·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary


How a Growing Non-lawyer Staff Will Elevate Your Legal Department

— October 15, 2021

A growing legal ops team can lead to better decision-making overall for a company. The team can free up lawyers so they can focus on high-value strategic thinking.

A report released earlier this year by EY Law and Harvard Law School underscores the predicament now facing many in-house legal teams: General counsels are expecting a 25% increase in department workloads over the next three years, according to the survey, with 88% simultaneously bracing for budget cuts.

Even if budgets were to increase, however, challenges would remain, John Knox, EY’s global legal managed services leader and a report contributor, told Bloomberg Law. 

“It’s more a question of how the budgets are used,” he said. “If you were looking to hire an extra four or five heads, could you think about those extra four or five heads in a slightly different way?”

Within this complex terrain, the emergent field of legal operations continues to grow. What was once a novel addition found almost exclusively within technology or financial services firms has reached mainstream status. Nearly 60% of legal departments across all industries recently surveyed by Gartner employed at least one legal ops professional in 2020, up from just 34% two years earlier. And it’s a role where cultural sensitivity is prized as highly as process efficiency.

Legal ops can accelerate (or assume) low-complexity tasks so that in-house lawyers have more time for strategic focus. Legal ops can report definitive breakdowns of who is doing what work and how. And perhaps most critically, legal ops can bring visibility to the challenges and needs of the legal department, elevating a general counsel’s ability to pursue meaningful changes with confidence.

Legal ops clears the calendar

One out of five in-house counsel hours is now spent on low-complexity, repetitive, or routine tasks, the EY Law report said. Nearly 9 out of 10 legal team leaders said their department spends too much time on such tasks, and nearly half said increasing amounts of this work have negatively affected employee morale.

Compounding the sting for lawyers who have eyes on more mission-critical endeavors is the knowledge that many of these tasks could be accelerated (or even eliminated) by widely available legal tech solutions. 

Although routine tasks such as discovery, contract management, and invoice review require a certain degree of expertise, such legal work no longer needs to be handled entirely by lawyers. Legal ops pros can pick up these duties, freeing lawyers to focus more time on strategic priorities. A lawyer’s time would be better spent on closing a critical merger than providing a second opinion on a contract clause, after all. 

Legal ops identifies value

By surfacing detailed insights and establishing benchmark comparisons among legal matters, vendors, and other factors, legal ops can help a general counsel consistently ensure that the right people are doing the right work at the best possible rate. 

How should time be split among partners, associates and paralegals on this case? Which outside counsel will be most cost-effective for this type of matter? Should the legal team seek out an alternative service provider? 

Legal ops can help evaluate the performance of vendors, enforce cost controls outlined on billing guidelines, and provide the detailed data needed to establish budgets and forecast costs. Such granular data identifies and unearths inefficiencies, bringing a higher degree of transparency to what the legal department does, how, and why. 

Legal ops makes a business case

As your legal ops team matures, the efficiencies it creates and insights it discovers can help elevate the legal department within the organization as a whole. A general counsel who can illustrate the rationale and underscore the results of the legal services they help deliver can earn a more prominent position at the corporate table.

For years, the legal department was too often considered a “black box” with limited predictability and transparency. What legal ops can help quantitatively show is what works well, what doesn’t, and where resources may be better allocated moving forward. Armed with data, the legal ops team can help the general counsel make a more compelling business case internally for the strategies they believe ought to be pursued.

The legal department can become more visible to corporate leadership, in particular the finance team. The departments can work in a much more collaborative way.

What to look for in a legal ops pro

Man and woman in meeting; image by Headway, via
Man and woman in meeting; image by Headway, via

So what qualifications and skills should you look for in a legal operations professional? A legal background is not necessarily required. The reliance on data analysis makes data scientists and those with sharp analytical skills a good fit. Other good candidates can be management consultants with experience in other complex and compliance-driven departments, such as finance. 

Whichever background, candidates who can spot inefficiencies, recognize opportunities and outline new approaches to the standard ways of doing business can excel. A positive record of change management would also be a point of distinction considering any new hire will implicitly be asked to revise the organization’s status quo.

A growing legal ops team can lead to better decision-making overall for a company. The team can free up lawyers so they can focus on high-value strategic thinking. The team can identify and maximize efficiencies throughout the legal department. Equipped with deep insights into operations, the legal ops team can help elevate the legal team’s position at the corporate table.

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