Riding the legal op(portunitie)s wave
It’s a strange paradox to consider that Australia as a whole might not be entirely sure what legal operations can do, but as a profession, we are seeing plenty of ways in which the function is being used successfully. For those who fully immerse themselves in the possibilities, it appears that there has never been a better time to jump on board.
For several years now, experts and forecasters alike have been heralding the growth of the legal operations units within companies and organisations.
A multi-disciplinary function that optimises legal services delivery to a business or government entity by focusing on following 12 core competencies, legal operations divisions can be seen as enablers of change in the organisations that they exist in, according to the US-founded and led Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC).
CLOC lists those 12 competencies as the following: litigation support and IP management; knowledge management; information governance and records management; strategic planning; financial management; vendor management; cross-functional alignment; technology and process support; service delivery and alternative support models; organisational design, support and management; communications; and data analytics.
According to Andrew Dey, a London-based independent legal technology advisor to corporate legal departments, the rise of legal operations in businesses stems from the example set by law firms, which he says “generally have teams of non-fee earning business support professionals”.
And while their origin is loosely firm-based, “in-house lawyers have been carrying out legal operations functions since before the term existed,” Mr Dey explains. As a result, he says legal operations teams may encompass many existing roles within a business, including analytics and reporting managers, finance managers, IT systems support, relationship managers, risk and governance managers, as well as professional support staff.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) legal team knows this functional feeling all too well.
General counsel Connie Carnabuci started at the ABC in July 2017, and with a finite budget and ever-increasing demand from the business for legal services, quickly identified a need to start looking at how the legal function could work more efficiently.
“The digital transformation of the ABC and the increasing demands from journalists who need to deliver news and analysis around the clock on multiple platforms has increased the demand for ABC Legal’s services,” Ms Carnabuci says.
It’s the reason that last year, her team began an ambitious program of practice improvements to free up lawyers to work on the most interesting and strategic work.
“The cornerstone of this program was creating a Head of Legal Operations position,” she explains.
With so much talent and experience in the legal team already, Ms Carnabuci says her organisation’s own people were best placed to drive the improvements, as well as professing it as “a great development opportunity for our senior lawyers”.
Doing more for less
“’Doing more for less’ is a common catch cry amongst legal teams,” according to the head of legal operations for MinterEllison.
Mollie Tregillis is part of the firm’s risk, regulatory, insurance and controversy team. She says the legal industry is in the midst of significant disruption.
As a result, “the need for a strategic and commercial approach to the 'business of law' is increasingly being recognised as a key success factor to riding this wave of disruption”.
“Whether it is called ‘legal operations’ or something else down the track, we are talking about a fundamentally useful skill set required by legal operations roles,” she muses.
Some of these, Ms Tregillis notes, is digital dexterity, leadership, stakeholder engagement, project management, business acumen and a deep understanding of the legal industry, which she describes as necessary for organisations in this day and age.
Ms Tregillis used to be a lawyer. She moved into the legal operations space when she recognised her preference for working on management around matters as opposed to working in the details of matters themselves.
“Being a people person, spending my time talking to teams, problem solving and acting as a conduit between legal and digital teams is ideal,” she professes.
She has followed a slightly different path to the career choice when compared to Jenny Rees, the lead consultant for Designed Solutions at Lawyers On Demand.
Having been Optus’ general counsel for 16 years, Ms Rees is an individual who clearly, and definitively, understands the challenges associated with meeting business demands to deliver efficient and effective legal support in a corporate setting.
In her legal operations role, she enjoys being able to help other general counsel and teams think about how they might do things differently, leveraging her own experience for support purposes, and more generally “creating a great environment for an in-house team”.
She thinks that “there’s lots to be gained by lifting your head out of the day to day work in a legal team and thinking about how you might do things differently”.
The placing of value on executive level strategic involvement by in-house teams is acknowledged by the former GC, and so she understands that they too see strategic benefit as a driving factor behind their implementation of legal operations.
There are no hard and fast rules around how legal operations roles work nor how they should be implemented from a business perspective.
Ms Rees herself isn’t sure there is a typical day for someone in legal operations, because “while many teams face similar generic problems, the solution will not always be the same”.
“One of the great aspects [of legal operations] is that it is an evolving area seeking to solve problems,” she explains.
The sentiment rings true for Ms Tregillis, who says no two days ever look the same.
Calling it “a great thing about her job”, she acknowledges that this does mean every day “inevitably involves talking to a lot of stakeholders, problem solving and prioritising many competing demands”.
“There is a tendency for people in these roles to become a ‘trusted advisor’ to the legal teams more broadly, assisting to identify, assist and resolve a range of challenges much broader than what might traditionally be considered legal operations,” she continues.
When the ABC implemented legal operations into its own legal function, Ms Carnabuci says she decided to rotate her most senior lawyers through the role, having already recognised the development opportunities legal operations could offer.
So far, two of her lawyers have experienced the position.
The first, Kelly McDonald, says her commencement in the role coincided with a move to open plan.
Her first task? To make sure the team had the right tools to move towards being paperless (or, as she says, “as paperless as lawyers can be”), and mobile.
“One of the challenges for in-house legal teams as opposed to lawyers working in law firms is that our IT department’s sole focus is not lawyers,” she explains.
Now, with digital access to files from anywhere, Ms McDonald happily highlights that “instead of taking two lever arch files, a laptop, notepad and paper to meetings, now I just take a tablet and stylus”.
