Today’s corporate law department plays a front-and-center business advisory role. You’ve read other posts from us describing the General Counsel’s ascension to the board room over the last several years. As an active part of the business, their teams can no longer afford be viewed as bottlenecks of productivity; nothing can “go to legal to die” these days without a pretty darn good explanation. So, what does it take to solidify a genuinely positive and productive relationship between legal and the business in 2019? According to many GCs in Fortune 1000 companies, a skilled legal operations leader makes all the difference. A multi-tasking “magician behind the curtain” can optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of the law department while the attorneys settle comfortably into their seats at the table and get back to more high-value lawyering.
Qualities of an Effective Legal Ops Leader
Most in-house law departments benefit greatly from optimizing the management of legal operations, or “legal ops” as it’s less formally known. About one half of all in-house legal departments in the U.S. now have one or more employees dedicated to legal operations, according to the Association of Corporate Counsel — a healthy increase from just 20% in 2016. If your organization is among the other half still contemplating this critical hire, look for these six unique personality traits to ensure you find your Wizard of Ops:
The Relationship Expert: It’s all about trust, really. Skilled legal ops leaders have high EQs and the ability to read people. They’re genuine and relatable. (See also: quick, engaging, productive, funny — pick a likeable adjective, and they are probably that.) Case in point, I recently placed a legal ops leader with one of our long-standing Fortune 500 clients. As the hiring process unfolded, it became clear that he was incredibly well-connected and well-liked. His list of references was astounding! It included people from every walk and level of professional life — from CEOs to administrative assistants — all jumping at the chance to sing his praises.
The Networker: Effective legal ops leaders are not only capable of forming meaningful relationships, they go the extra mile to maintain them. They have deep-rooted and enviable personal and professional networks and are eager to leverage them to the benefit of their employers. These are probably the people who were involved in lots of clubs and extracurricular activities during undergrad and may have started their career as a consultant before attending business or law school. They probably sit on a board or two as well. They understand the necessity of diversity in modern business and likely head up an affinity group or speak regularly on behalf of people or causes they believe in.
The Techy: If they’re not a millennial, they certainly know technology like one. Effective legal ops leaders are technologically advanced with a keen interest in staying ahead of the game. They regularly attend tech conferences and are up to date on all emerging technology that could improve the bottom line of their law department. They embrace change and drive innovation.
The Interpreter: Legal ops leaders are clear communicators. Period. End. They are professional liaisons capable of breaking down even the most complicated processes and procedures into layman’s terms. They are fluent enough in the languages of both business and legal to translate back and forth effortlessly. Under the leadership of an accomplished professional, legal operations becomes the glue that holds the countless functions and practice areas of the department together. You’re familiar with the phrase “know enough to be dangerous”? That’s a good legal ops leader, except not dangerous.
The Penny Pincher/Negotiator: Skilled legal ops leaders maintain a keen eye for cost cutting and rarely miss an opportunity to positively impact the financial goals of their organization. They are professional streamliners, able to find and follow the straightest and least expensive path to a desired end. By establishing management systems for areas like finance, performance, reporting, billing, analytics, and vendor and outside counsel spend, legal ops professionals free up limited resources that can then be reallocated to higher value substantive legal work. Despite friendly, enduring relationships with outside vendors and contractors, skilled legal ops leaders drive hard bargains with these same contacts. They are admirable negotiators who somehow leave everyone feeling like a winner. Note: many legal ops leaders are certified in Lean Six Sigma, a method that involves cooperation across the company to reduce waste and cut costs.
The Clairvoyant: A key mission, according to Gregg McConnell, Legal Operations Leader at Corteva (a Dow Dupont company), is to create transparency. “At every turn, I think to myself, ‘how can I make it clear to the business, in real time, what is actually transpiring in legal?’ Through open channels of communication and technology (e-signatures, e-billings, etc.), legal ops strives to provide business executives with enough clarity to have genuine confidence in the law department.” If the business is made privy to the inner workings of legal, and the inner workings are modern and impressive, then the business has confidence in legal. This confidence extends to investors as well; bottom-line transparency in every department, including legal, is paramount to the success of companies preparing to go public or private, merge with or even acquire another company. Exceptional legal ops leaders understand the benefits of clarity in business and infuse it into every project they take on.
At its core, the legal ops function is about efficiency and effectiveness — the magic of creating a best-in-class, business-driven, high performance law department. You’re looking for someone who has the best interests of the entire organization in mind, but who will make the legal department shine. Do pay attention to that person behind the curtain, your Wizard of Ops, carefully planning, organizing, and orchestrating. If they’re good, they’ll show the business world there’s no place like legal...
Contact BarkerGilmore for Legal Recruiting
For professional assistance with choosing your corporation’s next legal operations team, contact BarkerGilmore today. BarkerGilmore is a boutique firm that specializes in recruiting the top legal professionals in the country. Give us a call or fill out our online form today.
Sarah Sullivan is a Senior Director and the Chair of BarkerGilmore’s Women & Diversity Practice. She is committed to bringing top legal, compliance, and operations professionals to her clients and has a proven track record of transitioning large law firm associates and partners into some of the most influential in-house positions in the country.