hen I first began my legal operations and discovery role, I realized I had a lot to learn. I'd come with a technical background from IT and had been supporting legal for two years. I had a grasp of the legal language and processes, but I was missing the bigger view of what was taking place outside our company walls. I was expected to ensure that the legal department met our obligations in the area of discovery, and to drive efficiency and effectiveness. To help achieve these goals, I sought out others in similar roles with other companies to benchmark. I created an expanding network of knowledgeable peers eager to collaborate and share their experiences.
The role of Legal Operations & Discovery Lead is expanding and evolving. According to the ACC Chief Legal Officer (CLO) 2016 Survey, more and more in-house legal departments are utilizing legal operations staff to help their offices work more efficiently and successfully. Nearly 50 percent of the in-house departments surveyed said they had at least one person assigned to legal operations, a remarkable increase from 2015, when the figure was just 20 percent. There are many titles for people filling the position including Director, Head or Manager, all of whom are leading legal operations.
Whether one or more people lead the legal operations & discovery functions, the role is the same across all organizations: to have fingers on the pulse of technical advances, the legal industry, and their own corporate environment. Those who do are successful and help their departments thrive. But, where do these key resources get their guidance? How do they know what they should be focusing on as the next big initiative?
Other career paths have formal continual training to ensure individuals stay up to date on changes in their industry, such as lawyers with CLE, Engineers with CPD and IT professionals with certifications. While there is no formal requirement for continuing education for operations/discovery professionals, after eight years as the Operations & Discovery Manager at American Electric Power, I believe the key to continuous learning in legal ops is in being active within one's peer network. I am responsible for making recommendations that affect the efficiency and effectiveness of our entire department and these decisions should not be made in a vacuum.
To be sure, I am not alone in this view. I reached out to several peers to ask what they believe is the "secret sauce" for their success.
"We are seen as the experts regarding legal technology and business efficiencies in order to support the GC," says Eric Lieber, director of legal operations and litigation support at Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. "The attorneys view us as the trusted and reliable voice of reason, and they expect us to advance the work that is happening in the legal department," says Lieber, who also relies on the power of his peer network to leverage the knowledge learned from their experience. "If you are expected to formulate strategic technology plans, it is essential to know what has or has not been successful."
The power of the peer network as a learning and benchmarking tool is a consistent theme. At Liberty Mutual, Glenn O'Brien, director of electronic discovery, relies on his peer network to help mitigate risk. "Technology is constantly evolving, if we don't know how to respond to those changes we will put the company at risk," O'Brien says. "Internal departments are implementing technology to stay competitive; we have to keep in pace with them."
The term "networking" has a connotation of individual advancement, but in my experience being a well-networked and savvy operations/discovery lead benefits my entire organization. I have been fortunate at AEP. My management has always supported my participation in conferences and speaking on panels, which means I now have a large network that I reach out to on a weekly basis for a variety of reasons. I have a list of peers that are using the same applications, legal service providers and vendors as AEP that I call upon to get feedback or advice. The knowledge gained from these counterparts directly impacts my job effectiveness. There are many benefits to establishing and leveraging a peer network:
- Best practice guidance: When establishing business processes, especially in discovery, it is important to gauge what other companies are doing. Typically after talking with 3 to 5 companies you will start to see trends in a particular space.
- Unfiltered references for vendors, services & applications: Vendors often provide squeaky clean references; peers will tell it like it is. You can trust your peer network like family, they have nothing to lose by telling you the truth.
- Lessons learned: Whether business processes, projects, services or applications, etc., many Operations or Discovery projects/initiatives being considered by your company have already been done or considered somewhere else. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Leveraging peer knowledge will reduce project cost by focusing the scope and removing issues that others have experienced that you can avoid.
- Bet the company litigation: When your company is facing litigation that it has never seen before, reach out to peers for guidance and best practices.
- Template sharing: Many peer organizations provide portals for companies to share templates with potentially sensitive corporate information removed.
- Leverage change with outside partners: Groups of peers that all use the same applications can pool their influence and push for changes with their legal service providers and other vendors. These changes can be things like improved support or actual application enhancements.
- Network contacts: Your peers in the industry will introduce you to others that may be running the same applications or considering similar projects.
- Inclusion/introduction into focused peer group: Peers will tell you about other ways to get or stay connected to the industry.
Did I mention that using my network is free? Using a consultant to answer these same sorts of questions will cost upwards of $200 an hour.
"When faced with a new challenge, I often turn to my peer network," O'Brien says of his role at Liberty Mutual. There's no sense re-inventing the wheel. Chances are pretty good that if I'm running into a new problem, some of my peers have as well. I know I can contact them and find out what worked for them and potentially adopt their solutions to fit my needs."
There is nothing more important to these key leaders than a strong, trusted peer network. The development of this network comes from spending time with others in person. To share information about what your company is doing, you need to feel safe. Trust is built by getting to know someone on a personal level, and that relationship cannot form via email or over the phone. Legal ops leaders develop their networks by attending industry-focused conferences such as the annual ACC Legal Operations conference.
Many of my peers are frustrated that they cannot get approval to attend these critical conferences. Without the ability to build this network of support it can be difficult to do their jobs. To be effective, legal operations and discovery professionals must be able to experience and understand what is happening in the industry to implement strategic change. The best way to do that is by meeting those who are making positive changes happen.
"At Toyota we have the concept of 'Genchi Genbutsu', i.e. Go and See. It is a key principle of the Toyota Production System," Lieber says. "It suggests that in order to truly understand a situation one needs to go to genba (現場) or, the 'real place' — where work is done. This has served the company and me well."