Ironclad Journal icon Ironclad BLOG

The Disconnect: Why GCs Still Misunderstand Legal Ops

February 1, 2024 5 min read
AI generated image of a row of people standing on either side of an aisle

Why GCs and Legal Ops are still far apart

If you go looking for signs that Legal Ops has gained traction, there are plenty. What used to be seen as a niche, almost oddball, initiative has now become a significant area of investment and action across Legal.

The shift is remarkable. It is now more the rule than the exception that larger companies will have someone responsible for legal operations, and there is so much more recognition that this type of work matters. To those of us who have done this a while, it can sometimes seem surreal to see how much investment has come to the space.

Given all this apparent progress, it would be easy to think that we have “made it” as a function. There remains, however, a huge and often unspoken barrier that restricts growth and innovation within companies. It is the massive disconnect that still persists between how GCs and legal operations leaders think about the challenge.

Many GCs believe their key responsibility in legal operations is limited to a single action: Hiring someone to look after it. It is both the beginning and the end of their role, as they essentially “check the box.” While they might be interested in an occasional update and be willing to weigh in from time to time, they effectively view operations as tangential to the main body of their work.

The Legal Ops professionals that they hire, of course, see things differently. They view themselves as beginning a long journey that will require not only their own efforts, but understanding and buy-in from their management and the broader team.

Legal Ops needs to be understood as a systemic team challenge

This gap in mindset is such a difficult and limiting factor for legal operations professionals because there is so little that a single person can accomplish. Real change depends completely on connection and integration across and within the team, and that requires a clear mandate from leadership.

Some well intentioned GCs care deeply about the function, and put their trust in their new hire and give them the space and autonomy to get things done. They can be supportive, offer budget and resources, and even delegate decision making, but I hate to say that this is not enough. You cannot keep this function culturally and functionally separate from other teams. GCs can’t “set it and forget it.” The very best GCs will know that they need to be involved. If the GC doesn’t take proactive steps to show that legal operations matters, and commit to embedding the function deeply across the organization, they are inhibiting success. That’s not to say that a strong legal ops professional cannot make an impact this way, but it is much harder and will take much longer than it needs to.

Transformation isn’t a finite, short-term project or initiative. It isn’t a “one and done” thing that you can expect a single person or a small team to knock out without much engagement with the rest of the organization.

It feels obvious to say! And yet I am constantly hearing from legal operations people that struggle to overcome this misconception. There is this sense that simply having a small team, or even just a single person, left alone to focus on legal operations issues will somehow lead to significant impact.

The problem is rooted in difference and misunderstanding

Where does this expectation come from? Why do so many smart and thoughtful people still misunderstand the real challenge and scope of the work needed to make their teams more modern, efficient, and effective?

The problem is rooted in difference. If you look at the leadership team of most legal departments, the legal operations person is still often the only one without a legal degree. While the rest of the team is focused heavily on the delivery of legal services, and pushing the company’s interests forward in the courts, you have this one person who is thinking about change and innovation and efficiency. The gap in context can feel huge.

A further part of the problem: In many corporate legal department cultures, non-lawyers are seen as support people. They can easily fall into the trap of assuming that the legal operations team exists to serve them. If you think about it, it makes sense. In a law firm, you are either a fee-earning lawyer or a support person. Similarly, in a legal department without legal operations, every other role is a support role. With a profession so nascent and often not well defined, you can understand where the confusion stems from. So instead of seeing the function as something important that has a direction and purpose of its own, something that has a leading role in defining the strategic direction of the teams, and that may require them to change and adapt, they view it as something that is meant to help them on their own terms.

If you don’t position legal operations properly, and allow it to be viewed as a support function with little relevance to your priorities, you are unlikely to give it the right amount of care. You likely won’t be engaged enough to understand  why you need to put time, money, and effort into it. And even if you do take it seriously and really value it, you cannot just stand to the side and assume that you’ve given them room to do their thing.

It is critically important for the GC to ensure that the legal ops leader is viewed as a peer and even a strategic leader for the organization, rather than someone there to support the other leaders. This is easier said than done and requires intent and action from the top. Leaders have to be interested, involved, and actively championing Legal Ops initiatives.

This bias holds back GCs and legal teams

This isn’t just a challenge for legal operations professionals! It is a limiting belief that holds everyone back. Because when you starve the legal operations function from the access and resources it needs, you aren’t simply making it difficult for that team to do its job. You are restricting the capacity of the entire legal organization to become more connected and aligned to the needs of the business.

I recently had the chance to ask a group of CEOs a simple question: “What do you most need from your legal function?” Every single one said they wanted to hear about how their GCs were making changes to become better, faster, and more embedded across the business. Your legal ops team is your secret to success here. Many GCs still want to talk about how they are avoiding risk and doing classic legal work… but those things are taken as a given by their management.

It all starts with support and understanding

So what is needed? There are so many things required to lead creaky, rigid legal organizations into a more dynamic and efficient way of working… You need time, budget, access to people, and on and on. But it all starts with the support and understanding of the GC. If that relationship is strong, it sets up legal operations for success and growth across the organization and makes the GC look good

If GCs can understand that creating a legal ops team is just the first step, and that innovation and progress require sustained investment and partnership, then everything becomes possible. They need to see that legal ops takes work and patience, but that over time will pay off in programs and systems that enhance and accelerate the entire team. But if you don’t put in the investment and encourage your people to commit to the vision, you’re standing in your own way.

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.