Though even many top lawyers aren’t familiar with legal operations, there’s a quiet revolution going on in the legal industry in which having a legal ops function is a foregone conclusion.
The rise of legal ops—a multi-disciplinary function that is designed to efficiently deliver legal functions to business or government—is based on the recognition that every corporate legal department of a certain size can benefit from operational efficiencies. Some 30 percent of top legal department executives said that focusing on legal operations was one of their top priorities, according to a recent Thomson Reuters poll of corporate legal department executives.
The focus on legal ops has filtered down to all kinds of organizations as well. If you don’t already have a legal ops function, odds are that you’re looking into it. You should be; there are many benefits of a well-constructed legal ops function. Chief among them is the fact that legal ops takes the stress off of an existing legal department and allows them to do their work more efficiently.
If you’re sold on the idea of setting up a legal ops function but don’t know how to do it, here are five steps that will help you get there:
1. Assess your culture.Overhauling your operations first requires taking a clear look at where you are today. One thing to look at is the culture of your department. What’s yours like? Some cultures are extremely cost conscious and data driven. Some are about supporting the business with whatever they need. Others have a legal department that is seen as the catch-all for literally every issue in the company. When you’ve taken an honest assessment of your current culture, it’s time to think about what kind of culture you want. For example, should your law department continue to be the catch-all for everything related to the legal department bucket? If not, then you need to decide which functions are appropriately under the legal department’s purview.
2. Evaluate your operations. Similarly, companies looking to overhaul their legal departments need to take a clear-eyed look at their current operations. Where is the department spending most of its money and time? What are the department’s pain points? It’s often at this point that we find that the department suffers from Cobbler’s Children Syndromein which the legal department is so busy addressing the needs of the business clients that it can’t address its own.
3. Define or refine your process. When evaluating internal operations, companies may find that their process needs some work or is non-existent. Not having a well-defined process can lead to needless churn while adopting a poorly defined process can compound existing inefficiencies. For instance, an internal process that involves lawyers too late in the launch phase of a new product underutilizes what product lawyers can offer and leads to hasty decision-making by the product team. For this reason, it’s critical that any business process is created with relevant stakeholders in mind and defined clearly and properly. Any business process should be designed for maximum efficiency. That’s especially true if a business is looking to automate some of those functions. Such automation can only occur if a well-defined process has been created with stakeholder input and road-tested in advance.
4. Initiate strategy and planning. After you’ve developed a good idea of where you stand, it’s time to look at where you want to go. Strategy and planning can take a lot of forms. Some use sophisticated roadmaps and three- to five-year plans. But most companies are setting up legal ops functions for the first time, so they might not need all of that. They just need to know which direction they want to go, what the strategy should be and have a plan. I’m a big believer in leveraging what you already have, so try to maximize your resources by doubling down on what’s already working and look for opportunities to apply under-utilized tools. Beyond that, look for quick wins. For instance, initiating e-billing can offer a dramatic change for many legal departments that are still sending paper invoices or emailing invoices. Another quick win is a contract repository. Many legal departments still don’t have these, which can transform their operations.
5. Identify internal and external technologies. In my book, technology is the great facilitator. A huge part of a legal department’s transformation is the successful implementation of technology solutions that facilitate the right business processes. Once a legal department has made itself ready for a legal ops transformation, it can enjoy the benefits of automation and more efficient ways of doing business. Be mindful, however, of adopting technology too soon before undergoing the above steps in that order. There’s a reason that when I give this talk about how to setup a legal ops function in your department, the order is people, process and then technology.
It’s no surprise that the legal department is largely an overhead line item in companies. Ensuring that a legal department delivers maximum value to the company should be on the agenda for any general counsel these days. The primary benefits of assembling a legal operations function in a legal department will be a boon to day-to-day functions and augment a healthy workplace culture. Businesses that have already created such functions know this. The others—many of whom are in the process of doing so—will see the benefits soon enough.
Monica Zent is an experienced entrepreneur, investor, businesswoman, and trusted legal advisor to leading global brands, over a period that spans decades. Her most recent venture is founder & CEO of Foxwordy Inc., the digital collaboration platform for the legal industry. She is also founder of ZentLaw, one of the nation’s top alternative law firms. Zent is an investor in real estate and startups, and dedicates her time and talent to various charitable causes. She is a diversity and inclusion advocate, inspiring all people to pursue their dreams. When she’s not running companies, Zent runs distance as an endurance athlete. @MonicaZent