New Zealand Law Society - Legal operations: What it means for in-house

Legal operations: What it means for in-house

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The term, ‘legal operations’ or ‘legal ops’, has crept into our collective in-house consciousness in New Zealand over the last couple of years. Is it new?

That depends on where you live. Legal operations as a dedicated function within an in-house legal team is not a new concept or function to the wider world.

It is, however, a more established function in the United States. Over the past three years, CLOC (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium), a global network of legal operations professionals, has seen its membership grow from 80 to 1,000. Over 25% of these members are US Fortune 500 companies with established legal operations roles, some at a senior leadership level of the business.

It is an emerging function here in New Zealand. At the ILANZ Conference in Hamilton in May, we scheduled a number of legal operations sessions to bring more awareness to our delegates around this in-house function.

What is a ‘legal operations’ function?

I asked Stephen Mullins of lexvoco to describe the legal operations function for a person who has never heard of it.

He says it is a role or function which is focused on running the core operational elements of a legal function. These core elements are the people, the process and the policy. It can be likened to the in-house version of a law firm practice manager.

Another great source of information on this function is CLOC, which describes the function as one which focuses on the following:

  • Setting an operational strategy for the legal function/team.
  • Building a great team by automating and optimising workflows.
  • Creating a technology roadmap.
  • Implementing technology and processes to save time and money.
  • Maximising resources by tracking and managing external and internal spend to deliver best value.

Is legal operations an established career pathway?

Mary O’Carroll, the Head of Legal Operations at Google Inc, and a passionate advocate of the legal operations function, told the CLOC Institute event in Las Vegas in April that, in the past two years she has met law graduates seeking her out to find how to get started as a legal operations manager.

However, she observed that there is still a lot of work to do to train people in this function at law school or university level. She also says that the ‘old school’ way of thinking that things do not need to change is a barrier to overcome.

It is an emerging career path in Australia, which will host its first dedicated legal operations conference in Sydney in September.

However, it appears that this career is still in its infancy here in New Zealand. The winners of this year’s Artemis Executive Recruitment In-house Innovation Award, the Mercury Legal Team, has recently appointed a legal operations manager, although, such examples are few and far between here.

Is there a benefit of having a dedicated legal operations function in an in-house team?

Stephen Mullins says the issue for most in-house teams is that they are very busy with little to no time to enact change. He believes that the benefit of engaging a team member dedicated to operational management is that it supplies the additional resource and the extra skill set.

At the ILANZ Conference, I chatted with the General Counsel of a large New Zealand corporation who noted that there is often no shortage of ideas within legal teams on ways to improve. It is the implementation of these ideas that is the most common obstacle.

What kind of person becomes a legal operations manager?

A legal operations manager can be sourced from a variety of backgrounds. My research shows that they can be:

  • Lawyers who have trained or adopted a legal operations mindset.
  • Project managers.
  • Legal executives.
  • Private law firm practice managers who have moved across to in-house.
  • Business analysts.
  • Executive assistants.

The non-legal pathways into this function reflect that the skill set is to deliver the operational performance and management of an in-house team. This does not necessarily require a law degree.

Does an in-house legal team need a dedicated legal operations function?

Not necessarily. It is the mindset of a legal operations function that appears to be the necessity.

There are providers such as lexvoco who focus on coaching and training in-house lawyers to adopt a legal operations mindset. Lexvoco’s Stephen Mullins says that, “an in-house legal team can achieve huge efficiencies by adopting a legal operations mindset. The mindset of considering (a) what its people should be spending most of its time on to add value to its core business; (b) what processes can be implemented to enable the team to spend more time on the matters that are most important to it; and (c) what policies can be applied to protect this approach.”

There are also a range of legal operations platforms that can enable a legal in-house team to perform a legal operations function. Pragmatically, the team would need to appoint a champion to manage the platform and the input of content.

You can also educate yourself by using the resources available from institutions such as CLOC.

Do in-house teams need to completely change their way of thinking?

A complete change may not be needed. In-house lawyers are already evolving to become more adept at applying a design thinking mindset to their work. This mindset is one that focuses on the outcome for the recipient of the service.

The ‘user experience’ has become a common basis on which in-house counsel think about what they are offering and why.

Every year ILANZ reviews award finalist entries from legal teams which clearly show that this approach is being applied across our section of the legal profession.

During the UnSessions at the ILANZ Conference we heard a variety of ways that our delegates approach the in-house legal service: self-service portals, FAQs and simplified, easy access templates becoming the norm now.

The conference also heard from Jackie Floyd, General Counsel, Group Functions and Farm Source at Fonterra on how the dairy cooperative held a legal team hackathon to source fresh ideas about how to deliver a better legal service. James Hassall, General Counsel of Auckland Council, explained how he and his team identified changes needed by buying in a review from a new law firm.

Commentary from overseas senior counsel echo that this design thinking is required for a best in class in-house legal service. Gabrielle O’Brien, Executive Manager of ILANZ, reflected in the last issue of LawTalk (June 2018, page 80) that advice from Legal Counsel of Disney, Paris and other panel members at the joint Canadian Corporate Counsel Association (CCCA) Conference and In-house Counsel Worldwide (ICW) World Summit was that in-house legal teams should be “spending 5% of their time focusing on what’s new; ensuring that new technology was being pursued to meet a need rather than for its own sake and ‘cool factor’; and not forgetting the basics – what value are you adding?”.

Will legal operations become an embedded function in the future?

It seems very likely.

Sam Kidd of LawVu told me that they are now delivering their legal operations platform across the US and Australia in addition to New Zealand.

Sam says the key difference he has noted between the US and New Zealand is the attitude toward the legal operations function. In New Zealand the only advocates for legal operations are ‘innovators’ who have to sell it up to a General Counsel or the senior leadership team. These advocates have to supply a business case to ‘sell’ the idea, obtain a budget and get approvals from above that legal operations is and should be a core function.

This is in stark contrast in the US, where Sam observed by the sheer size of the attendance at the CLOC Las Vegas event that there is top-down pressure from American senior leadership teams and General Counsel for legal teams to evidence how they are adding value and to invest in a legal operations function to demonstrate this.

So, does our in-house community need to focus on legal operations?

‘Yes’ was certainly the message delivered by one of our keynote speakers at the ILANZ Conference, Mick Sheehy, formerly General Counsel at Telstra and founder of CLOC Australia, who delivered a talk on ’Setting a strategy for your legal department and turning innovative ideas into results’. He said that to do just that there are three essential ingredients: empower and encourage an innovation culture; have a legal operations function; and have an innovation agenda.

How will ILANZ support and lead the in-house profession in this space?

My takeaway from all of this is that ILANZ will continue its watching brief in this space. We will continue to harness as much information from New Zealand and overseas to supply information on legal operations. We will also ensure we continue to support our section of the profession by offering legal operations content at our national conference.

Sian Wingate is an in-house lawyer with Powerco in New Plymouth and was elected President of ILANZ in May

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