Welcome to Operationally Speaking, where we get to know the legal operations professionals behind some of the most prominent corporate law departments in the world. These are the individuals changing in-house practice as we know it through innovations in process and technology.
Tania Daniels, already head of global legal operations at The Walt Disney Co., recently landed another important gig, as vice chair of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s membership section for legal operations executives.
There she will work alongside the group’s new chair, Sowmyan “Sam” Ranganathan of AbbVie Inc., to support her fellow ACC ops professionals in several ways, including by developing best practices and helping members navigate the quickly evolving field of legal ops.
Daniels brings experience to the table not just from Disney, where she started work in 2007, but from the law firm space. After beginning her career in public interest law, she then shifted to become director of knowledge management at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton and then at Howrey Simon Arnold & White.
The Recorder affiliate Corporate Counsel spoke with Daniels about how she started off a career in legal ops, the future of the profession and how technology has changed the ops game. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Corporate Counsel: How did you first become involved in legal operations?
Tania Daniels: I have both a Juris Doctor and a Master of Library Sciences, so for me it ended up being a very natural fit with my education and my experience. I did practice briefly [in public interest law] after I came out of law school. But I was offered a position at an Am Law 100 firm that turned into becoming a director of knowledge management. That led to another firm until I got a call from a recruiter who said there is this large entertainment company looking for someone to do legal knowledge management technology.
I came to Disney and focused on that initially, but over the course of the last 11 years, I ended up being assigned what really are now legal operations responsibilities, including outside counsel, contract management, e-billing, CLE, content management, in addition to knowledge management.
How has legal operations evolved since you first started in the function?
I look at it from two different vantage points. Legal operations, from my perspective, has morphed into a much more mature profession. Certainly one that is being recognized as a key contributor to the successful operation of a corporate legal department.
We’ve come together to from several organizations, but one that is important to me is ACC Legal Operations. Over the past few years we’ve developed a number of best practices, we’ve developed a maturity model tool kit. We offer a variety of forums where people come together around specific topics whether it’s contract management or financial management. We also come together regionally so we can see each other face-to-face and not just at the conferences. That has been tremendous for developing the profession internally.
I think we’ve seen increased recognition from general counsel who now see how important it is to have a legal operations role.
It has also changed from a vendor prospective as well because the technology has been changing so much. Legal vendors are recognizing that corporate legal departments are unique entities and they are starting to understand that they need to develop products and tools to meet our needs, which are quite different from those of law firms. For me, I’ve seen much more willingness of vendors to understand that we are different entities and they may have tools that can help us in operations.
Having just been named the vice chair of the ACC’s legal operations group, how do you hope to use your role to advance ops?
We want to be able to continue with the ACC Legal Operations Maturity Model. We were so successful with it. [The model was] designed to help people from an early stage to an intermediate stage in 14 different areas in legal operations. I hope we begin to develop those from an intermediate level to an advanced level.
From the industry side, there is going to be such a large change in the next few years between technology, business models for providing legal services and in the continued growth of the profession that I think the industry will be exploring different types of partnerships for corporate legal departments and third-party providers. It could be anything from a firm to a software vendor to new organizations. What I really hope that I can do as the vice chair is to help identify and develop what kind of an ecosystem of tools a corporate legal department really needs to really gain all of the efficiencies we’d like to gain—also to really demonstrate value to general counsel. I hope that over the next year or two, that is something that we’ll be able to provide guidance on and explore more.
What kind of advancements do you hope to see in legal operations technology and why?
I’d like to see increased use or prevalence or practical applications in artificial intelligence. I think that will naturally happen. Many of us have already been using AI tools, we just didn’t call them AI before. We’ve had a certain degree of success, but AI right now is promising the world and I think they need to become a little bit smarter. I think a lot of vendors are on that path. I’d like to see a more practical and targeted use of AI for legal departments.
Very personally, I’d like to see a better use of data analytics and modeling tools that allow us to mine all of the data that already exists in a legal department, but is often in separate repositories. For us, I know there are systems that claim they can hold all of that, but I’m personally a little skeptical of that. I do think most large corporate law departments are going to have multiple repositories. [We need] the ability to mine that so I can show our general counsel and senior executives what are the trends, what we need to focus on, what are our successes and when has efficiency been achieved.
I’d like to see workflow tools and legal management systems become a little bit more flexible so they can address the unique needs in each corporate legal department. One of things that I gather from my colleagues is we’re not only different from firms, but we’re different from each other because of the industry and the practice groups that we have and corporate culture. Law firms can be a little monolithic—they all have certain types of systems. But corporate legal departments are all unique. So I’d like to see some of these systems and workflow tools advance and be able to meet these unique needs in a more flexible way.
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