Left to right: Steve Harmon of Cisco Systems and Mike Haven of the Gap.

For professionals just entering legal operations, or attempting to build a new ops program in an established department, getting started can be the hardest part.

That’s why Cisco Systems Inc.’s vice president and deputy general counsel, Steve Harmon, and Gap Inc.’s senior director, AGC, and head of legal operations, Mike Haven, led a discussion at the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium’s annual institute on Monday about how to go from a legal operations “zero to hero.” The two have both faced the challenge of building a legal ops function from scratch.

Haven took on the legal operations role at Gap two years ago.

“The first thing you really need to think about when you’re starting a legal operations function is the big picture,” Haven said. “What is the big picture? What are you trying to accomplish in your legal operations role? And really, what it all comes down to is enabling the business.”

In order to do that, he said, new legal ops leaders have to gain the department’s trust. That can be done through initially implementing some quick, easy programs with high success rates, such as review processes, workflow automation, e-signatures and instant nondisclosure agreements.

Early successes, he said, will boost credibility and make it easier to implement larger changes later on. Haven noted it’s also important to meet with people in the legal department and elsewhere in the company to see what their needs are, and how legal operations can help address those needs specifically.

Person-to-person connections are also useful, Haven said, because colleagues outside of legal operations can be leveraged to help with new initiatives when the function is just starting out. Over time, the function could grow and bring on more legal ops-specific staff.

“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You need to focus on the fundamentals and grow gradually,” Haven said.

Harmon, who has worked in ops for approximately 15 years, also stressed the importance of starting with the basics. He warned legal ops professionals starting a new team to focus on improving the processes already in place before rushing to install new technology.

“Avoid the temptation, especially early on in your journey, to go in and pitch things that have a dependency on a technology solution,” Harmon said. “I made that mistake early on in my ops career.”

He said it’s more important for legal ops leaders to focus on what cultural issues and process problems are creating inefficiencies at a company first, otherwise the legal team will just continue to make the same mistakes—but with fancier tools.

“In the tool process and cultural trade-off, it’s very seductive to leap immediately to the tools piece, to the technology piece,” he said. But in Harmon’s experience, that’s like buying a treadmill and expecting an entire lifestyle change.

Metrics, data and speaking with in-house lawyers about inefficiencies they’ve seen are a few ways Harmon recommends spotting problem areas. Those metrics matter for change management as well because, he said, they allow the ops function to figure out what’s successful, and to increase credibility around that success throughout the department.

He also encouraged new legal ops professionals to get involved in their local CLOC group, where they can collaborate and receive feedback from others facing similar issues.