On the Ground at the CLOC Institute 2019: How to Be a Legal Ops Business Enabler

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LAS VEGAS — As the legal industry continues to morph and change, corporate general counsel are being asked to wear many hats, often taking time away from the practice of law to focus on the business of law.

That’s where legal ops professionals are becoming a near-critical need for corporate legal departments, from strategic planning and financial management, to data analytics and vendor management. And that’s also where Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) comes in.

This week, more than 2,100 legal professionals, working in operations and management of law departments, gathered for the CLOC Institute 2019 — the group’s three-day, law-infused annual conference. The popular event focuses on everything from actionable guidance for driving impactful legal department transformation to optimizing outside counsel and in-house partnerships.

One of the key panels, titled Transforming Legal Operations to be a Business Enabler, zeroed in on the business of law balance.

The session hovered around four key elements related to transforming legal operations into a way to benefit the organization’s business goals and seeking better integration for in-house counsel across corporate and business functions.

The panel included Ed Sohn, vice president of Product Management and Partnerships for Thomson Reuters Legal Managed Services; Karl Chapman, Strategic Advisor at Ernest & Young; Seth McNary, Compliance and Governance Practice Leader for Ernest & Young Americas; Susan Hackett, CEO of Legal Executive Leadership; and Heidi Stenberg, Leader for the Americas and Global Discovery Services for Ernest & Young.

They discussed several key topics, including:

  •  Aligning your current operating model with your business strategy;
  •  Elevating the legal function into a business enabler;
  •  Learning how to strike the right balance between routine tasks and strategic activities; and
  •  Defining key ways to leverage innovation efforts from other parts of the organization.

Doing More with Less: A Common Refrain in Times of Change

Panelists agreed that the challenges facing today’s corporate legal departments are formidable, but not insurmountable. Cost pressures, changing regulatory requirements, demand for digital change, challenges attracting and retaining the appropriate talent, and willingness to outsource certain functions are all top-of-mind for legal department leaders.

“Lawyer needs to evolve to place where they maximize creativity. It is the ability to be a ‘thought worker’ in a broader business context,” Sohn said. “The legal function is now demanding a lawyer to be in step with creating business strategy in house.”

However, changing a department’s traditional work processes, especially as lawyers, is never easy; and the role of the lawyer in the legal department of the future is still largely undefined. “Many people don’t have an answer,” Hackett said. “It is one of the biggest problems we have right now. We are asking lawyers to jump off a cliff, but they don’t know where they will land.”

Panelists agreed that while the legal function faces increased demands to do more with less, demonstrate strategic value and embrace innovation, there are also some tough questions legal departments needs to ask themselves regarding staffing.

“The question is, do you have the right people doing the right work now so you’re in front of it? Are you covering the gaps and working on things that will drive forward value?” Hackett asked. “It can be a painful conversation.”

Legal Ops is Not Just a Cost Center

To alleviate some of this pressure on their legal departments, corporations should look to an enterprise legal services approach to further integrate in-house counsel into the overall business functions and operations. Legal departments serve a strategic role for corporate, but also are uniquely positioned to reduce enterprise risk.

This is why an emphasis on data analytics is so crucial. Panelists agreed that legal departments should look to predictive data models for more than simply practice management. “They should use predictive data to make informed decisions when advising clients,” Hackett explained. “Starting to embrace that technology is legal ops highest function” not just to offer substantive advice but to be seen less as “just a cost center for the business.”

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Panelists Seth McNary, Ed Sohn, Heidi Stenberg, and Susan Hackett listen to Maurus Schreyvogel of Novartis during the annual CLOC conference.

Some final key takeaways from the panel included:

  • There is a growing demand for business of law services and a metamorphosis of corporate legal departments;
  • Enterprise legal services must be multidisciplinary and solve increasingly complex business issues;
  • Enterprise legal services should integrate technology, scale, legal, and business acumen;
  • Enterprise legal services can transform business-enablement into a competitive advantage; and
  • Sectors, industries, corporate functions are all converging. Treat legal operations as a corporate currency.

CLOC Testing Membership for Law Firms

At the opening of the annual Institute, CLOC’s new president, Mary O’Carroll, director of legal operations at Google, took the stage to evangelize about the CLOC mission and further the group’s goals of helping legal operations professionals and other core legal corporate legal industry players optimize legal service delivery models.

O’Carroll made it clear that if legal operations are still a brave new world for you and your colleagues, you aren’t alone. Everyone is making this up as they go, she said, adding that even now we are still at the infancy of the convergence between legal and technology, but groups like CLOC can help.

“CLOC is about community,” she said, adding that CLOC is a movement whose time is now.

To that end, O’Carroll unveiled an upcoming beta testing membership for law firms. Indeed, this is a departure, because membership opportunities for outside counsel is not something CLOC has historically explored. However, she said this change will allow for closer alignment and understanding between law firms and legal departments. While there has been some concern about how that will work in practice, CLOC is working out the details and ultimately wants this to be a collaborative process, soliciting feedback from the legal community, O’Carroll explained.