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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, corporations were already expecting their legal departments to function more like a traditional business unit. That included finding ways to collaborate effectively and efficiently both internally and with outside service providers.

But when the pandemic began to shut down much of the U.S. in March, it intensified this requirement and forced many legal departments to transform their operations—and do so very quickly.

So who did they turn to for help with this task? Who did the legal department look to in exploring the possibility of using existing technology from other business units? What group worked to ensure that in-house counsel were able to transition from the office to their homes and find new ways to better collaborate remotely?

Legal operations professionals. And their skills in these areas have paid off in spades.

That pivot was a proof of concept for the value of legal operations because the tech-enabled processes that were part of their workflow were critical,” says Catherine Moynihan, executive director of the Association of Corporate Counsel Legal Operations in Washington, D.C.

And the data backs up her statement. Gartner Inc. recently surveyed 126 global legal department leaders and found that the demand for in-house specialists has grown in recent years, with legal operations managers quickly becoming some of the most valued members of in-house teams. According to the survey, the number of legal departments with at least one legal operations manager on-board increased by nearly 75% during the past two years.

Gartner’s finding aligns with the results of Altman Weil’s latest survey of chief legal officers, which showed that legal operations managers had the most job security of all in-house employees. Out of the 119 chief lawyers that participated in the study, none reported that their companies had laid off a legal operations manager during the past year.

The Conversation

Catherine Moynihan, the director of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s legal operations arm in Washington, D.C., said throughout the pandemic, legal departments were finding uses for enterprise-wide technology for their own purposes.

In addition, legal operations professionals are likely to continue to trade notes on what can be done with technology and software from other business functions.

“One of the things that we can readily see is people trying to learn from each other in our legal ops network and that is an area of continuing interest,” Moynihan said.

According to Mary O’Carroll, director of legal operations at Google and president of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) in San Francisco, “If you think about the most basic things now that everyone is using—video calls, e-signatures, document-sharing tools—that was all stuff that a lot of firms and clients were talking about trying to get lawyers to adopt prior to the COVID era. Now it is a must and is absolutely a part of our day.”

O’Carroll also noted that legal operations professionals in the past year have been making a greater effort to collect different kinds of data and find ways to analyze it to make financial decisions.

Data is everything right now. As you are more resource-constrained and have to do a better job of maximizing the resources you have, all of those strategic decisions are based on data,” O’Carroll said.

The Significance

In two words? Lasting change.

In-house leaders don’t see things going back to the ways things were before the pandemic. They have found that one of the most effective strategies for managing the costs of external services is tied to department transformation. And due to the pandemic, legal operations have proved their major role in that transformation.

Now more than ever, a majority of legal departments have a dedicated legal operations function. That is not going away as the use of technology and collaboration is a must in creating value for the department within the organization.

And do you know who also knows this? The Big Four.

Recognizing the increased risk environment and financial burdens around in-house legal departments, KPMG, a global organization of independent professional services firms, recently launched a legal operations transformation service.

Eric Gorman, a principal at KPMG’s advisory service in Chicago, said legal operations services have become even more necessary to find ways to streamline work while attorneys are largely working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. “What COVID has done is accelerated that trend by stressing the systems that existed and exposing weaknesses. The way a lot of legal resourcing happens is, ‘What is the fire of the day that I need to put out?’ as opposed to ‘What’s the larger strategic interest of the client?’”

The Information

Want to know more? Here’s what we’ve discovered in the ALM Global Newsroom:

Heather Nevitt

Heather D. Nevitt is the Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Counsel and Global Leaders in Law.

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