Legal operations emphasizes the effective and efficient delivery of legal services in-house. This relatively new discipline addresses a number of organizational issues. Counsel should no longer fight against the organizational assimilation, but they should instead work at becoming part of it.
Admittedly, legal operations even sounds cool. Someone going to the legal department sounds a bit like going to the old-style department stores to look at furniture with your parents.
The best part of being in-house involves being part of an organization. The most difficult part of being in-house appears to be being part of an organization. Legal operations helps with the effectiveness of being part of that organization.
We need to identify some of the issues that LO can alleviate. Dealing with organizational activities comes with the territory, aka Willy Loman. Some of this can be great when you are off to a retreat to do some strategic planning, even if this involves going even further north during the winter since it’s off-season and there can be some great buys.
Another issue recognizes that in-house counsel require updates as to what is happening outside of their own department or function. The watercooler used to help with that, but now we have the ethereal coffee shop that we use for Microsoft Teams. This seems to lack the same level of integration and networking, but the coffee at home tastes better.
With limited resources, the next issue involves trying to educate your clients ahead of time. This really means being involved with the planning process.
Counsel need to demonstrate the value of the legal department or function. One must resort sometimes to counting all of the icebergs or landmines the organization missed because of your risk-management activities.
Sometimes, the organization asks you to do tasks or projects outside of your area. This recognizes your abilities outside of your law degree, shows additional value and facilitates your engagement in other areas of the organization. Leading the business planning process can be a great way to demonstrate value and learn about other areas of the organization. Some refer to this as scope creep. I actually refer to this as chipping in.
The final and potentially greatest issue involves the need to reduce overall legal costs. Moving from a cost centre to a profit centre can be a great achievement; as long as it’s creating profits, you still have time to avoid that iceberg. The collision is what people generally remember, not that great business plan you put together.
Legal operations competencies solve or alleviate some of the above issues. For example, learning the budgeting system goes far in learning the business and keeping on the CFO’s good side.
A major competency includes document management. Bringing in or learning how the document management operates can go far in alleviating time and costs. You waste a great deal of every day searching for a document or searching for a document that never existed. Document management search mechanisms can quickly bring you up to speed when it comes up with the “document not found.” If you have ever tried to prove a nullity, you can appreciate how an electronic search can substantially reduce the amount of grief.
Document management includes increased knowledge management. Knowledge management seems to be another term that comes and goes in favour. You can have all of the facts and information, but you need context for these two things in order to reach the knowledge plateau. Ultimately, you want the wisdom plateau when you accumulate all of the necessary institutional knowledge. Hopefully, this occurs before retirement.
Another part of DM includes standardized contracts. Most organizations already have this. So, if you do, then add it to your to-do list so that you can check it off. There is no greater feeling when it comes to setting out to accomplish something you have already accomplished.
Paperless policies form an integral part of document management. Previously, people would scan a document but still keep the paper copy in another file. You simply have to face the situation and shred the original, unless it is a negotiable instrument. You should keep those for a few days to make sure the scan to the bank works. I have scanned in personal cheques and shredded them immediately. This practice will catch up with me some day, but right now, I am just living on the edge.
Another competency involves project management. When taking my MBA, I went for a two-day seminar on project management. I spent a week cramming on using Microsoft Project software thinking that this would be the emphasis. However, we spent the two days learning to talk to one another and to listen to what the other person was saying. I did not learn anything significant about software, but it improved my relationship with my significant other. Good win there.
During the PM seminar, we all met up in the banquet hall. The large crowd waited at their tables, mostly patiently, for dinner. The seminar leader announced that if anyone could tell a project management joke, their table would be first in line for the buffet. I immediately stood up and asked “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Dramatic Pause here. “Because it was a critical path.” (This is a major project management term that one needs to learn.) It was a groaner, but my table got to eat first — or at least I did. The rest of my table wanted to put a bit distance between them and me.
The benefit of these LO techniques, excluding the lame joke telling, facilitates an effective in-house legal department and reduces the amount of legal work sent outside of the organization. Reducing outside legal work can result in reduced budgets, alternative fee arrangements or retention agreements.
Another LO benefit allows focus on higher-priority and more strategic work. There appears to be a synergistic and not a sum zero effect. By spending more time on legal operations, this allows the remaining time spent more effectively on the legal function.
This is not quite the same thing as doing more with less since you need the LO expertise. You do more legal work, but you need a bit more LO at the same time. If you are single legal officer worker (SLOW), then you need to become a FAST (Following A Strategic Tempo) legal operator. Yes, the acronyms sound contrived, but all business articles require several of them.
Becoming involved in other aspects of the business can be a bit of a cultural shift. Picking a few areas where you can provide value quickly and effectively would show other parts of the organization your value. Focusing on how you can help others achieve their business objectives provides the greatest value.