HighQ roundtable: Transforming legal operations

Legal operations is still a relatively new term. Ask people in this sphere how they got into it and a high proportion will say that, well, they they just sort of fell into it.

On a warm Thursday morning in central London, The Lawyer, in conjunction with HighQ, asked how we’ll be redefining the legal function through operations.

Led by National Grid group head of legal operational excellence Mohammed Ajaz and HighQ chief strategy officer Stuart Barr, attendees questioned how their roles have evolved with different climates, what the future means for legal operations and how their actions today define the job specifications of tomorrow.

“In many ways, we’re the new explorers,” says Post Office group legal director Ben Foat. “We’re looking to find the remit of what legal operations can be.”

What might strike some as a bold statement hits at the core of how those working in legal operations seek to position themselves. It’s got an element of the Wild West about it, where the bold and intrepid are carving out their own roles and defining how this new field is being perceived.

“There isn’t a defined job description or salary much to my disappointment”, jokes Ajaz.

Much of the change being made in this field, like across the legal spectrum, is incremental change.

“Is it part of a wider trend of digital transformation across the whole organisation?” Barr says. “We shouldn’t lose that whole context of transformation for the whole business. Legal isn’t immune to that change. IT, legal, marketing; they’re all adopting new technology.”

This approach to evolution, not revolution, has seen legal operations emerge from the GC role in a natural and healthy schism. For a while, the line between the job description and what was expected was as blurred as it gets. Instead of being a mammoth task, this was a space for opportunity and innovation.

But legal was missing something crucial to the evolution of good business.

Gilead Sciences Europe legal operations lead Nicholas Pouyiouros continues the theme of ill-definition and adds that agile working environments have pitfalls when applied to legal operations.

“The challenge we face is that we don’t actually know the path we’re going to go down at the starting point,” Pouyiouros says. “This is where agile works much better but to try and learn something with a group of lawyers as we go along just doesn’t work. In effect with agile, it’s all come out of the software world. That’s where we’ll be moving to in the future.”

Royal Mail director of legal operations Sarah Barrett-Vane argues that other departments had data, but legal was lagging behind.

“Everyone else, operationally, has data,” Barrett-Vane says. “Legal didn’t have data; we had knackered spend from SAP system that said we spent 230 per cent more than expense and that needed fixing. I think because my boss had to have data, he had to employ someone who could translate all of that. With my job, he brought me in to sort it but a lot of people seem to have just fallen into it.”

Creating a new role

You could forgive anyone for feeling uncertain around this situation. No real definition of salary, job specification and the need to translate data in easily digestible facts can leave to confusion around definition.

So what ways can you get a quick win to affirm your position?

“The first thing to do,” says GE Capital International chief legal operations counsel Leigh Murrin, “is to eliminate stuff that shouldn’t be there and already you’re improving value.”

Barrett-Vane agrees: “You’ve got to stop people just doing stuff. Once you’ve got your spend under your control, you can analyse it which is quite a quick win. From there, you get to billing and all the rest of it.”

Vodafone Group Services head of legal operations Steven Jebb says that these kinds of exercises are vital to feeling “empowered” in legal operations.

“It can be a very empowering feeling and it’s not a difficult thing to do when you work out what people are spending time on and what they shouldn’t be spending time on. Any lawyer in your organisation worth their salt will be wanting to go upstream and do the more complicated work.

“That way, you can work with them and if you find a different, more intelligent way of doing things, you’re going to their best friend.”

By communicating with the team and finding easier, more time-efficient solutions, the legal operations team is able to come into its own. But, argues John Lewis head of legal operations Maria Passemard, changing the mindset from a “private practice mentality” can be its own challenge.

“We said to look at every single piece of work that comes across their desk and ask themselves: were they the right people to be doing this work? Our team weren’t sure whether they should be doing it and asked, could the client do it?

“It sounds so obvious because a lot of big brands have done it, but lawyers are surprised they can say no. I think part of it is that private practice mentality that makes them think they whatever they’re asked to do, they have to do.”

Links between success and technology

It seems like a rudimentary question but what form does success take in this capacity? For Jebb, there are two key metrics: length of contract and what have you saved.

“It allows you to ‘tot up’ what is less of an exact science,” he says. “Relationships with finance, HR and technology are crucial as you start to build quite a wide stakeholder map.”

One of the biggest laughs of the morning came when Foat admitted to needing Excel training but he acknowledges the growing prominence of technology in legal.

“There’s a fundamental connection and we’re now interrogating other technologies. We’re asking ‘how is everyone getting up to speed?’ What are we saying to the future leaders of legal operations? What skillsets do they need to have to become head of legal operations?”

The skillset required to be a success in legal operations is growing progressively wider and that can be rewarding itself. It may take some time for legal operations to be truly defined, but this is yet another evolution in the role of the in-house legal team.

HighQ’s next roundtable session will be running on 23rd November. If you’re interested in finding out more about the next topic, or would like to attend, please contact delegates@thelawyer.com