. That reality is short-sighted.
When asked the three most important attributes for managing law department operations, respondents placed law department knowledge, business acumen and business process at the top.
Those results signal that law department operations directors can bring both business and legal knowledge together in a way that is lacking elsewhere in many companies. In an environment where, too frequently, in-house counsel can’t speak the language of business, and the businesspeople can’t always communicate their goals and expectations to the law department, proclivity and background make law operations the perfect crossroads for the law department and businesspeople to connect.
Whatever the reason, not every operations director is taking the opportunity to connect with the businesspeople. When asked about their relationship to client-relations tasks, nearly half report having no involvement in developing and managing long-term strategic department-wide marketing and more than half have almost no client-facing responsibilities. Only about half of the companies are taking advantage of this resource: a business professional in the law department who can speak “legalese.” This is a natural role for an operations director, a position that my friend Rich Seleznov at Huron Consulting Group describes as “part therapist.”
Nonetheless, law department operations directors have advanced a very long way in a very short time.The level of professionalization has been a very recent phenomenon, according to respondents: 64 percent have been in their current positions for less than four years. Fewer than half of the companies responding even had the position before the 21st century. General counsel also recognize the need for seasoned people to head operations. Among the respondents, 64 percent have more than 20 years’ overall work experience.
By their nature, operations directors are also multi-faceted—a jack of all trades, we understand business processes, legal demands and IT infrastructure. But because of these skills, we are also pulled in many different directions. We are expected to ensure that everything is running smoothly, but that doesn’t leave much time for long-range planning and improvements.If there is one thing that’s clear from our results, it is that operations directors allow law departments to run more efficiently in many different areas. In order to provide even more value by focusing on strategic contributions, we need to get our processes and people buttoned down. With the proper processes in place, we will be able to free up more time and take a higher-level view of the law department and its role within the company. Once the trains “run themselves” — or we are able to build larger operations teams to run them — we will be able to spend more time analyzing data, boosting cost savings and improving efficiencies. It may be difficult to gain the time, resources and empowerment to rise above the day-to-day and become more strategic. But a few years ago, the question was how much value professional management of operations could bring at all. It seems we’ve won that battle, and it’s clear the next one will be worth winning, too.
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