The Rapid Rise and Bright Future of Legal Ops

Kerie Kerstetter
4 min read
Few roles have garnered more attention in the past year than legal operations managers. With a 458% rise in regulation and vastly expanded governance demands over this past decade, legal teams are fighting more 'battles' on more fronts than ever before.

Many are realizing that nothing is beyond their purview. What happens in the water cooler of their company's team chat software like Slack concerns them. Their subsidiaries' hiring practices concern them. The marketing team's data collection methods concern them, and their IT team's disaster prevention policy concerns them.

It is a massive scope of tremendous importance for a team that accounts for a median of just 0.03% of a firm's employees. To ensure those lawyers can be everywhere they need to be virtually and still be effective, there is legal operations. And as they go, so goes the business.

What is Legal Operations?

Legal operations is the team that enables lawyers to do their jobs and furnish the general counsel with insights they need to guide the business. In short, they manage the software and processes that make practicing law possible, and their importance is directly correlated to the rise of said software.

Without guidance, lawyers, counsel, and paralegals are so overbooked they find themselves missing opportunities to grow more efficient. Consider one firm with European operations where the counsel used to set aside six days each quarter to prepare 37 copies of virtually the same report. Only years later did she learn that such a document could be assembled automatically by a system they already owned'within just a few hours. With legal ops, such inefficiencies tend not to go unnoticed.

Today, the legal ops role is still somewhat nascent. These jobs often arise by mistake rather than through planning. It's only when a legal team acquires a new software for eDiscovery, entity management, or tracking compliance obligations that it learns it takes a person to run it. We argue that with more planning and intentionality around staffing this position, these individuals will be able to accomplish much more. For this reason, many legal operations teams are beginning to think in terms of roadmaps.

An Argument for Legal Operations Roadmaps

Consider the analogy, often used in career coaching, of fitting rocks into a jar. The rocks are your priorities, ordered by size. The jar is your work life.

If you attempt to fill a jar with both big priorities and little priorities'rocks and sand'and you begin with the sand, nothing else will fit. It's only by starting with the big and important things'the large, integrated central software'and then filling in all the services around it, that legal ops teams make lawyers more efficient.

Today, many legal operations teams grow into or inherit ad-hoc software and systems and spend much of their time trying to cram rocks into already full jars. This is made all the more difficult by bountiful inter-system connections. Sometimes there are so many connections that nobody fully understands all the dependencies.

For example, if an entity management system relies upon the human capital management (HCM) system for accurate employment data for directors, and the human resources team switches the HCM out, it can create a tangled mess and take weeks to sort through.

All of this'the lack of planning and the proliferating software systems'makes a case for more forward-looking legal operations teams operating with a legal operations roadmap. Much like a product team, they should be working toward a North Star objective defined in unambiguous terms with clear criteria for success whereby the team can peel off and prioritize goals and asks. This way, they can be proactive rather than reactive. For when legal operations teams fall behind, the entire business can grind to a halt.

The Real Cost of Ignoring Legal Operations

When organizations don't enable their legal operations teams, they tend to:

Pay more in taxes: Firms that can't quickly understand the structure of all their entities and subentities can't rationalize them to reduce their overall tax burden.

Pay more for outsourced legal services: Firms that can quickly query all entity data across all subsidiaries must hire outsourced legal firms for discovery services that are both costly and time-consuming.

Experience deeper audits: Without a quick way to surface documents or conversations in question and securely share them with auditors, those auditors are more likely to move in.

Are less able to fend off unwarranted litigation: Without a way to search internal communications, firms are less able to quickly assess the merit of a suit.

Experience more cyber attacks: Firms that can't securely share large files either don't, and lower their productivity, or do, using consumer-grade services, and expose information.

Wield less clout internally: When general counsels lack a queryable centralized corporate record, they're a less capable advisor to other business units. Which is all to say, as legal operations teams go, so goes the business. They're pretty important.

Empower Legal Ops, Streamline the Business

Was your legal operations established by plan or by accident? Are the individuals on that team staffed, trained, and resourced to complete their mission? If not, it's time to consider their vital importance to helping the legal team guide the business. Where legal operations is empowered, legal teams are empowered. And strong, efficient legal teams make more for a more streamlined business.
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Kerie Kerstetter
Kerie Kerstetter is the former Senior Director of Content Strategy for Diligent and the Next Gen Board Leaders.