Left to right: Connie Brenton, director of legal operations NetApp and Stephanie Corey, legal director Flextronics (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)
While benchmarking and analytics may not make great fodder for cocktail party conversation, they’re hot topics in corporate legal departments. And Stephanie Corey and Connie Brenton, the top legal operations executives at Flextronics and NetApp Inc., know those subjects as well as anyone in the Bay Area. About four years ago, the pair started the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, or CLOC, to compare notes with their peers at some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. Earlier this month, they helped launch the Association for Corporate Counsel’s inaugural conference for legal operations professionals—a sign, says NetApp’s Brenton, that the specialty has hit the “tipping point.”
How did you each get into legal operations?
COREY: I have a finance background, [but no law degree]. I originally applied for a job at [Hewlett Packard Co.] that was listed as financial operations manager for the legal department. It had a small technology component to it. That was 16 years ago.
BRENTON: I had been working in the technology legal group and was invited to apply to be director of legal operations at Sun Microsystems. Part of the reason is because I have a JD/MBA and operations has a strong business component. It was a good match of talent and passion and interest. I ended up working in a well-developed legal operations department initially. The Sun organization had 26 people in legal operations.
In the industry how many people are lawyers versus non-lawyers?
BRENTON: At CLOC, it’s split about one-third MBA, one-third JD, and one-third JD/MBA.
How did the CLOC group come together?
BRENTON: I was working at Oracle at the time and the general counsel had asked for some benchmarking information. We put together very quickly a group of primarily technology companies. It’s an extremely cohesive, consistent group of executives who have been meeting for four-and-a-half years, every other month without exception. There are some requirements to be a member. You have to have a legal department of 50 or more. The participant needs to report into the general counsel. You have to show up in person every other month and you have to contribute to the organization.
What do you mean when you say “benchmarking”?
BRENTON: We benchmark anything from spend to technology, organizational structure, development, training …
COREY: Titles, responsibilities …
BRENTON: Pro bono opportunities …
COREY: Best practices in rolling out certain applications, meeting planning, team building. Every aspect of our jobs, we’ve benchmarked.
Have large law firms embraced the concepts behind the business approaches you’ve brought to the legal function or do you still find some resistance?
COREY: Any general counsel who has this role in place knows that they need to operate their legal department like a business, which means you have to manage to a budget. The days of not knowing what you’re spending on outside counsel are over and done with. I think our bigger law firms know this and they’ve seen it already. They know they have to do e-billing for instance. There was a lot of resistance at first. I think you’re seeing a lot less resistance now.
What do and don’t most practicing lawyers in firms understand about what you do?
BRENTON: A lot of people in the industry don’t understand the technology. The legal industry has been so far behind in terms of leveraging technology and creating efficiencies. It’s understandable that practicing lawyers are not familiar with that concept. It just hasn’t existed.
COREY: They don’t understand that chiefs of staff and chief legal operations officers are decision makers. When [companies] procure outside counsel, we’re often the ones making the decision.
How did the ACC event that you both attended earlier this month come together?
BRENTON: The CLOC organization in Northern California is the most mature and disciplined. But there are also groups in Chicago, Southern California, New York, and Houston. We were looking for a neutral third party that could throw its umbrella over all these organizations so that we could collaborate nationally. We have been having conversations with ACC for a couple of years. This is the first time they’ve ever added a section. ACC [previously] only allowed attorneys [as members]. They had to make an exception to allow non-attorneys to participate in the legal operations section. You had the most experienced legal operations directors in the world leading the panels, which is why it was such an extraordinary event.
COREY: It sold out within a couple of weeks . There were more sponsors than we could handle.
What were the hot topics?
COREY: Spend is always a big topic, but to me the theme of the overall meeting was really metrics. What metrics are valuable? How do you measure the success of your department?
BRENTON: Actually I think that the theme of the conference was the fact that the conference was happening, that operations is an important and necessary and vital to the success of a legal department. The executives who have been doing this for 10 or 15 years were there as mentors to some of the newer law departments that are just getting interested in analytical operations roles.
In terms of metrics, what were people talking about?
COREY: Realistically, you can find 250 ways to measure absolutely anything that you’re doing in your department. The ones that are [most valuable are] anything that we can take to the CEO or the CFO and show that we’ve reduced contract cycle time or we’ve reduced the number of attorneys touching something—just to show efficiencies.
BRENTON: The reason metrics is always a topic is because it’s complicated. There are so many metrics you can capture. It’s a matter of choosing the correct metric to change the behavior. So why are you capturing a particular metric is always the first question when you start. And if you’re just new to it, that’s biggest hurdle: What metrics do I capture? So, we have created a metric framework and we’ve bucketed them into four categories: Customer feedback, best-in-class metrics, internal team metrics, and then external metrics. The next thing is that are coming is standards. One is for the job description of the legal operations role and the second is for billing guidelines.
CLOC members are by-and-large technology companies. Does that make it easier to collaborate? COREY: I think we tend to be more collaborative because it’s in our nature. This is what our profession is. I don’t think you can be really successful in this role unless you are a natural collaborator because we work with every single person in the department. We work with other departments. It’s just the nature of this role. But then also I think we tend to be very candid with each other in groups because we know it elevates the whole industry, it elevates us as a function.
BRENTON: Plus we’re in a very exciting time in the evolution of the legal industry. We have technology and efficiency tools available to us now more than in all of the history of the industry. And so it’s hard to keep up. We’re adding technology into the industry at the rate of a brand new significant technology every six- to eight-months. Just to keep current would be a full-time job. We’ve got to rely on each other.