Does Your Organization Need a Legal Operations Manager?
Find out why firms and departments could potentially benefit from having a legal ops professional oversee key initiatives and functions.
The growth of the legal operations manager role within legal departments has been well-documented in recent years. Between 2018 and 2020, the number of organizations that employed one increased by 24%, according to Gartner; a joint Association of Corporate Counsel and Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) survey found more than half of the people in the position report directly to the general counsel.
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More law firms, too, have been bringing a legal operations oversight professional on board, according to Jamy Sullivan, Executive Director of the legal practice of staffing and recruitment firm Robert Half — a job she says may be referred to as manager or director.
“It 100% has become more commonplace — first and foremost, on the corporate side, but we’ve started to see it come now on the law firm side,” Sullivan says. “There are different titles out there, but as law firms continue to be more business-savvy, forward-thinking and client-centric, we’ve started to see that role pop up more.”
Several factors have helped fuel the trend, she says, including the growing complexity of legal work — which can involve trying to control costs, vetting technology, and managing compliance and risk in relation to new laws and regulations.
A 2022 ACC survey found five in six chief legal officers expect to see greater collaboration between legal and other departments due to increased regulations and the need to optimize procedures.
“The legal operations role can create effective processes that enable the lawyers on the team to do more substantive work and, overall, improve the effectiveness of the legal department,” Sullivan says. “That is the other piece of why the role has become such an important and prominent discussion.”
After several years as an associate, Adam Becker was working in the admin and development side of law firms when a friend who was the deputy general counsel at a large public company suggested Becker apply for a newly created job within the organization’s legal department.
“He actually called me and said, ‘I don’t really know what this is. You’d be my peer; you’d be a senior leader. This is probably something you can do,’” Beckersays. “I looked at the job description, and I had done a lot of it. So I applied for it.”
Initially, when he was hired in 2016, the role was largely talent management based. But Becker says itquickly grew to encompass the gamut of today’s legal operations work — handling outside counsel, IT tools, training and other elements.
At his first CLOC conference in 2017, he was amazed to see how many people were doing legal operations work. Becker, who now works as Director of Legal Operations at tech startup Cockroach Labs, estimates the total amount at least doubled in the next two years. By 2021, fueled by the increased need for coordination after remote work became more routine, he says the legal operations leadership position became even more prevalent.
“General counsel just don’t have the time to handle everything,” he says. “That’s really what our role is — to alleviate the general counsel from time-consuming things that can be managed by us. General counsel shouldn’t be on the phone negotiating rates with law firms, unless they want to be. And the general counsel isn’t going to make a shared platform for everybody to use in a consistent way.”
“Historically, corporate legal departments were basically treated as corporate law. Now they’re turning into more of a business unit inside that corporate structure, where they have a seat at the table.”
At a number of organizations, financial work has become a bigger portion of what legal op managers do.
When Jenita Gillespie, who’d previously worked as a law firm billing manager, was hired as a paralegal at Bon Secours Mercy Health in 2011, she quickly noticed a need for outside counsel electronic billing capabilities.
Gillespie’s role within the organization evolved to include that oversight, and after suggesting health care provider Bon Secours add her current role, she was appointed to be its first Director of Legal Operations in 2017.
“It was a brand-new role,” she says. “They welcomed it. It creates a lot of efficiencies across our ministry. Most of our business partners, they know if they can’t get to one of the attorneys, they can come to the director of legal operations so she can act as the liaison and help facilitate.”
Currently, Gillespie manages outside counsel rate negotiations, helps build workflows and contract repositories within the organization’s contract lifecycle management system, and performs document management and other tasks.
Her role has also expanded over the years to include managing the budget for purchased services and quarterly check-ins with the finance department.
“That helps us really look at the scope of everything and try to find cost savings,” Gillespie says. “Because outside counsel is hard to budget for. You can’t say, ‘This year you spent $3 million, so you only need a budget of $3 million next year.’ I really work hand-in-hand with the finance department so they can understand how legal operates when you're engaging outside counsel in different types of matters.”
