Legal Operations in the Lead: Building the Law Department of the Future

Kevin Clem | March 09, 2021

As we emerge—hopefully soon—from the coronavirus crisis, organizations are celebrating what they have accomplished and reflecting on what they have learned in a year marked by dramatic challenges. Responding to the ever-shifting circumstances of a global pandemic demanded adapting continuously, keeping a watchful eye on current and future needs, and recalibrating technological tools and capabilities.

This is as true for corporate law departments as it is for the wider organizations they serve. As they look to the future and seek ways to excel in both the practice and the business of law, smart corporate legal departments are turning to legal operations professionals. The HBR Law Department Survey has shown that the number of legal departments with a dedicated legal operations leader or team grew from 58% in 2018 to 72% by 2020. Additionally, 44% of companies planned to increase their legal department staffing levels in 2020.

To lead those growing departments into the future, legal operations professionals must build a culture that encourages agility, emphasizes value—as established by data—in service delivery, and leverages technology to help people and improve processes.


Support Talent With a Culture That Values Agility

Talent—the people doing the work—forms the foundation of legal operations. Over the last year, the key trait of effective talent has been agility, the ability to be nimble and responsive to constantly changing needs and constraints. But agility is not a mysterious trait that is inherent in some gifted few and permanently out of reach for everyone else. Rather, it is a side effect of a culture of support and empowerment.

Create a culture that empowers employees to act. People cannot change course quickly unless they feel empowered to take decisive action. Waiting for approvals, navigating constrictive pipelines for minor decisions, and dreading punishment for missteps all stand in the way of agile employees, especially for a remote workforce. By contrast, creating a culture where people are aware of the big picture, aligned with the organization’s strategic needs, informed about options and alternatives, and supported in their ability to make decisions pays off in a responsive, fast-moving department.

Keep remote employees engaged. Our current dispersed workforce is unlikely to reunite in physical offices anytime soon, according to our recent roundtable discussions. Increasingly, law department leaders reported that they expect less than half of their staff to return to the office in 2021. Legal operations should look for ways to maintain communication and connection with remote workers and ensure that their education, development, and engagement are not impeded by distance.

Lead from a position of strength. Even a team of empowered, engaged employees can be brought to its knees by a weak leader or one who undermines their actions. Strong leaders who understand where they are going and how each piece of the puzzle fits together—and who have their team members’ backs when needed—can drive impactful initiatives without alienating employees.

Of course, even fully empowered and supported teams need to have a clear idea of where they are going—which brings us to our next point.


Value-Centric Service Delivery

Our roundtable discussions showed that by the middle of 2020, law department leaders’ top priority, even in industries that were relatively unaffected by the pandemic and its social restrictions, was cost management. When every dollar matters, organizations must maintain unwavering focus on their highest-value tasks and needs.

Evaluate your organization’s needs holistically. To concentrate resources on the greatest needs, organizations must have a long-term, holistic understanding of their strategic goals and the path to achieve those goals. It makes little sense to optimize work processes or leverage talent and technology in service of goals that are unlikely to carry the organization forward into the future. Instead, keep your eyes on the prize, maximizing your talent by keeping your team focused on the organization’s needs and aligning the cost of your external partners, such as law firms and alternative providers, with the value they provide.

Use data to determine value and measure outcomes. What exactly does your organization need and value? These determinations should be based on data and a holistic understanding of your business’s and your industry’s challenges rather than gut feelings or pie-in-the-sky optimism. Use your existing data to measure the value of investments against their outcomes and decide where you should double down and where you should cut your losses.

Deploy resources wisely. Ensure that you are applying the right resources at the right level and in the right place. You may find it cost-effective to concentrate areas of expertise and repetitive processes, such as contract assembly or legal research, into centers of excellence that can improve the efficiency and the value of service delivery.

Underlining these efforts and supporting both talent and service delivery is the third pillar of successful legal operations: technology.


Tech-Enabled Processes

Mature and data-driven legal operations teams build on their talent’s agility and value-centric service delivery by using technology to inform their decisions, improve the consistency of their legal services, and drive efficiency.

Maximize the adoption and use of existing systems. Whether you look at dedicated legal technology or general-purpose tools like cloud-based document storage platforms, your first goal should be to get the most from your current technology. Nearly half of law department respondents in the most recent HBR Law Department Survey reported that they were increasing their use of existing technology as a primary means of handling heightened demand. Start with that low-hanging fruit by ensuring that each element of your tech stack is aligned with your values and goals. At the same time, consider ways to recalibrate your legal technology strategy to accommodate your current needs—such as maintaining communication with a remote workforce—while keeping an eye on the organization’s long-term goals and strategic aims.

Enhance efficiency—where appropriate—by streamlining processes. Technology can save time and effort by automating laborious processes, but it should not be wielded haphazardly. After all, automating a bad process only produces bad results faster. Instead, use technology to streamline critical workflows and to track and monitor the data that will inform your next step.

Aim for an integrated view of best-in-class systems and analytics. Our roundtable discussions demonstrated that corporate legal departments are prioritizing tools that simplify workflows as well as those that produce clear analytics to enable continuous knowledge improvement. While you should focus on best-in-class tools, be sure that you integrate them into a single view of data and insights to maximize your results. Law departments looking to the future are revisiting their approach for providing user support of the tools to drive continuous improvement and best practices.

Creating a forward-looking, data-driven legal operations function is one of the biggest steps a law department can take to prepare for whatever comes next. By emphasizing a culture of agility, focusing on value in service delivery, and leveraging technology tools and resources effectively, your legal operations team can answer the call and continue your maturity journey towards becoming the law department of the future.