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Using Successful Communication and Collaboration to Establish a Legal Ops Function

Learn where in-house legal teams should start when looking to create a legal operations function while contending with limited resources.

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Building Out a New Legal Operations Function

Much has been written about the growing and expanding role of legal operations in a corporate legal department. As a three-time General Counsel, I understand the value of the legal operations professional, but I often wonder how a small corporate legal department can justify adding this role when the legal department is already being asked to do more with less.

I recently sat down with legal operations professional Adrian K. Francis to discuss where a General Counsel would even start to build out this function in a small corporate legal department, and his response took me by surprise. His suggestion was, “Start out where you are and build out what you already have first.” 

To understand what he meant by that, it is important to understand what “legal operations” is and what role it serves in a corporate legal department.

Defining Legal Ops

According to the website of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), “‘legal operations’ (or legal ops) describes a set of business processes, activities, and the professionals who enable legal departments to serve their clients more effectively by applying business and technical practices to the delivery of legal services.” CLOC further states that:

  • legal ops professionals provide “the strategic planning, financial management, project management, and technology expertise that enables legal professionals to focus on providing legal advice;” and
  • legal ops professionals also identify “opportunities for automated processes and strategically use service providers to drive efficiency (while still reducing costs).”

Communication Strategies for Establishing Legal Ops

As I reflect back on my own legal career, I have come to realize that I have always served on legal teams with at least one person who, to a greater or lesser extent, assumed duties very similar to that of the legal operations professional. In my experience, the person most often assuming those duties was either the legal assistant or paralegal.

While I do understand that this role is becoming increasingly important for companies and legal departments, I also understand that change rarely happens as fast as we would like. 

For those General Counsels who find themselves in this situation, I would suggest taking Adrian’s advice. Consider identifying and training someone on your existing team who is ready, willing, and able to step in, step up, and step beyond what a legal assistant or paralegal typically does—and have that person develop and hone the specialized skills needed to support the corporate legal department operations. 

How? Encouraging good communication and collaboration is a great place to start.

Tips for Communication and Collaboration Within the Legal Department

  1. The General Counsel should work with the legal department team members to recognize that there is a legal and business side of the work the legal department does. The General Counsel should encourage everyone to think beyond managing risk and also think about what they are doing and how they are doing it. Are there efficiencies that can be built into existing processes that can result in either reduced speeding or accelerate deal cycles?
  2. The General Counsel should work with legal department team members to not only make sure everyone understands the company’s strategic plan and mission statement but also make sure that everyone knows what actions each business unit (including the legal department) needs to take to meet the goals incorporated in the company’s strategic plan.
  3. The General Counsel should give everyone in the legal department (regardless of the team member’s title or role) a seat at the table to share ideas and to provide input when discussing the company processes the legal department supports.
  4. The General Counsel should also take affirmative steps to encourage and provide space for all legal department team members at the table to share ideas without fear of ridicule, criticism, or retaliation. 

Tips for Communication and Collaboration Outside the Legal Department

  1. The General Counsel should support specialized training programs. Because legal operations professionals are responsible for maximizing efficiency within the legal department, courses on program management may be a good place to start. Program management helps to streamline work and coordinate communications by and between the legal department and the rest of the company.
  2. The General Counsel should also consider embedding legal department staff in other business units to help provide support for automated systems used heavily by the legal department. A good example of a possible collaboration could be with the people in the Purchasing and Procurement Office who may be principally responsible for overseeing the contract lifecycle management system or the contract repository.
  3. The General Counsel should also encourage legal department staff to serve on company committees or attend meetings (when appropriate) on behalf of the legal department. Working alongside and collaborating with other company employees is critical. 

Conclusion

These are but a few suggestions. I am quite sure there are many, many more things that a General Counsel can do to create space for a legal ops professional on the legal department team—no matter the size.

As they say, “Rome was not built in a day.” The important thing is to start the process. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

 

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tagcollaboration taglegal operations taglegal ops tagteam-building
Lisa Lang, Vice President and General Counsel at Ohio Northern University, smiling in a red scarf and maroon jacket.

Lisa Lang

Vice President and General Counsel, Ohio Northern University

Lisa Lang is the Vice President and General Counsel at Ohio Northern University. Lisa has extensive experience as a legal professional, having previously held roles as General Counsel, Assistant General Counsel, Associate, Senior Litigation Paralegal, and Senior Paralegal at a variety of organizations. Lisa also served in the United State Army.

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