What is Legal Operations? Who are the people responsible for it, and how do you begin to implement innovative technology to streamline legal processes?
Legal Operations (Legal Ops) is a growing branch of the “ops” family that’s evolved from a function focusing solely on risk management and cost reductions to a key business partner pushing the organization forward from within the legal department. Legal operations teams field thousands of requests every year to facilitate and monitor budget approvals, contract negotiations, and matter creation on behalf of attorneys, software engineers, and other CLO professionals.
Fundamentally, a Legal Ops team handles the incessant traffic of tasks and communication relevant to the functions of the general counsel (GC) or Chief Legal Officer (CLO) within an organization. This helps ensure legal professionals can focus on their core competencies and highest-level tasks. It’s also one reason Legal Ops teams are increasingly turning to technology such as no-code automation to help them in their work.
But what is Legal Ops exactly? Who are the people responsible for Legal Ops, and how do you begin to implement legal workflow automation software to streamline legal processes?
Legal Ops comprises all the business activities, processes, and people that enable an organization’s legal department to focus on core competencies. At a high level, Legal Ops teams make sure the right legal work is in the hands of the right people at the right times.
Despite the name, Legal Ops professionals typically aren’t attorneys and paralegals; they hail from other fields like finance, project management, marketing, and even data analytics.
Like all ops professionals, Legal Ops teams aim to streamline processes. Their primary focus is on supporting the legal department, but increasingly, Legal Ops has a much broader mandate. They simultaneously maintain a holistic view of an organization’s legal needs and create processes for handling the tedium and minutiae of legal activities across the whole organization. That allows them to think strategically about higher-level business goals and to work deftly to rein in costs, while simultaneously freeing up the legal team to focus on what they’re trained to do.
All ops is fundamentally more about people than processes, but it’s even more true in Legal Ops. Unlike an area like Rev Ops, which is cross-functional but generally confined within the sales and customer success orgs, Legal Ops teams regularly interface with every part of an organization. Often, those interactions are urgent and sensitive, or at least timely. Therefore, constant and clear communication, marked by patient listening, is crucial for Legal Ops to understand what needs to be done and where the pain points in people’s work show up.
Legal Ops can have a huge impact on companies of every size, from tiny startups to massive enterprises. (The size of a Legal Ops team can start with a single member and scale along with the organization.) But what separates effective Legal Ops teams from less effective ones?
If you’re looking to level up in the Legal Ops space, here are the primary goals your team should focus on:
You need to understand where you are and see where you want to go, or else your Legal Ops will be rudderless. Be proactive, not reactive, about aligning Legal Ops’ resources and goals with the demands of the legal department and the organization as a whole.
Dive deeper: As a Legal Ops pro, you should have insight into virtually every corner of a business, and it’s your job to know not only the overall strategic direction of the company, but also all the little points of friction and frustration people throughout the organization experience. With a comprehensive understanding of the problems and challenges, you can figure out what resources you already have and what you’ll need—as well as how to balance costs. A key side benefit is that you’ll also have a record of all of it to refer to, for your own benefit or for the benefit of a stakeholder who has questions.
At a high level, controlling costs is a major task for Legal Ops, but it encompasses so much more than just balancing the ledger of money in, money out.
Dive deeper: The billable hour is a hallmark of the legal field, and for good reason. It’s simple to track billable hours for both the client and attorney, and therefore it’s easy to calculate costs. The irony of billable hours, though, is that it disincentivizes efficiency for outside counsel and therefore runs counter to organizational efficiency.
With today’s Legal Ops, reducing costs is about a lot more than that, though. Because you’re a business partner of the entire company, you’re looking at making everyone and every process related to legal tasks more efficient whenever and wherever possible. Generally, greater efficiency results in cost reductions. One specific example of this is with the legal intake, triage, and coordination process. How legal takes incoming requests from the business can impact how effectively every legal request is handled and the overall experience other business units have with legal. The legal team fields hundreds of requests every year; imagine the enormous potential impact of reducing costs related to facilitating and monitoring budget approvals, contract negotiations, matter creation, vendor/firm onboarding, and the procure-to-pay cycle.
When you can suss out some task that’s taking someone time, toil, and/or frustration and then automate it, the net effect not only improves your balance sheet, but makes the company that much stronger. Legal Matter Management (LMM) and Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM), and other related workflow enhancements around collaboration, and business intelligence.
One of the unfortunate side effects of building out a new team with a new set of responsibilities and roles—especially in a field like ops, where your best work essentially makes itself invisible to its users—is that your value is not always obvious to everyone. You have to make it so.
Dive deeper: It’s no longer the case that Legal Ops merely supports the legal department. Legal Ops teams are connected to every department in an organization because the individuals and teams in the entire company are the legal department’s natural “clients” or “customers.” If the sales team needs something signed, or the marketing team has a question about language they should use, or the C-suite is closing an acquisition, or HR is dealing with a serious issue, the legal team gets a call.
Instead of waiting for a call and reacting, smart Legal Ops teams proactively interface with all those departments to anticipate those needs and preemptively create solutions, like automating time-consuming manual processes. This not only demonstrates the objective value of Legal Ops, but it also helps you build trust across your organization. Keep doing that, and you’ll become recognized as a strategic vehicle and get the resources you need to grow your team.
Legal technology spending is on the rise, as a majority of legal departments now realize that their current technology stack isn’t meeting either their current or future needs. A tactical and strategic legal technology plan can bring enormous value to any organization.
Dive deeper: Ideally, technology allows you to automate manual work and streamline tasks and processes like document management, LMM, CLM, ebilling, vendor management, data collection, and more. But technological initiatives, like everything else in Legal Ops, is more about people than machines. Any sound technology implementation has to meet people’s needs or else it won’t work, nobody will adopt it, and it will become a burdensome expense instead of a cost reducer.
The first pitfall to avoid is when someone in the organization falls in love with a particular tool or solution, and you work backwards to find a problem for it to solve. Instead, start with the problems–which you’ll uncover by reaching out to teams across the organization and gleaning knowledge about what their needs are–and work to find solutions.
The best technology removes whatever toil that detracts from what people are best at doing and enjoy the most. For example, GCs should focus on being contributors to the C-suite, not mired in administrative tasks, and the IT department needs solutions that won’t require onerous support. Look for opportunities to provide self-service solutions to clients, too. Happier workers are more efficient, but an underrated byproduct of ensuring people are focused on fulfilling work is reduced turnover, which is always expensive.