Ironclad Journal icon Ironclad BLOG

Finding Your First Legal Ops Role

September 6, 2023 7 min read
ai generated image of woman in front of colorful funhouse doors

“How do I break into legal operations?”

It’s the question I get asked the most! From all parts of the legal world and beyond, of all ages and backgrounds. Lots of lawyers for sure, but also students, tech people, service providers. Over and over again, the question comes back.

I love it! I have so much passion for this field, so it makes me so happy that people are attracted to this community and this work. As someone who has been around since the first days of legal ops, it feels surreal that so many people want to join what used to be this weird fringe group.

Just a decade ago, this space really didn’t even exist, then was seen as an odd niche on the outskirts of the legal industry. Now, this is not only seen as a viable career choice, but as something desirable and compelling.

I don’t think I have a perfect answer to this, but I definitely have a perspective based on what I’ve seen work best. So I thought it might be helpful to share it in the hope that it helps someone.

Be sure legal ops is right for you

The first thing I would say to anyone considering starting or shifting their career into this space: Make sure it is right for you! Because while I love it, and find so much about it that is attractive, it is definitely not for everyone. And I’m not sure people always understand the nature of legal ops.

The legal industry has a lot of conflicted or dissatisfied lawyers. If you are one and are looking for an easy way out, trust me: This is probably not the answer. Taking a legal ops focus does NOT mean an easier role with less stress or hours. Often, what it means is that you will have an even more challenging time with an undefined role, trying to get your former peers to work in new ways. And that can be a frustrating and hard challenge.

In almost every legal ops job, you swim upstream. You are trying to persuade and influence people without authority, and usually without a real team. Your responsibilities are big but often poorly defined. You will likely get few resources and no clear charter. And even if you are hired with a specific focus, you may have to continue to educate and push your boss and peers around even very core things.

With that said, If you are a person who likes to create order from chaos, who likes to create an impact, who has the patience to fight through it all… then it can be incredibly rewarding. You are working on the cutting edge! And while you may not have much backup within your organization – some companies have small legal ops teams, but many still just have single people – you will not be alone. There is a big and growing community of legal ops people who are passionate about sharing and helping each other.

The bottom line: legal ops is all about transformation and change. It is about building the future. If you find that energizing enough to put up with the challenges, then it can be an incredible field to work in.

Apply for everything

So you still feel like legal ops is right for you! How do you find your way into that first job?

A lot of legal has had a very clear “expected” career progression: You go to law school, then to a firm, then rise up the partner track or switch to in-house, or whatever. Legal ops really doesn’t have anything like that. We don’t have an established career track or pipeline.

True, you can now find more roles posted with legal ops titles, and many companies will have emerging legal ops teams. The messy reality, however, is that both candidates and hiring managers are trying to find their way towards each other in the dark. A high proportion of roles being posted are put out by managers either unfamiliar with or very new to legal ops. So they struggle to define and scope the role, to understand what kind of background or skill set is needed, what level of experience they’re looking for, what level of seniority is needed, and so on.

As a result, you’re going to see roles posted that are copies of other roles posted or that have unrealistically mismatched title and experience levels. Routinely, I’ll see postings asking for 5+ years of legal ops experience at the manager or analyst level. The advice I give job seekers is simple: Just apply to everything! Ignore the experience requirements and the leveling in the title of the role and just go for it.

I’m often told by people who land jobs that this was the best piece of advice they received… because what frequently happens is that hiring managers are simply looking for a good fit. So when they find or interview someone who feels right, they will rewrite or redesign the role to fit that person’s experience level, either upwards or downwards.

Don’t miss out on an opportunity at a great organization because the title doesn’t feel like the right fit for you. Get the interview, see if it feels like a good fit with the leadership team and the organization, and show your stuff in your interview. When GCs feel a good fit, they’ll often scrap their previous job description and try to create one that works for the candidate they want.

Get started on your own

In most fields, and certainly across the legal industry, experience is what drives value in the talent marketplace. You have to have so many years of this, so many years of that, and that’s what makes you compelling to hiring managers.