The legal operations manager-director role, Gillespie says, has grown tremendously in recent years — and could continue to become more universal.
“Historically, corporate legal departments were basically treated as corporate law firms,” she says. “Now they’re turning into more of a business unit inside that corporate structure, where they have a seat at the table. Legal is now involved with the strategic planning — you need that legal operations person who can get you data you need in a consistent manner.”
SERVING AS DIGITAL GUIDES
Data and technology have been a focus for Rebecca Ross-Bown as Chief of Legal Operations for international law firm Reed Smith.
Ross-Bown transitioned to law firm business management, and eventually, legal operations. After reaching the senior associate level at a Big Law firm, she decided to leverage her economic consulting background, which had been her pre-law school career.
“Legal operations management roles will continue to evolve and become a more frequent inclusion within law firms and departments, in part due to emerging technology needs.”
In the last few years, firm management members, she says, have increasingly utilized more extensive and sophisticated data — generally, the internal metrics that any business would use to try to run smoothly and be profitable, and other data that indicates how the law firm is delivering legal services to its clients.
“That requires [us to] collect and heartily harvest our own data that’s client- and matter-centric,” Ross-Bown says. “We also then harness it to do better for our clients down the road. In both of those buckets of data, there’s just been an exponential growth of the use of data — the embrace of data. It’s now very much in the daily conversations inside firms like the one I work at. That’s a real change.”
In the last decade, in particular, firms have had an opportunity to think differently about pricing, scoping and project management, Ross-Bown says. That said, finding ways to trim expenses, optimize teams’ time or maximize technology’s effect while simultaneously maintaining legal service delivery quality can prove challenging.
To successfully make the required changes, firms and legal departments, according to Ross-Bown, need to have people on board who understand how legal work is performed, and the areas where process changes might be effective.
“Lawyers traditionally have not been trained on the business side of being a lawyer; they’re also not traditionally trained in process improvement and project management,” she says. “For a long time, people held those disciplines out as things you see in manufacturing or the medical industry. But we have to bring all of that in now to legal services — and there’s no reason not to, because it’s all aimed at delivering better services for our clients.”
While legal operations manager candidates might find having some industry experience helpful, Becker doesn’t believe a JD is needed to do the job.
“Understanding the culture of lawyers and legal timeframes is really helpful. The other hard skills, of course, are organization, project management [and] financial acumen is really important. Also, there is inherently some degree of negotiating with law firms, tech vendors. In terms of soft skills, curiosity is really important. You want to learn what your business does — how it makes money; how it operates. We’re always doing something new; you really want to be the type of person who enjoys learning.”
Both Sullivan and Ross-Bown anticipate legal operations management roles will continue to evolve and become a more frequent inclusion within law firms and departments, in part due to emerging technology needs.
“This role has nowhere to go but up because there just will be a continuing need for that refined data analysis,” Ross-Bown says. “You layer in additional technology, including the elephant in the room — all of the AI technology that is upon us — that’s an incredibly rich area where we are seeing clients quickly adopt more AI-enabled technology so that they can run a better business. And [they are] looking to their law firms to do the same thing.”
Sullivan feels the position may ultimately be seen as a business partner to the chief executive officer — or a resource to advise the board.
“That continued expansion of not only their legal expertise, but their business acumen will continue to be a huge piece — having the predominant leadership and management skills to help the organization not just execute, but set business goals,” she says. “And the technology piece isn’t going anywhere. As we see that rapidly continuing to grow, the legal ops individual will have a lot of responsibility in how the legal department [or] law firm continues to respond to that in the legal profession.”
Legal operations shares many similarities with firm administration, and thinking with a legal ops mindset can help make your firm more efficient. We explored this in a recent episode of Legal Management Talk, where Tom Stephenson, Vice President of Community and Legal Ops at Legal.io, discussed the six key elements of legal ops and how using those principles allows your firm to streamline processes ranging from billing to client management to e-discovery. Never miss an episode! Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or watch us on YouTube.
About the Author
Erin Brereton is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist who has written about the legal industry, business, technology and other topics for 20 years.