Lisa Konie, director of legal operations counsel, Adobe Systems
Lisa Konie, director of legal operations counsel, Adobe Systems

Just because someone excels at doing the critical tasks of a department doesn’t necessarily make him or her qualified to manage that department. In legal, that means advanced understanding of the law doesn’t always translate to success overseeing the minutia of the department, and that often star attorneys are best left to practicing law.

The ability to handle the selection of technology, management of processes, efficiencies, training and outside counsel has become key to the success of law departments. Increasingly, that has meant hiring a dedicated legal department operations (LDO) executive.

“The easiest way to explain the position to those that don’t have intimate familiarity of what a legal operations executive does is, basically, anything that doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of an attorney ends up coming our way,” says Lisa Konie, director of legal operations, Adobe Systems.

The responsibilities Konie lays out hold true for most large organizations, and due to the diversifying needs of modern legal departments, business acumen and adaptability are essential for LDOs.

Evolving needs and evolving roles

The development of this role has been accelerated by the requirements of today’s legal department. Specifically, the splintering of technological solutions has meant that the role has evolved from classic operations needs like balancing the books and managing outside counsel to acting as a broker between departments, an advocate for the technology needs of legal and the champion of efficiency.

“When I started 15 years ago in a similar role at Hewlett-Packard, the name of my role was financial operations manager. I was really brought in to manage the finances, with a small technical aspect to that role. I had no technical experience at that time and I came from an economics and finance background,” says Stephanie Corey, legal chief of staff at Flextronics. “The role has evolved very quickly. Right around the time I began, you started seeing more niche technologies for the legal environment popping up, things like matter management, the very beginnings of e-billing and contract management.”

Similarly, Konie’s path to legal operations executive grew from her oversight of projects designed to get more out of Adobe’s attorneys and processes: “Originally I joined as an attorney; I was on our legal sales team supporting sales deals, which is the largest legal team at the company. My VP at the time was really focused on efficiencies. The role started by implementing those efficiencies, with projects like trying to consolidate the language in our sales contracts so they were all consistent, or coming up with playbooks so that people had the tools to make themselves more efficient and effective. I gravitated towards this role and ended up leading several projects that were efficiency related, driving the team to more output, since there wasn’t always the money to hire more bodies.”

Eventually, Adobe’s GC realized that driving efficiencies was not just something that needed to happen in the legal sales team, but across all sections of the law department. At the same time, new technologies supporting the push for efficiency also required technological literacy and connections to other departments as part of the role.

“All of a sudden you had this groundswell of activity where people started to realize—contract management software for example—these are multiple cross company solutions. It isn’t something that just lawyers use; tax, revenue and any other department commonly using contracts are also going to need it. Knowing that legal is the ‘owner’ of a tool like that, that has cross-departmental reach, I think more and more companies are starting to understand the need to have someone in a significant operational role that supports not only the inner workings of the department itself but also the tools being employed across the company,” Konie says.

Point of the pyramid

Regardless of what path the proto-LDO took to arrive at its modern incarnation, one thing is certain: Few positions have the same ability to shape the policies, processes and technologies driving today’s legal department. Operations executives can often see what’s best for their department and the organization itself. Having insight into the needs of the greater corporate community presents an opportunity for LDO managers to shape their organizations in a way others cannot.

“I have a lot of peers I can rely on; they’re the ones who are closest to the processes on their teams, so when something is off kilter, they might reach out to ask for a way to put a tool in place,” Konie says. “Take for example my vice president of IP. When we needed a new patent asset management tool, he was the one saying, ‘Okay our current system isn’t working,’ because while I’m on the backend supporting the tool, he and his team are really the ones down in the weeds with it. That’s how we determine what they need.”

Sometimes outside factors place larger constraints on how technology is implemented or how quickly it needs to be put into place. This is where a strategic view truly comes into play.

Konie says, “For our e-billing solution, our GC needed that to happen. When there’s a request from the top like that, all barriers get removed, and we implement it as soon as possible. Other projects require more horse trading, where we have to go to IT or to the chief financial officer and really try to sell our need. You need situational knowledge to make those kinds of calls.”

Due to that need to interface with multiple departments while maintaining high-level understanding of business management, there is really no one single path that make sense for LDOs. While MBAs and JDs are common, neither is a prerequisite.

“I’ve certainly seen every combination of JD and MBA in similar roles, different degrees ultimately offer different experiences. MBAs have a step ahead from the budgetary angle, whereas my experience negotiating sales deals helps me better communicate and negotiate legal’s needs,” Konie says. “Ultimately being able to take on a leadership role through change is most critical, since everything we do is change.”

Finding efficiencies

The movement towards a more technical role is not surprising if you look at the top-of-mind concerns facing most legal operations managers. According to Huron’s sixth annual Legal Operations Survey, identifying opportunities for business improvement and cost savings was the second most commonly cited challenge for legal operations executives after driving and implementing change. “I would say from my experience that technology is so ever-changing that having experience with particular software may be helpful, but if you marry yourself to one thing it can be detrimental. At the end of the day it’s all about understanding your processes,” says Corey.

Company buyouts, new players in the space and varied features can make selection and commitment to a single software provider a challenge for LDOs. Corey advises that operations executives strike a balance between knowing what the department needs and the overall goal of containing cost while driving change.

“I have had some real failures in rolling out applications, and every time it’s because I’ve found some technology that I thought was superb and I forced the rollout because I knew it would be better for the department, but it wasn’t something any of them had asked for,” Corey says. “At this point in my career I won’t force anything on anyone unless they ask for it.”