THE LEGAL OPERATIONS ROLE IS INDISPENSABLE TO TODAY S LAW FIRMS AS WELL AS TO LEGAL DEPARTMENTS
27 August 2020

The Legal Operations role is indispensable to today’s law firms as well as to legal departments

Published on 27 August 2020

The legal sector is in the midst of a shake-up. Yes, COVID-19 is disrupting every industry, with lawyers facing changes that have been on the horizon for some time, but are now accelerating. More sophisticated clients and capable inhouse legal teams. And a demand from clients not just for high quality legal advice, but for holistic legal-business solutions. All these developments have created the need for a vital legal professional role that will ultimately help the legal sector to modernise.

The role that’s transforming the legal sector

To navigate a rapidly changing sector, the role of Head of Legal Operations has sprung into life.

The role typically sits at the intersection of legal services and multiple other professional disciplines inside a service-based organisation, including finance, project management, technology systems, process expertise and analytics. Well versed in critical thinking, business analysis, program design and change management, legal operations professionals are reimagining how legal services are delivered by legal departments and law firms to suit contemporary needs.

To best understand who they are and what they do, the climate that has necessitated this role is worth reflecting on.


Increasingly sophisticated clients

Steven Walker, Teaching Fellow and formerly global Head of Law Dept. Consulting at Elevate says, “We’ve said goodbye to the formerly asymmetrical relationship between lawyer and client. It’s no longer a market where firms have all the understanding, expertise and services data – and the buyers don’t.

“Corporate legal departments are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their sourcing practices. They’re demanding greater demonstration of value and use of technology enablement, without compromise to quality.  They’re more attuned to their service experience and want input into who does their work and how. And of course, they want all this ‘better, faster, cheaper’.

“Law firms need to pivot and match their expertise and capability to these client demands. This means they need to change their delivery models to make sure they’re packaging their services in ways that clients want to consume them.

“And to provide more for less, they need to rethink the blend of people, processes and technology that they use. This requires innovative thinking, new technologies and streamlined processes,” he says.


What this means for law firms

Depending on the type of firm and the industries you serve, it’s likely that many of your corporate clients now have an inhouse legal or contract capabilities of some kind.  In some cases, this may just be one or a small number of personnel.  In other cases, there could be tens or even hundreds of internal legal and contracts professionals.

“Companies identified long ago that many of their ‘business as usual’ legal and contracting needs are well met by employing their own specialists.  Not only is this frequently more cost-efficient than outsourcing, but insourcing also ensures valuable operating know-how and expertise is retaIned inside the organisation.  As a result, the trend towards insourcing of an increasing amount of legal and contracts work has accelerated over recent years. 

“The more advanced internal teams are adopting smart processes and modern technologies themselves – such as document automation for efficient contracting – and they expect the same of their trusted law firms.  For firms to keep pace with these client expectations, they need to evolve and re-think some of their core building blocks underpinning service delivery."


The market need for a one-stop-shop?

Steven says, “Clients increasingly want to buy not just traditional legal advice matter by matter to help with their specific legal issues, but also broader commercial-legal solutions to support them in navigating the multiple business issues they face daily which may have a legal advisory component.

There will always be a market need for truly specialist expertise typically found in law firms to help solve the most complex, mission-critical challenges facing companies, but I expect to see greater ‘systematization’ of legal services so clients can quickly and easily access on-demand support and answer questions for many routine issues they encounter with, for example, labour relations, competition and antitrust, environmental compliance or global trade.

And beyond the corporate legal sector, all of us - as consumers of services - are accustomed to getting the answers and information we need online, via apps or via remote teleconferencing.  Consumers of legal services will undoubtedly expect many of our needs to be met in the same way, whether they be for conveyancing, preparation of wills, help with traffic infringements or any other personal legal matters.  Law firms providing services to individuals and small businesses need to respond to these changing demands.”

“Firms need to integrate more of these solutions into their offerings and bring in multidisciplinary professionals to assist in designing and managing productized services. This realignment requires strategic thinking, customer-centricity and a willingness to challenge sacred cows with analysis, data, technology enablement and solid program execution skills.” he said.


This all leads to…

Essentially, the combination of all these factors means law firms have to re-imagine some of their offerings, and re-engineer how they deliver some of their traditional offerings.

“However, it’s no easier for law firms to revolutionise their core operating model than it is for any other kind of business; in some ways, it is even more difficult, because decision-making is decentralized and financial structures can create impediments to reinvesting significant capital in projects which may have longer term return on investment.  Additionally, lawyers did not learn some of the new skills they now find their firms need in law school.

“This is where the role of Head of Legal Operations in law firms is proving essential,” he says.  In contrast with the traditional law firm operations function, which has typically taken an ‘inside out’ view, the Head of Legal Operations takes an ‘outside in’ view and asks a different question: what problems do our clients want us to solve, and how to we martial our resources to deliver solutions at the required price points, in a way which makes us a seamless part of the client’s organisation”


The role (un)defined

Steven describes the situation saying: “There’s no blueprint for a successful legal operations professional.  The skills, know-how and experience needed are diverse and no one person can claim to be a deep expert in every aspect of the job.  Some of the best known legal operations professionals today come from professional services (law, accounting or finance, technology) or senior business management or operations.  What they share in common is an ability to think objectively in diagnosing problems, to recognise the expertise needed to solve them, and to collaborate with those experts to track and achieve outcomes.  They also share a strong sense of customer service and a willingness to catalyse change, even when that may not be popular or the ‘safest’ choice from a career point of view.

“Lawyers with an interest in these areas make outstanding legal operations professionals due to their analytical approach, and passion for and understanding of the sector.  Yet they also need to de-emphasize some of the skills and behaviours that have made them successful lawyers, such as aversion to risk and reticence to experiment, giving prominence to what has succeeded before, and a tendency to give more weight to words than data. To put them in the best possible position for success, these candidates need to round out their portfolio of additional skills and appreciation for how to collaborate with other disciplines.


Forging a new path

“It’s still early days for Legal Operations in Australia, but the future of both law firms and legal departments undoubtedly involves significant roles for Legal Operations professionals.  This is an exciting growth area with an opportunity for entrepreneurial individuals to truly make an impact and really make roles their own. 

Additionally, I am convinced that in an evolving legal ecosystem, over the course of their careers, Legal Ops professionals will have opportunities to move between law firms, inhouse teams and other legal services providers, whether technology companies or legal services outsourcing companies, creating a rich and diverse career path.”


Looking to bring your practice into the twenty-first century?

Whether you’re looking to become an Legal Operations leader within your law firm, or an operations savvy lawyer, a six-week course from The College of Law, Operational excellence: Operations and continuous improvement, will allow you to tackle the contemporary operations challenges facing the legal industry.

The subject is part of the newly formed Master of Legal Business at The College of Law, and is led by Teaching Fellow, Steven Walker. Learn more.