How to Make Lasting Changes in Legal Operations: An Interview with UpLevel Ops’ Brenda Hansen
What are your clients usually experiencing when they decide it’s time to call in an outside expert like UpLevel?
One thing that’s unique in our case is that we’ve all previously worked in-house at corporate legal departments. So I think that probably reduces their initial hesitation of reaching out. Once we connect in that first conversation they gather pretty quickly that we have a more nuanced perspective on how to meet their needs than a general consultancy might.
As for what those needs are, clients typically come to us for one of two reasons. The first scenario is a smaller team trying to get Legal Ops off the ground, but unsure how to lay the right foundation. The other would be a larger team with a backlog of projects they know they want to tackle, but not enough bandwidth to execute on their own. So we might come on board as an extension of the team to help rollout a certain best practice or push a key initiative over the line.
Regardless of the exact requirements, though, the first role we always play is sounding board. Legal Operations can be an isolating job when you’re the only practitioner within your organization, and sometimes it’s just nice to hear that you’re not the only one struggling with outside counsel spend, change management, or whatever the challenge might be.
Once a client is committed to making a change, how do you get the transition started on the right foot?
The first thing you need to do is confirm what problem you’re trying to solve. The fastest way to get that answer will be through interviews and face-to-face conversations with the people most closely affected by the problem. Jumping straight in with your proposed solution is always going to trigger an adverse reaction — whether you’re an outside consultant like myself or an in-house ops professional.
If you want to be an effective change agent, your job is to understand where people are coming from and help them see why this particular change is going to be beneficial for them.
The details you uncover in these early conversations are the raw materials for any sustainable solution. Because ultimately you’ll have to frame your approach in a way that’s meaningful to them if you expect it to be adopted.
Long story short: Start having conversations with people. Share their pain, show your vision, and find the middle ground you can build on.
Don’t come in with a solution in search of a problem.
Right. And that’s especially true for operations professionals. You’re trying to fundamentally change the way people work, and there will be all sorts of methods and notions they feel deeply attached to.
My most classic story comes from my days working in-house, when we were transitioning from private offices to an open space floor plan. And let me tell you, that’s just about the most horrible thing you can ask of a traditional legal department. Cubicles? Right next to each other? No chance.
I knew it was going to be an uphill battle at the start but I approached it like I would any project. I spoke directly with colleagues from every level of the org chart and uncovered several valid concerns I hadn’t considered. Following those initial conversations I knew I had to build more huddle rooms, client meeting spaces, and physical security protocols into our plan.
Once people saw their concerns clearly reflected in the solution, they were a lot quicker to come on board.
I imagine a project like that took more than a few months to complete. How did you keep morale up and momentum going throughout the transition?
Just doing the work on schedule won’t be enough. You need a formal communication plan that keeps people in the loop and excited along the way. It’s so easy to let something like progress reports slip through the cracks, for example, but they’re essential for preserving the transparency and good will you created at the start of the process.
I should also emphasize that this is not something you can do alone. One-against-many is not an effective (or enjoyable) stance to take in change management. You need to welcome any strong believers in your cause and employees invested in a positive outcome.
These allies can hype up your work by sharing ideas and updates in channels you may not even have access to. While walking to a coffee shop with colleagues, for example, maybe they let it slip that you’re researching noise-cancelling headphones to buy for the team.
One other thing I’d say about pacing is that you should be very careful where you place the finish line in your mind. The work doesn’t end at publishing the new policy or installing the new technology. Chances are you’ll have to repeat and reinforce your message multiple ways before habits start to change and the desired behaviors take root.
And if you overlook that last mile of the process, then you could be setting yourself up for the worst result of all: Investing all that time and energy into change only to revert back to the way things were before you started.
I have a feeling your project avoided that fate. So, out of curiosity, what were the benefits people came to appreciate about the open space floor plan?
The rest of the company was actually moving toward open space before we got started. We knew if we chose not to follow suit, it could send the wrong message. It might imply that we saw ourselves as special or above it all. So we wanted to counter that perception of the rigid, stubborn legal department that stands apart from the business.
In addition to showing everyone else that we could be open and adaptive partners, the new arrangement also strengthened relations internally. Breaking down the old barriers of practice group and seniority level immediately improved collaboration. Suddenly everyone was seeking opinions from and sharing advice with a wider circle of colleagues.
Overall I’d say the increased social interaction brought a greater sense of warmth and community to the team. And since we built ample private space into our floor plan, losing productivity due to distraction was never really a concern.
Now that you’re in a position where companies are coming to you for advice, are there any common mistakes or misconceptions you see leading people astray?
There’s definitely this fantasy around technology coming to the rescue. People think maybe things aren’t working well at the moment, there’s no real process in place, but if we just find the right software to fix it, then things will be great in no time. In reality, most companies need to clean up their house a bit before technology can deliver what they’re expecting.
If you’re not thinking first about what behaviors and processes need to change in order to get the result you want, new technology just becomes an expensive way to maintain the current mess. So it’s really my job to peel open the bigger picture and show clients all the supporting elements required for a sustainable solution.
A good current example of all this is A.I. I think the technology can give legal departments an entirely new way to look at their operations. But no tool is going to address the analytics function all by itself. You’re always going to need smart people and smart processes to help place the data A.I. generates into the context of the business. The tech is there to enhance, not eliminate.
And finally, on the flip side of that coin, is there anything you wish more companies would start talking about?
In case it wasn’t clear by now, I’m a big believer in organizational design and development. But when those topics do surface on the radar of corporate legal departments, the conversation tends to focus exclusively on attorneys.
Now ultimately, I know departments will always be oriented around the needs and performance of top-end legal talent. But there’s also a whole ecosystem of administrators, analysts, and paralegals who want to broaden their skills and advance their careers just like anyone else. So I’d challenge companies to consider the ambitions of everyone on staff.
In addition to looking at people development more holistically, I think we’d all benefit from looking at Legal Ops with a wider lens. There’s a galaxy of law firms, vendors, and consultants surrounding in-house teams. And the more I reach across the borders between these groups, the clearer it becomes that we’re all struggling with similar challenges. So why not take action together?