9 ideas to consider in legal for the new 'school term'

Written by Ana de Liz for Crafty Counsel

Some six months ago, Crafty Counsel released a series on Legal Ops FOMO, focused on stripping away the myths and anxieties around the hype over legal ops.

Little did the participants* know that there was a pandemic coming and that the advice shared then serve as a great checklist of things to do or think about now, whether you’re managing a legal ops team or not. From day one as we go back to the office or, if you’re sticking to the home-office world for now, as the Covid-related troubleshooting work fades away and you start looking at 2021, here are some ideas on how to go about it:

1. Continue to break down barriers across functions: The pandemic should have helped with this but as Sharin Ahmed, currently legal counsel at Architas, mentions, everyone within an organisation should be working towards one vision, one goal. Crucially, there has been a shift in legal culture, she says, towards being more open to cross-function collaboration, trying to understand what others are doing in the business and what can be done to loop that into what legal is doing as well. In a legal operations role, “you need to bring in other functions, otherwise, you’re going to fail,” Ahmed says.

2. Be a more proactive business partner: There’s a big emphasis for GCs and legal ops heads to become business partners to the organisations they work for. Sherrill Taggart, who is currently FTI Consulting’s EMEA GC, points out that legal functions have a holistic view of the business since they work across the board, having an overall knowledge of what is happening in the business. This specific, up-to-date view of each function is very powerful — use it. How to know when you’ve achieved your business partner status? “When you’re asked for your opinion, not on legal matters, but on business matters, that’s when you’ve achieved your goals,” she says.

    3. Budget is gold, but so is data: One of Keruschka Shunmugan’s work mantras is “budget is gold”. Nevertheless, she mentions that data is equally as important, so get comfortable with it. Shunmugan has created a funnel spreadsheet to match the legal function’s budget to the main business one. It is easier to ask for more money when you can show evidence of a spike in one activity within the business, particularly when it comes to hiring an FTE employee. The Liberis head of legal ops also uses data to challenge the fee arrangements with law firms, as it’s easier to track the quality of the advice her company gets and push back on fees, particularly if when they are charged hourly.

    4. Start forecasting your next budget: Besides being best friends with the finance director (or someone else in the finance department), the other main other skill to crack in the budget task is to forecast within the business strategy as well as with the outside world. It is very important to do a “horizon scanning, knowing what’s coming up that’s going to affect your business for the rest of the year so that you can understand where to put budget,” Flora Duguid, head of legal at MVF, says. Sharing the responsibility and planning of the budget with your team can also be a helpful step in making it more bearable.

    5. Think of soft skills as core skills, especially when managing: Every law firm will offer a set of soft skills training but not many people take advantage of that, says Chris Grant of Barclay Ventures. Nevertheless, how to interact with others and how to read signals — especially when it comes with mental health — are all key things to help in the overall management of a team. Particularly within legal ops, one can get very caught up in their tasks and mandates but Grant mentions it is important, as an ops manager, to sit with lawyers from time to time and keep their concerns and frustrations in mind.

    6. Prepare for a possible reduction in your legal team by upskilling the rest of the workforce: Simon Coles, interim GC at Growth Street, predicts that in a few years in-house teams will shrink proportionally to the size of a business, with only one or two senior lawyers remaining, but the overall legal capability within a business will grow. In other words, different people will report into legal who aren’t lawyers but deploy legal skills in their work. It might be time to start giving people in other parts of the business some legal training, thus upskilling the entire workforce in the business. Simplifying and coaching the rest of the team on legal basics will make for a self-sufficient, thus better, overall team, while also demystifying those who work in legal function, as Shunmugan points out.

    7. Broaden the horizons if you’re hiring: “Instead of trying to shoehorn legal professionals into ops roles, let’s bring in people that can do ops roles, change roles and innovation roles. They’re much better at it and they can hit the ground running,” says Grant etc. The legal industry is in constant evolution, with some paths going adjacent to the law but not always on top of it, meaning that having experience at a law firm doesn’t always help do the job in hand anymore, especially in legal ops. If hiring is not an option, legal ops can also be a mindset, so go ahead and ask those nerdy questions to your LinkedIn network; innovation can be where we least expect it.

    8. Time for a cost-cutting upgrade? If you can’t afford a transformation ops team, bring in one-off external help: hiring a consultant, who will bring in ideas and ways of working that you hadn’t thought of, will be “the best money you’ll ever spend,” says Dave Hart, transformation director at BT’s legal & compliance function. While on the face of it, spending money on a one-off consultancy piece might sound costly, it might be helpful to look at it from the perspective of all of the money you’d be saving through some of the ideas a consultant will supply. Where to start your cost-cutting efforts? External legal spend is the lowest hanging fruit, Hart says.

    9. Fear not. “Technology is part of the solution, but it’s not the full solution.”: this sentence, by Taggart, should be engraved in stone for all those in the legal world whose eyes shine at the sight of a legal tech conference but also those that have fear missing out on innovation. The legal world hasn’t moved that dramatically towards an end-to-end tech solution, and the human component — the advice part, the critical part — remains very much human, so there is no need to panic: the machines have not taken over, and it is wise to take a step back and think about the solution your business or team really needs before jumping at a purchase.

    https://craftycounsel.co.uk/video/legal-ops-fomo

    *some counsel have since found new roles — this is reflected on the article.