Legal operations: The hard work of selling change

By Mimi Bowen

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

The goal of legal operations is to run in-house legal teams like a business. What does that mean to you?

Change is never easy. As the Canadian legal markets break ground in this new field, it is critically important to recognize how to define and introduce legal operations into an established in-house legal team. If well thought out, it sets all team members up for success with mandates, decision making and clarity in roles and responsibilities. This key step is owned by the chief legal officer and/or general counsel with senior management. It needs to be supported by legal leaders at all levels, no matter the individual business unit or practice area.

Defining and introducing legal operations requires purposeful, frequent messaging with emphasis on what is changing in the day-to-day responsibilities. Think about it this way, if the team’s been doing things a certain way for a number of years and it has always worked well — why change? If they don’t know why they need to change or how it affects them, the process of change is tiring, bumpy and riddled with pitfalls. The struggles are felt by everyone in the organization, including in-house counsel, support and operations professionals. Therefore, the process of buy-in must include all levels of the current legal team and emphasize the strategic importance of legal operations.

If done on an occasional basis, the process of buy-in will result in occasional buy-in. This work requires sustained support and communication and is far from being a one and done activity. And yes, I called it work. Buy-in is sustained in e-mails, in-person discussions, small and/or large meetings and the best delivery includes the right combination of them for your audience.

Communications need to connect what is changing, to whom and what the benefits are. Leaders need to be aware that something needs to stop if something else is going to start and to communicate the impact and purpose early. And like almost anything, there is more than one approach that will make sense for your team or culture. The takeaway is that building buy-in needs to be a large part of leadership work.

The introduction and definition of legal operations can be considered a project on its own. It is a highly collaborative initiative that includes key stakeholders and legal operations professionals. It needs to be recognized that the ultimate leader of this change initiative is the legal leader (CLO or GC) and the implementers or “ultimate doers” are the legal operations professionals.

This is not an easy assignment. It is an assignment being done on a fast-moving river where legal delivery is expanding and legal practice is shrinking in the global marketplace. In Canada, there are countless legal organizations already data mining and process mapping to better understand the nature of their work. Developing a common understanding of the nature of this work will deliver better projects and results. It also lends itself to a smoother introduction and definition of legal operations.

As the chair of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, Toronto, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from many colleagues engaged in this process. One of the common early challenges in establishing legal operations is the lack of definition between operations and management issues. In some cases they are one and the same, whereas in other cases an ocean divides them. Any uncertain pieces between operations and management creates challenges in trust and confidence. Time needs to be dedicated to figure out what decisions remain, should move or perhaps are no longer needed.

Change management and respect go hand-in-hand. Relinquishing some of these decisions to operational specialists requires a leap of faith, but after a few successes it will become apparent that it makes more sense for different skill sets to step in and do what they do best. Respect is a two-way street in business and with the introduction of the business of law, in-house teams will start to experience new intersections between management and operations issues. 

Mimi Bowen is the legal operations officer at Sun Life with a background in process improvement, operations and project management. She’s a Baylor University alumni and a Certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black. She is also the chairperson of Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, Toronto.

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The Lawyer's Daily

This article was originally published by The Lawyer's Daily – providing Canadian legal news, analysis and current awareness for lawyers and legal professionals who need a real-time view on the shifting legal landscape.