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How a growing non-lawyer staff will supercharge your legal department

By Alex Kelly.

The growing field of legal operations is built upon a simple premise — the corporate legal department can and should function similarly to its counterparts across the business. An emphasis on expanding legal operations is often one of the most impactful decisions a corporate legal department can make in its journey toward enhanced growth. The resulting gains in accountability and efficiency can then strengthen relationships and change perceptions all the way up to the C-suite.

Three factors combine to shape the success of any legal operations strategy: people, process and technology. And while changes involving the latter two elements are to be expected amid any period of modernization and transformation, the more surprising shifts may have more to do with the people in the room.

A years-long trend of increasing workloads and flat budgets has forced legal departments to take stock of their in-house talents and time commitments. However, advancing key improvement and innovation efforts will likely require a different set of skills or perspectives than those used to law school and law firm life. Not only should the general counsel keep their lawyers focused on core legal services, but law school and tenure at BigLaw firms hasn't actually equipped lawyers with every skill needed for legal ops skills.

To make the legal department function in concert with the rest of an enterprise business, look outside the legal profession altogether.

The need for efficiency

While a declining legal budget has been an impediment for general counsels for years, the pandemic has only exacerbated concerns. According to a survey by Harvard Law and EY Law, general counsels expect 25% greater workloads in the next three years while 88% of them plan for board-enforced budget cuts.

Corporate legal teams already have had to reexamine their day-to-day processes to adapt to remote work, investing more heavily in technology to facilitate that change. The proportion of legal budgets spent on technology is set to grow dramatically by 2025, according to a 2020 Gartner survey of legal leaders.

With in-house lawyers taking on a greater number of complex matters, most lack the time to focus on innovation projects. Even if trained lawyers had the room on their plates to take on these long-term initiatives, a law degree isn’t necessary to lead internal operations changes.

Every aspect of the business needs streamlining, and the best way to cope with increasing demands and decreasing resources is to assign business-minded change agents to the task and allow the lawyers to focus on legal work. Taking on the status quo and finding innovative new business practices requires creative thinking and change management skills.

The rise of legal ops

As recently as five years ago, legal operations job titles were regularly found only on the rosters of the largest technology or financial services firms. But thanks in large part to the work of organizations such as CLOC (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) and ACC (Association of Corporate Counsels), that narrative is quickly changing. In a recent Gartner report, 58% of surveyed legal departments across all industries employed at least one legal ops pro in 2020, up from 34% in 2018.

Still, the bigger the organization, the more prevalent the legal ops role can be. Within legal departments spending eight figures annually on outside counsel, a legal ops team has much to do — managing vendors, monitoring budgets, and fulfilling staffing needs.

In organizations of all sizes, legal ops should provide data to the general counsel and others to make informed decisions while balancing the various groups, including in-house lawyers, in-house non-lawyers, law firms or non-law-firm service providers. Since data can influence every other task, this responsibility is now potentially legal ops’ most impactful role. If the organization has decided to hand a new matter to outside counsel, they’re probably wondering what to set as timekeeper expectations. How should time be split between partners, associates, and paralegals for a project of this type? What's a feasible budget for each phase? Legal ops can help make these critical decisions much easier.

To do any of the previously described functions well, chances are the team will need to modernize its tech. And that selection, implementation, and training is another place where legal ops will have to play champion. If they can piggyback on a companywide digital transformation plan, great. But more likely they'll have to be a lone change agent.

Finding the right legal operations leaders

So what’s the right recruitment strategy for this multifaceted role that’s barely five years old? First and foremost, a legal ops pro should have experience in change management. They will be encouraged to take on entrenched attitudes and practices within the legal department, and an open mind and resilient demeanor will serve them well in that regard.

Although some heads of legal operations were once practicing lawyers themselves, a legal background is not required. In fact, hiring an outsider may play to the legal department’s benefit. Data scientists and those with adept analytical skills will perform well in the role. So too will management consultants who have worked within other complex and compliance-driven departments like finance. The key is to identify talented, curious candidates who can identify inefficiencies, outline opportunities, and design effective responses. As a return to the office looms, budget constraints are pushing general counsels to be more resourceful. Doing more with less is never easy, but the way to supercharge the legal team is to redesign it from the ground up.

In 2021, a successful legal department is not composed of just lawyers and a skeleton administrative staff reporting to the general counsel. A more effective model might have the general counsel overseeing a team of lawyers along with a head of legal operations and a dedicated change manager.

The non-lawyer staff of the legal department may well define its direction over the next decade. Between the pace of technological transformation and further changes in the practice of law, legal ops professionals are increasingly necessary to manage innovation in the legal department. A robust non-lawyer staff frees lawyers to do the work they actually want to be doing, and can eventually elevate the entire department in the eyes of the rest of the organization.


About the Author

Alex Kelly is the COO and co-founder of Brightflag, an AI-powered enterprise legal management platform. Prior to founding the company, Kelly advised financial institutions and multinational enterprises as a corporate lawyer within a large international law firm.


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