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Boost the Business with These Legal Ops Tips

Legal operations is a multidisciplinary function that optimizes the delivery of legal services to a business or government entity. The field has grown dramatically in the past several years as companies strive to be more efficient in the way in which they purchase and use legal services.

We — Matt Todd, vice president legal business solutions, Elevate; Lisa Kremer Brown, managing director of operations and strategy, Starbucks Corporation; Jennifer Warner, vice president of legal, Columbia Sportswear Company; and Laura Rozier, legal operations manager, Casper — have all played a part in the growth of legal operations in our companies.

On January 17, 2019, we participated in a webinar, hosted by the Association of Corporate Counsel, entitled “Legal Operations — Helping Law Department Executives be Better Leaders.” Matt served as moderator of the panel.

Some key takeaways from the webinar were:

  • General counsel can use legal operations to transform a legal department into a better partner overall to the business, improving the legal department’s relationships with the CFO, the COO, the head of business development, and others.
  • Legal operations can improve a legal department’s ability to manage legal spend (both external and in-house), helping GCs do more with less.
  • By bringing better technology and processes to bear, legal operations can help in-house teams work smarter, increasing both productivity and job satisfaction.

This article is based on the lively conversation that the four of us had in the webinar:

MATT: How can legal operations help a legal department move forward?

JEN: We each come from a slightly different place in the legal operations world. I think of legal operations in the broadest sense: How do you strategically manage a legal function? It includes the use of spend, the use of resources, and a tool for thinking about legal services in a way that brings strategic value to the business and sets the right priorities for the business. Lawyers tend to be trained as individuals. Legal operations is an exercise in structured thinking to bring the most value and efficiency for the company.

LAURA: Legal operations is very new here at Casper, so my priorities are three: Save time, save money, and stay compliant. These goals are very straightforward and have helped me figure out what I need to be doing at any given moment.

LISA: As it happens, Starbucks has been building in this area since 2007, so when I arrived in 2013, a lot was here already. To me, this is a broadening, credibility-building role, and a strengthening role. The team when I got here was mostly HR-focused, and we worked hard to establish our credibility in areas like finance and thinking creatively as a business team, as opposed to just doing what no one else wanted to do.

MATT: Is legal operations only for big law departments?

LAURA: It’s perhaps even more important for small departments than for large ones, and the sooner a company thinks of using legal operations, the less cleanup you have to do. When I came here, we were only three years old as a company, and we had been a very fast-moving company. It’s important for us to establish good habits and company-wide norms from the beginning.

LISA: I agree. It’s a matter of unlearning bad habits and building good habits. The department had grown a great deal over time, but the business processes had been organically created by attorneys, and we had to help them understand why we do what we do, what the approach should be, driving the best practices from the center, and improving work and workflow.

JEN: From a leadership perspective, legal operations helps you be smarter with business folks. The expectations have changed. Legal is no longer a black box. The legal leaders have a seat at the table now, and with that seat come expectations. I need to have a budget now, and predictability. Legal operations is the only way to get your hands on the data that gives you the credibility to talk about your strategy and resources, and this matters for a company of any size.

MATT: What is the role of attorneys in legal ops? Is it taking leadership, helping to shape it, supporting it?

JEN: At a minimum, lawyers must support legal operations. If legal operations is led by nonlawyers, lawyers must commit time and energy to understand and assist it. Sometimes lawyers lead legal operations, and they should have the skills of design thinking and project management expertise. It’s also important for them to have the willingness to commit time to get it off the ground.

MATT: The legal operations team at Starbucks has been very successful. What are some of the key success factors?

LISA: Leadership and buy-in are the key. You must build credibility and gain support and get lawyers who are thought-leaders to understand and have them become champions of our work. We need a campaign to have our services be more of a pull than a push.

MATT: Yes, the question is: Are we pushing services out, or have we taken the time to actively listen to them and what they want from us?

