How Legal Operations Can Run a Law Department Like a Business

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From alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) to remote work to new developments in technology, there have been a lot of changes in the legal field — and it often calls on legal operations to ensure these transitions run smoothly. A 2021 survey from the Blickstein Group found that 70% of those working in law department operations said their primary job function was change management. So how can legal operations teams find pain points in their people, processes, and technology that are holding them back from greater efficiency? 

The answer lies in lessons from the business world. In a recent webinar from Law.com, an expert panel addressed trends in the legal field, and how legal operations teams are changing their strategy to run a law department like a business. The panel included insights from Brad Blickstein, Principal at Blickstein Group, Aaron Van Nice, Vice President, Global Operations – Legal Affairs, Risk & Compliance at ADM Company; Gabriel Buigas, Executive Vice President & Business Head, Contracts Compliance & Commercial Services Integreon; Zach Warren, Editor-in-Chief at Legaltech News; Michelle Spencer, Product Marketing Manager at NetDocuments; and Kristin Zmrhal, Vice President, Product Strategy at DISCO.

Valuable people, valuable work

First, the panel discussed making law department careers more attractive, given the hot job market and battle for talent. The panel agreed that employees should feel like they are adding value, rather than completing rote tasks (“Nobody wants to file email,” quipped Spencer). Increasing time to focus on big-picture work could mean finding a way to automate routine tasks or even just implementing technology to reduce that one extra click. Buigas pointed out that doing this is a great way to show quick wins. 

Zmrhal also noted that it’s important to recognize what will make employees successful, referencing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to say that employees need to feel capable and safe in order to do their best work. Furthermore, they need access to relevant training — adapted to both their learning style and their role (like, say, DISCO University) — to be successful in their role. 

In addition to creating empowered, streamlined teams, the panel also discussed how to get the best value out of outside counsel and tips to find the first firm for a matter. The panel agreed on the importance of taking inventory of active relationships after Spencer shared a horror story about a company that had 2,000 separate outside counsel (that number was eventually reduced to around 200, but she still questioned whether that was efficient). That said, whittling down the number of outside counsel to be as small as possible isn’t the goal either — firms that offer a specific expertise obviously add value to the available panel of outside counsel. 

Blickstein said the problem lies when individual lawyers choose outside counsel based on who they went to law school with, or who helped them out on the last case. Rather, firms should treat it like a business matter, and have a set of criteria to find the best counsel for that particular case. Van Nice reported that doing an RFP helps him have a better understanding of what’s out there on the market. 

Zmrhal also pointed out that this process provides firms with a unique opportunity to show value — to talk about how they can make a difference in total costs or how their tech provides better accuracy in finding evidence. Spencer added that teams have to look at the big picture and the value of time. 

Efficient processes and use of ALSPs

Acknowledging that law firms are not always the best at process, the discussion then turned to ALSPs. Spencer said that the billable hour has been blamed for holding firms back from being efficient, and now GCs are going to ALSPs instead of dealing with it. Van Nice mentioned using ALSPs whenever it made sense, in areas like ediscovery, immigration, and mobility. Zmrhal pointed out that these decisions are largely driven by volume and that organizations should consider how often they have to do the work to staff it appropriately. In her prior experience, her team chose to insource ediscovery because it ultimately became more efficient when reviewers gained knowledge they could use on the next case, rather than starting from scratch every time. However, they engaged with ALSPs before bringing everything in-house to learn best practices and how to enable that passed-on knowledge. 

Blickstein also pointed out that passing work from in-house to outside counsel is a developed process, whereas relationships with ALSPs are still being developed. Buigas asserted that to get the best results out of ALSP relationships, they need to be treated as partnerships with each side engaged to determine how to add value. “The more an ALSP can feel like an extension of the in-house department and understand how they work, the more successful the relationship will be,” he said. 

Ensuring technology implementation success

Although technology can play a large role in garnering efficiencies, the panel was quick to point out that it’s important to methodically determine what will work best in your team rather than jumping on the latest trend. Spencer recommended that teams develop a requirements list, ask questions during the evaluation process, and really think through workflows and future projects to ensure the right technological fit. Zmrhal added the key here is to start with what problem the team is trying to solve — reduce administrative work? lower costs? — and involve the people who will actually use the technology in the early stages of the process to get insight into their pain points and drive adoption. Van Nice put it this way, “Think about how it has to be implemented, who’s going to be the leader, and who’s going to be along for the ride.” Spencer also pointed out that some tools for determining this may already live in your organization’s training department in the form of a needs analysis.  

The panel ended with one final tip to drive change and adoptions:

Zmrhal advocated going slow to go fast — taking time in advance to understand the root cause before jumping into problem-solving. She also recognized the importance of communication with people in different modalities, and that repetition is the key to learning. That could mean having a live training, following that up with a detailed email of reading materials, and having office hours to chat about problems one-on-one.

Spencer gave a reminder that there’s a lot of fear with new projects — people who previously felt like masters of their domain may now feel like that expertise is lost and they have to start over with something new. To ameliorate this, she recommended letting users be involved before implementation, or even doing real-life training sessions where people would actually bring their work that needed to be done on the new software to allay fears.  

Van Nice took a page from the book “From Good to Great” and advocated giving everyone else credit for the success and personally being accountable for any failures. “People need to feel good about the changes made,” he said.

Finally, Buigas recommended starting with a strategic plan for your legal function. “If you have a strategic plan, it can align with the business strategy, and people can understand why the change you’re trying to drive matters and what the expected outcome is,” he said.

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Erin Russell

Erin Russell is the senior communications manager at DISCO. She has extensive experience covering tech and AI as a journalist and editor, and her bylines include Texas Monthly, Eater, and Austin Business Journal.

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