While the ABC’s legal team may have different needs and challenges to other organisations, it echoes Ms Tregillis’ law firm experience of the opportunities legal operations can provide.
“There is a major piece involved in upskilling legal teams in legal operations so they can be self-sufficient for a range of legal operations areas – with legal operations experts taking more client facing/consulting roles – and increasingly being involved in developing new products and services,” she says.
While giving up 50 per cent of her standard ‘business as usual’ tasks while working in the operations role, Ms McDonald’s stint also saw her working at putting as many low value/low risk and standard contracts into the team’s contract generation tool as possible, educating clients on new ways of working, and rolling out electronic signature tools and a related policy to track smaller contracts being entered into across the organisation.
Considering the need to understand up to 12 different competencies, legal operations is not always an easy task.
For Ms Tregillis, legal operations is “in essence, a change management role as much as anything else”.
“We represent change in the business and that can be very confronting to some people,” she offers.
“There will always be a broad range of engagement levels and we have to accept that some people aren't quite ready to 'get on board'.”
Ms Rees also admits that “it takes courage for teams to challenge the status quo” and that alone can be challenging.
“In a sense, it is similar to the best part, helping in-house teams stand back from the day to day of how they have always operated and try new things,” she says.
“This takes time and headspace, both of which are often scarce resourced when you are buried in day to day issues.”
Jackie Foord works alongside Kelly McDonald and general counsel Connie Barnabuci at the ABC. She is the second lawyer to have rotated into the legal operations role, and is set to work on developing consistent protocols.
“With limited resources we decided the best thing we could do was look at making sure we were optimising our existing technology stack,” she explains.
“We’ve got a great document management system, so we just needed to make sure we had some consistent protocols on naming conventions for files, creation of subfolders and storage of draft and executed documents.”
In addition, Ms Foord is set to work on improving knowledge management protocols - “making sure all our key advices are catalogued and readily accessible so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel and we have consistency of approach”.
Hopping on the bandwagon
Ms Rees has seen the growth of legal operations in Australia firsthand, which is not any more apparent than when it is compared with the mature territory of the function across the US and the UK.
“[Lawyers on Demand is] seeing a material growth in opportunities across a number of our territories, but primarily in the UK and Australia,” she says, noting how corporates are increasingly interested in what legal ops can deliver to them in terms of both efficiency and impact but also the quality of work for lawyers.
Meanwhile, MinterEllison’s Ms Tregillis uses the word “unique” to describe the agility and energy she is witnessing around legal operations in Australia.
She sees the domestic market as not quite so constrained by traditional dynamics and hierarchies of law, as compared to places such as the US, where centralised bodies such as CLOC have existed for much longer.
“The Australian market's concept of what is encompassed by legal operations appears to be broader and more dynamic,” Ms Tregillis elaborates.
As a result, her attitude is more about considering anyone in legal operations as a leader, to “forge our own legal operations path in Australia – which we are doing very well to date”.
She sees a need for legal operation to develop in credibility, suggesting that it is important for legal operations to be seen as a fundamental aspect of the 'business of law', with its true scope and value – delivering well beyond administrative operational matters - being recognised.
“Legal operations leaders are highly qualified in a range of disciplines (including ex-lawyers) and should rightly be seen in leadership roles within the legal industry,” she emphasises.
As the legal profession gains a greater understanding of legal operations and its material benefits, Ms Rees sees the positioning of the function as an important lesson to be learned.
With no real “one size fits all” definition of a legal operations role, Ms Rees recognises that some operate at a strategic level in partnership with the general counsel, while others “are more focused on the administrative operations of a team”.
While she sees value in both, she also considers that “those with a strategic focus will have the most transformational impact”.
It’s not just a single-minded or subjective sentiment, with the annual Law Department Operations Survey by the Blickstein Group published late last year considering that “law departments will find the highest value by having their top legal ops professional report directly to the general counsel”.
“Companies with direct reporting and full support from the general counsel see their operations functions driving strategic initiatives,” it continued.
In a similar vein, Ms Tregillis thinks legal operations experts will continue to take on more pivotal roles as their value and importance is increasingly realised.
She sees the industry as moving very quickly, and she warns there are likely to be more changes ahead in terms of how legal operations teams deliver back into the business, and what this looks like from a structure point of view.
A growing profession
Traditionally, law students saw their career path as working at a law firm with the aspiration that one day they would be a partner.
While many have realised once in the work force that in-house roles in a more general sense can offer another career path, Ms Rees muses that “legal operations involves broader business and technology skills, providing more career options for people with skills like project management, change management and technology to use those skills in the legal industry”.
Trumpeting the increase in opportunities for those looking to jump into operations roles in an evolving industry, Ms Tregillis thinks legal operations are ideal for young lawyers and recent graduates with their “impressive energy and enthusiasm”, and what she calls “an innate sense of how to harness technology”.
On the other hand, she also considers long term legal experience as invaluable because the legal industry throws up a unique set of challenges and dynamics.
There are benefits from having a combination of people in legal operations, Ms Rees adds.
“While there are not as many legal operations roles in Australia as perhaps overseas, teams are looking at new ways to deliver legal services opening up opportunities for different career options,” she says.
“There are definitely benefits from a multi-disciplinary approach”, she touts, providing the example of colleagues “not encumbered by being a lawyer”.
“Clients benefit as a result of our different perspectives.”
So whether you want to dip your toe in and enjoy the cutting-edge feeling, stay afloat in a demanding corporate setting, or ride the wave of commercial possibilities, diving into legal operations seems to be a worthy way to go.