LAURA: I have a close working relationship with the GC, my boss, and he hired me specifically to streamline processes and to figure out the needs of his two-person team at the time, I need to have a close partnership with him and his team, and to do due diligence for what kinds of technologies and processes would be best for his team and his needs.

MATT: One good concept in the project management world is that of a charter. A charter can establish what a project is, what’s in scope, what’s out of scope. Do you have a formal definition of a charter?

LISA: We have had one, and it’s increasingly important to define scope, and what is not in scope. You should write it down and get it out there. Figure out who is in alignment and who is not.

JEN: Lisa’s charter is probably far more detailed. Legal operations is part of our strategic plan, as it ties to our broad company strategy and what we want to achieve year after year. It nests within that broader strategic plan as one of our verticals.

LAURA: We don’t have a formal charter — we are just trying to get to a reasonable baseline and look at where there is room for improvement and to develop a more formalized charter from there with our GC and our small team of corporate attorneys. One key thing is to make sure the entire company understands their obligations from a data security, privacy, and process perspective, then get that knowledge out there in the company.

MATT: Jen, when you stepped into the role, how would you characterize the level of partnership or the relationship that the department had with the rest of the business?

JEN: When I came into the company, Columbia had a big strategic project that led to recommendations for making the business more operational. A lot of leaders were being brought in on the operational side. I needed to understand our legal spend, for example, and I think being able to do that gives you more credibility within the company.

LISA: We are well embedded with the leaders of the business. I don’t think that’s been a challenge. We need to be able to help from the center out, to tell that story, to comment on how legal is really supporting the success of the business.

MATT: What challenges have you found in two core areas — partnering with other leaders of the business, and helping the department run like a business? What has worked well and what hasn’t worked well?

LISA: On the not-positive side, I saw, as a nonlawyer coming into the legal space, my own drive to make things go fast. I was forced to slow down, establish credibility, and select the things that would really make a difference for our department and our GC. One success was building our credibility in budgeting, using the dollars allocated to our department, and giving money back where we could. This both ensured that we were helping to build a legal team and gained us credibility with the financial side. Another success was technology and working with an ever-changing technology department, and picking the right tools, not bogging down the legal professionals with that decision.

JEN: I agree. It’s important to talk about how we are being thoughtful with what we are doing with our team and how we use the company’s money. That shows we are paying attention. That’s different from five or 10 years ago, when you just had in-house lawyers spending money on outside lawyers’ hourly rates, and there wasn’t much attention to how much we were spending and why.

We can make a change to the type of provider. We looked at our real estate providers here and overseas, and we found new service providers. We found that we can look at alternative providers or law companies or certain boutique providers and take that annual spend and bring it down by half. We can talk with the COO and say, “We are paying attention, we understand what we are spending, and we are making new decisions that can save the company money or apply the money to other areas that are needed as the company changes.” The legal market is changing, and there are a lot of different ways to think about and purchase legal services, and a lot of new technology, and the company’s leaders appreciate that level of awareness and thoughtfulness.

MATT: I agree. Education is important. It’s important to help the other business leaders in the company understand more about what is a fairly esoteric way of purchasing services. Another thing I heard you talk about is to tell the story of the legal department, something that the department just wasn’t good in talking about with others. Is that something you have experienced as well, Laura?

LAURA: At Casper, I was brought on board to be a point person who could tell the story of the legal team and integrate legal with the rest of the business, so I agree on that front. Having me serve as a resource for the rest of the business has been great. Since I am working on so many longer-term operations projects as well as the day-to-day ones, I have a good sense of what’s happening on the whole, so I can connect business leaders to the resources they need. I can point business leaders to our outside counsel or to resources in our department. One challenge is figuring out whom to loop in on every project and who has accountability for what aspects of which projects.

MATT: That concept of liaison, sitting at the center of the web, is an interesting one. The saying is that we are trying to change the perception of the legal department from the department of "no," to being the department "in the know." Since legal touches so many places in the company, that makes sense.

