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The Next Evolution in Legal Operations

May 16, 2022 6 min read
Ironclad Chief Community Officer Mary O'Carroll

When I started in legal operations at Google in 2008, we were in uncharted territory. We knew we needed to bring improvement and optimization to legal departments, so we put our heads down and got to work. 14 years later, the legal operations—or legal ops—field has become one of the most impactful departments in any organization.

But as with any leading field, things move quickly; each day brings new technology, new processes, and new strategies. In this world of opportunity, now is the time for legal ops leaders to get out from behind the relative comfort of supporting others, and step into real leadership positions. We cannot get stuck being “the back-office to the back-office.” To date, legal operations has been focused on improvement and optimization; soon it will become about shaping and driving a clear strategic vision.

As we think about this shift from “legal operations” to “strategic operations”—an evolution to something I like to call “The Wayfinder”—it’s important to understand the different levels of value delivered by legal ops teams and how they ultimately build upon each other. Let’s start at the beginning, with a value level I call “The Optimizer.”


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Level 1: “The Optimizer”

In the beginning, building out processes to keep the daily trains running on time was the name of the game. You have to start here. You have to build trust. If you don’t, you won’t have the capacity or credibility to keep moving up the value chain. This was, and continues to be, an incredibly important step in improving the lives of legal team members through processes and data collection—and ultimately becoming a trusted and valued contributor to the business. This is the first major layer of value for legal operations. 

Executing on this role as “Optimizers” is incredibly important—but it’s equally important to avoid getting stuck at this phase with execution as your sole focus. We should not limit ourselves to doing it better, faster, and so on. 

This was the cusp that ushered in the next phase of legal ops professionals—the one where we started thinking beyond “just” legal. This is the second layer of value offered by legal ops professionals, i.e. “The Accelerant” phase.


Level 2: “The Accelerant”

Legal operations has brought new speed to legal teams, but we’re still often seen as being slower than the rest of the business, or even acting as a bottleneck. 

We’re currently experiencing a shift to a higher order of value I call “The Accelerant,” where legal ops supports the broader business by helping other departments become more efficient in their operations with regards to legal. Many teams are doing this by implementing self-service and low-touch initiatives, and turning our focus beyond legal to our internal clients and stakeholders. Here, we begin adapting to our partners’ ways of working and automating their needs—as opposed to making them come to us and becoming a “necessary bottleneck.”

This is an important step, but we now must go further to become truly strategic leaders across the business, drive decisions and expand our impact. This third layer of value, which I call “The Wayfinder,” builds upon our roles as “The Accelerant”—but takes our impact even further.


Level 3: “The Wayfinder”

The Wayfinder helps the business not just run faster but do so with greater strategic depth and focus. I believe that true Wayfinders can provide business-leading insights, positively influence decision making, and help leadership understand the full context and implications of those decisions. We are uniquely suited to help leadership look around corners and surfacing new ways to achieve business goals.

Doing this right is very hard, and a very new concept. Not many people are doing this yet, but some have begun charting the path. For example: a legal ops peer and friend of mine was facing massive volume issues for their B2B business. Acting as a true Wayfinder, she was brave and experimented by taking a consumer contracting model leveraging clickwrap and applied it to the B2B use case – resulting in a significant bottom line impact to the company and enabled growth that would have been otherwise impossible. As a result, she was promoted and received recognition from her CEO and the Board of Directors. This is what we should be aspiring to. Wayfinders like this are showing us that Legal can transform the way the business operates, are earning us a seat at the leadership table, and are changing the way Legal is perceived.  

The right Wayfinder can help companies take massive, complex areas of uncertainty—like hyperscale growth, the path to IPO, or even global health crises—and put order and shape to important choices made. They can help you see more clearly and navigate with more certainty into an increasingly uncertain future.

The Path to Wayfinder

It’s fair to say that most everyone in the legal ops profession possesses the skills and business acumen needed to become a Wayfinder. But what actually makes a Wayfinder? And how do you take steps to actualize this next evolution?

1) It’s not about answers—it’s about asking the right questions

The Wayfinder role is not about having all the answers, because honestly, how could we? Wayfinders will understand the important questions that need to be answered—what are the company’s top line goals, and how can we achieve these goals for the company? Note how I did not ask, “how can we help others achieve these goals?”

2) Think beyond improvement

We’ve become so good at making things work better and faster, that we don’t stop to ask an important question: “what is it we are improving, exactly?” Often the entire process, the way we do things needs to be thrown out and replaced with something wildly different—something that goes to the root of the problem. Some things shouldn’t just be fixed—some things should be redesigned. We need to shift to a new model, one where we stop trying to improve and start trying to replace, to disrupt, and to reimagine. And we need to start from scratch rather than using the status quo as our starting point for everything.

3) Stretch beyond traditional legal operations

In order to truly deliver Wayfinder-level value, you need to stretch beyond the scope of traditional legal operations. You need to know where the company is going, what the external pressures are, what the competitive environment looks like, and what the internal goals are. Ultimately, you need to have a perspective on what your department needs to look like in one year, in five years, etc, to get ahead. Rather than waiting for direction and instructions, you need to grab the reins, assess the situation, and determine the path forward. Excelling in your role as “The Accelerant” and understanding higher-level business values will help you get here. 

4) Ground your work in data

Another way to earn yourself a seat at the table is to ground yourself in data. Remember—the person who holds the data, typically holds the answers. As a Wayfinder, the aim is to surface data that will ripple throughout your organization. Ask yourself, how can we surface data to the sales team, the finance team, HR, etc to help guide business decisions? What data do we need to give us a better picture of how to accelerate deals? To identify and mitigate future risks? 

Most legal ops teams are still in the early stages of identifying, sourcing, and working with data, but it’s imperative for teams to quickly move towards telling stories with data. Data is the key to playing this new, very different game, and this should be a massive source of focus and investment for anyone who wants to become a true Wayfinder. 

5) Rely on your community

Never start from scratch. Learn from others who have forged ahead and are willing to share their learnings. That said, avoid trying to model yourself after other legal departments or relying too heavily on “what’s worked in the past.” Remember that we’re all still operating in the dark ages, so following the status quo only points you in a backwards direction. Instead, look for those who are actually doing something different, and using new ideas, tools and methods to get there—that’s where the breakthroughs are happening.

Look outside legal and take inspiration from other functions that have modernized ahead of us. This is new territory, but it’s already being mapped out and defined by others. Take advantage of that. 

We will either define our future or have it defined for us

One of the things I love most about legal operations is that the function is still being defined. The opportunity for us to redefine legal operations into truly strategic operations is in front of us today—but it will not be there forever. If you are serious about embracing legal operations, it’s up to you. No one is going to ask this of you because no one is thinking that legal has the capabilities to play this role. But no one else is as well-positioned at most companies to play this Wayfinder role as those in legal ops – we operate across the business, we have access to the data, and we are already thinking about risk and future planning constantly. 

Every legal ops leader has a decision to make: do you want to simply cover the basics well—or do you want to be a true strategic force in shaping the future of the business?


Subscribe to Mary O’Carroll’s new podcast Pearls On, Gloves Off to hear more of her thoughts on legal and strategic operations. Follow Ironclad on Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest in CLM and digital contract management.  

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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.