The dynamic is a bit different within legal ops. You have to remember how nascent the field is. There simply aren’t tons of people with a decade of experience, and those with 5 or less years are still cutting their teeth and making things happen in their existing roles. We do see a lot of jumping around because people with any level of experience are being approached and poached with attractive packages early on in their legal ops careers. So, you just need a little experience under your belt to get noticed.

The bottom line… While hiring managers will certainly want to see that you’ve done the job before, formal experience is in short supply across the space. This means that, to a much greater degree than in other fields, you can boost your qualifications by doing pieces of the role on your own. After all, you don’t need the words “legal ops” in your title to do legal ops work! If you are currently an attorney, contracts manager, paralegal, etc. who is interested in pivoting into legal ops, the best and easiest way is to just do it.

Take the initiative in your organization to start dabbling in legal ops on the side. This could mean taking on some digital transformation projects, finding processes that need improvement, or some other kind of change effort. After some success, see if you are able to convince leadership that this role is something you can expand into. If you can create the role for yourself in your organization, gain some experience in it, and then you will be highly marketable.

The most in-demand job requirements these days: legal technology experience (particularly with contracts management software) and the management of outside counsel spend. See if you can find a way to initiate a project related to these skill areas.

Make use of LinkedIn

LinkedIn has become the top method for finding candidates to fill new roles, and recruiters are actively searching for qualified candidates and browsing profiles. Some recruiters and hiring managers will use LinkedIn exclusively and look at your profile and may never even ask for a copy of your proper resume.

Welcome to the new age of recruiting! If you aren’t online, you aren’t reaching nearly as many people as you should be. How you present yourself and engage on the site matters. As a result, you will really want to spend some time beefing up your LinkedIn profile so that it reads with as much detail as your resume does. Think about keywords that people might be searching for and if relevant, reflect that in your summary or role descriptions, include projects or initiatives you’ve worked on, etc.

If you are currently an attorney or have a non-legal ops full time role, you can list things here like committees or initiatives that you worked on that are legal ops related to indicate that you do have some hands on experience. And if you have experience with certain software, do make sure to reflect that as well. I can’t tell you how many calls I get from recruiters and hiring managers who are looking for people with Ironclad experience these days!

Find your resources and mentors

Say you are starting from absolute scratch. You know nothing about legal ops and don’t really have access to anyone who knows the space. Here’s the good news: There are plenty of helpful resources out there that can help you.

I know some people want to pursue a formal training or certification program, but there’s nothing that I would currently recommend. If you do have some spare time and interest, Six Sigma, project management, and basic financial management training are helpful in every job. You can also consider taking courses to skill up on particular tools – for example, Ironclad offers courses through the Ironclad Academy that is available for free to anyone online.

There are countless podcasts available now where you can learn from real life practitioners. Other than Pearls On Gloves Off, you can check out CLOC Talk, In House Outliers, or The Legal Ops Podcast. I have also (self-marketing alert! 🙂) rounded up all the blogs, ebooks, and webinar content that I’ve created, but CLOC and others have a lot of good references here as well.

And most important of all… look for some help from someone in the space. There are passionate, generous practitioners out there willing to assist a newcomer if you approach them in the right way. Try reaching out on LinkedIn or through an existing connection, keep your request and expectations reasonable, and you might be surprised how helpful people can be.

Keep going!

I wish you every success! Any role change, particularly into a brand new function, can feel daunting, but I hope you persevere and find the legal ops role that fulfills you.

This is an incredible time to join this space. The world is changing before our very eyes as AI upends everything and other technologies and practices gain momentum. After so many hard years of trying to pull legal forward, the industry is finally opening up. I believe we are going to see more transformation over the next few years than we’ve seen in the last generation. And legal operations people will be on the front lines, guiding and steering their teams and organizations into the future. I hope you will be one of them!


Already on your legal ops journey? Download our Legal Operations Field Guide to get started. 

Want more content like this? Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Book your live demo

Mary Shen O’Carroll is Ironclad’s Chief Community Officer. Previously, she was the Director of Legal Operations at Google, as well as the President of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC). In her early career, she served as the Profitability Manager for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and was an investment banker and strategic management consultant. Mary is also a passionate leader pushing forward disruptive technology and processes designed to change the future of the legal industry.