LISA: Since our company changes and grows daily, I think the legal department is positioned within the company as a hub, and the legal operations team is well positioned within the legal department to know what the department is doing. This means turning the legal operations team into a service organization with expertise to enable cross communications within the legal department, and better positioning our lawyers to be in the know to support the business units.

MATT: What are some ways in which you have used the legal operations platform to help legal run like a business? How about change management and communication?

JEN: For me, it really is a tool that fits into our strategy. As our company’s strategy changes, that changes the nature of your baseline legal needs. What are we spending and whom do we have to support that portfolio? From a change management perspective, if you are teaching people to interact with the legal department, and you want to tell them here’s why we’re looking for your support, I can make that case better by tying it right back to the company’s strategy. That can help smooth those change management challenges.

LAURA: There’s a lot more buy-in when people feel that they’ve been included, when they see the reasoning, what the legal team’s goals are, what the company’s goals are, and how they all intersect. Trying to anticipate those questions in advance has been hugely advantageous.

LISA: It’s always easier to anchor back to something that people already know, and the company’s strategy is a brilliant way to do that.

MATT: For most legal operations teams, technology forms a huge part of their responsibility in helping to inject technology into the operations of the legal department.

LISA: When I started, I went out and surveyed the legal department to find out what were the points that could use some improvement. Communications, technology, and administrative support were right at the top, and we gathered a very robust set of requirements in matter management and e-billing solutions. The key is to understand the requirements, making sure to involve the people who will be required to make a change, to try to help them and to make the technology platform more useful to them. Thus, they feel a part of this and thus they will be more likely to see this as a positive change.

MATT: Do you act as a conduit into the corporate technology?

LISA: Yes, we are the conduit. My team has business solutions analysts embedded with the legal team, and we are partnering directly with the IT team to build and leverage the investment in technology across the company.

LAURA: One of the things that resonates with me is that it’s important to understand the requirements and the resources that you need in order to fully utilize the software. We were looking to implement a contract management system that had all the bells and whistles that we wanted, but since I was the only person who was going to administer that technology and update it, that software was not going to be viable for us. We could not get the functionality that we wanted because of the limited resources of my team.

MATT: Jen, what’s your experience with the technology piece? A key piece of technology implementation is to look at the process to be enabled by the technology. Often that is a skillset that legal operations can bring to bear — process optimization as a lead-in to technology.

JEN: Technology is a tool, not a process or an answer. It’s important to understand what the technology is going to do for you, how it will fit into a broader process. The broader question is: How to get technology into your company? What are you trying to solve? You have to define the process first. Does your IT team need to be able to support that? Do you need to get into their queue? Do they have baseline requirements from a data security or integration standpoint that you need to know? How do you budget for it and onboard it into your IT procedures so that it fits into your ecosystem?

One of the largest projects that we did in 2018 was to enhance our Legal Tracker billing system. When I started, all of our team’s data was there, but the finance data didn’t match the Legal Tracker data. I was unable to understand what matters that data tied to. We looked at that technology to see how it could talk to the finance system, and now I can get a monthly report that tells me here’s what we spent, with whom, and on what. Our first step was to build a manual system. Now we will have a system that is automated rather than manual.

To summarize some of the key points in this discussion: We concluded that legal operations is not a passing fad, and it can be important for law departments both large and small to consider its application. In addition to its basic functions of streamlining work and tasks as well as adding budgeting sophistication, a legal department should be able to integrate well into the corporation to show increased value to the organization as a whole.

About the Authors

Matt ToddMatt Todd is vice president legal business solutions at Elevate.

Lisa Kremer BrownLisa Kremer Brown is managing director of operations and strategy at Starbucks Corporation.

Jennifer WarnerJennifer Warner is vice president of legal at Columbia Sportswear Company.

Laura RozierLaura Rozier is legal operations manager at Casper

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.