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GC Perspectives on Legal Operations


ccording to an ACC survey of corporate general counsel offices released in January 2016, more and more in-house legal departments are bringing in 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. 

One thing seems to be common among these corporate general counsels who have set up offices of legal operations: They all seem to have found that their organizations have benefited from the change. Not all legal departments have seen this benefit in the same ways, but all have noted significant improvement in one way or another.

In 2014, for example, Sharon Barner, vice president and general counsel of Cummins Inc., brought in Sophie Zerbib, a Six Sigma black belt and expert in process improvement, as the company's Director of Legal Business Operations. Zerbib has an MBA, a degree in hotel and restaurant management, and a law degree, but never practiced law.

"I worked with the ACC to put together a job description and then posted the job vacancy," Barner recalls, "and I found Sophie in the company already, in one of our facilities in Tennessee, working on financial operations. My idea was that just as law firms have a firm-management side, where someone with business experience can be the right person for the job, our department needed someone who could focus on operations while I could handle the legal side."

Before Barner hired Zerbib, she said she had to convince top management that such a position was really needed – someone who understands process improvement, IT and financial matters. Once she got the OK to hire her, it became clear that it was a good hire.

"The key was to find someone who could manage the billing process from end to end, to negotiate with outside counsel and to understand what our financial obligations in the legal department really were," says Barner.

Similarly, Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel of Google, relies heavily on an operations team headed by Mary Shen O'Carroll, the company's head of legal operations, technology and strategy. O'Carroll, who has an undergraduate business degree and formerly worked in operations at a major law firm, has been in her position for almost eight years.

"We take a lot of pride in our legal operations office," Walker says. "We operate in a frugal way to preserve our resources, and we are always developing new homemade tools to manage our documents and our patents."

O'Carroll supervises a team of 10 managers who are constantly exploring new ways for Google's legal team to become more efficient, Walker says. "We have a dashboard that monitors the work of all our outside counsel on a constant basis, for example."

Walker adds that "to my knowledge, no one has yet cracked the code of how to make a legal department fully efficient, but under Mary's leadership, we have certainly moved forward. We wouldn't have made as much progress on all these issues as we have if we didn't have her. It's not just IT, it's not just management, and it's not just career development and training. It's all of the above. She analyzes all our processes — how it is that we're doing what we're doing."

This article was originally published in the ACC Legal Ops Observer, a newsletter for members of the ACC Legal Operation section. ACC thanks the Novus Law LLC Client Solutions team for producing the newsletter.

About the Authors

Jonathan Groner is a freelancer for ACC.

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