5 Key Skills of Successful Legal Operations Managers

Legal operations are gradually becoming one of the most important disciplines for legal departments around the globe. Broadly speaking, legal operations are all the responsibilities of a legal department that aren’t law itself. It is therefore multi-faceted with many roles and responsibilities and enables legal counsel to focus on providing legal advice in the most valuable and productive way possible.

To generate the best outcomes, a legal operations team needs a wide range of skills. Fortunately, the legal operations head does not need to be perfect in all of those areas, as they can sometimes build a diverse team around them.

Nevertheless, a good legal operations manager should always be striving to develop the generalist skills in order to mentor and lead the specialists within the team. Those with teams are the fortunate ones, though. Most legal operations functions in Europe are run by a solo legal operations manager and it’s even more critical that this person develops the necessary key skills.

Whether you’re already in the job or have aspirations to transition into legal operations, here are five of the key skills every legal operations professional should have or be actively working on improving, especially if they are in a “team of one”.

Stakeholder Management and Communication

A legal operations manager needs to define and identify the relevant stakeholders for projects, in order to understand their needs and address them while balancing competing requirements and priorities. On occasion, final budget decisions will be made in other departments of the organisation, so maintaining good communication and a positive relationship with all stakeholders is vital.

The legal operations director works as the link between the legal department and the rest of the organisation, ensuring stakeholders are involved and updated. This may also entail influencing stakeholders to buy into a project in the first place by identifying how the project benefits the wider business. As other departments may be unfamiliar with the legal department’s workflow and the resulting obstacles, a legal operations manager must have the ability to explain projects and benefits in terms that make sense outside of the legal silo. They should be able to network and communicate with people at several levels throughout the organisation.

As Ben Eason, Head of Legal Transformation at Barclays says, “evidence of flexibility, interchangeability, negotiation and managing stakeholders are crucial. These skills are arguably the most important for legal operations success”.

Legal Department Budgeting

A legal operations manager should be able to manage and calculate the budget the legal department has as well as the budget it might need, even if this responsibility is outside of their remit. Reliable, stable financial planning will help the legal department to develop consistently.

While there should be an understanding of previous and actual budgets, as this helps with forecasting, actually planning the future is more important. The legal department will always be under pressure to be more efficient, and resource optimisation is key to success. Part of the job will be to spot new cost-saving opportunities. Spend management tools can make visibility of these metrics, and therefore decision making, much easier.

The legal operations director should have the acumen to acquire budget for a project when there isn’t one, by communicating with the budget holder/s and creating a business case that advocates not only what’s best for the legal department, but for the whole organisation. This links with the stakeholder management and communication skill, in that the business case needs to resonate with the budget holder/s aims and objectives, not just the legal department.

Legal Technology Knowledge

Technology is playing an ever more significant role in the role of a legal operations manager, as legal departments strive to become more agile, collaborative and efficient.

A legal operations head needs to have an innovative and curious approach to problem-solving. They should be confident in rolling out tech (or knowing where to go for help), and have the ability to plan and implement a long-term process and technology roadmap.

The rapidly evolving legal technology landscape can cause distractions, so it’s important to stay up to date with legal tech trends and new entrants to the market to avoid any sense of overwhelm. This also helps the legal operations manager ensure projects and plans stay true to the department’s objectives. The ability to critically evaluate the relevance of the current plan and pivot quickly if required is important.

Since many lawyers are still doing repetitive and time-consuming tasks manually, the legal operations manager should find solutions to streamline and/or automate these processes by using existing enterprise tech or evaluating legal-specific vendors. A good legal operations head will know how to map out current processes and decide which can be improved by changing processes vs. which require technology to solve, and then prioritising accordingly.

Firm and Vendor Management

In some organisations, the legal operations team manages the procurement of external legal services form law firms and vendors. In a lot of companies, firms and vendors are traditionally selected through personal contacts or loyalty, though this status quo is being challenged more frequently now. A good legal operations manager has to turn this thinking around and focus on more effective and transparent solutions for the department. Instead of agreeing on traditional pricing and staffing models, the head of legal operations should facilitate negotiation of more flexible and transparent pricing models to create positive incentives. This can be win-win for client and firm, incentives such as ‘volume discounts’ encourage counsel to drive more work towards a single firm to reach the threshold that triggers a discount.

Legal operations professionals that are not from a legal background need to familiarise themselves with how legal services are billed; rates, AFAs, LEDES etc. They also need to approach vendor management with sensitivity so to influence in-house counsel to the new way of thinking. Legal services aren’t a commodity and it can be difficult to quantify added-value, so it’s not all about ‘lowest cost wins’. By setting up a structured bidding request, as one example, the legal operations manager can force competitive rates from the firms while requiring counsel to objectively decide which proposal generates the most value for cost.

Another part of the work in this area is the administration of efficient on-boarding for new vendors or firms. After choosing the right vendor/firm, clear rules (such as billing guidelines) must be introduced to measure the performance of the collaboration and get maximum value for money. The head of legal operations also needs to facilitate fair, transparent and data-driven performance reviews with vendors and firms.

Data Literacy

Data literacy is vital for the work of a legal operations director. A lot of legal departments are making decisions in an inefficient way, using outdated processes such as spreadsheet reporting, anecdotal feedback or simply “gut feel”. A legal operations professional is unlikely to start their job with sophisticated reporting tools and must be confident in navigating the existing paper or spreadsheet reports to find the data they need.

While there is no need for a legal operations manager to be a data scientist, data literacy goes beyond compiling reports. In fact, many legal departments are wasting time compiling frequent reports where most of the data go unused. The director of legal operations needs to avoid data tracking for the sake of it and understand how the information can be used for the development of the department and the organization as a whole. They should identify the goals (using existing data to help, if appropriate), work backwards to identify key performance indicators (KPIs) and important metrics, and then ensure the department can capture the data points needed to measure the KPIs. This consistent data lies the foundations for analytical capabilities to enable decision making and solve problems.

A good legal operations head needs to know how to structure, gather and analyse the relevant legal data. This can help in practical ways such as maximising value when negotiating external contracts or making a business case for increased headcount and budgets. Data literacy will also help the legal operations head to balance the needs of the department in an objective manner and decide where to focus their efforts.

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