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How Legal Operations Skills Are Integral to Scaling In-House Legal

November 24, 2020 4 min read

Hiring a legal ops professional is a critical milestone for modernizing your legal team. Count on them to optimize outdated processes, wrangle rogue contracts and increase efficiencies both within Legal and across the organization and outside counsel.

If you’re new to hiring for Legal Ops, I’m here to help. I’ve helped architect some of the industry’s brightest and most effective legal teams, processes and operational practices at Lyft, Airbnb, Snap, and Uber. Currently, I serve as the Head of Global Legal Ops at Atlassian, an Australian software company that develops products for software developers and project managers. Below are questions I often get from those who are considering adding a legal operations function to their team.

What were your pain points that you wanted to solve by incorporating Legal Operations into your broader department?

When one embarks on hiring for Legal Ops, they quickly realize that much of the role’s responsibilities already exist as piecemeal duties covered by several members of the broader legal team. By formalizing the function, you immediately gain efficiencies by consolidating those responsibilities into a single function dedicated to: 1) alleviating the bandwidth constraints of the greater team, and 2) serving as a dedicated resource who can look at tasks as opportunities for added efficiency.

Operations is the only discipline within a legal department that seeks to drive efficiency and workflow improvement for today and the future.

How did you make the case for adding headcount?

Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but there are tips I’ve learned.

I always start with a blueprint. I try to make my intentions clear for the department I’m trying to develop, no matter the size, even a department of two.

What are our areas of responsibility? What are our immediate and long-term goals, and what impact will we have on the broader team?

It’s important to align your goals and areas of impact to the broader legal team and company’s priorities. This demonstrates the cross-functional nature of Legal Operations.

Second, I remind myself that data drives every decision in tech, so I come to the table with as much quantifiable information as possible. What existing tasks and responsibilities will fold into the expanded team, and how many of the items on your GC’s “nice to have” checklist can be ticked off with your added headcount? Specifically, how many hours are spent on activities that your new legal ops headcount can alleviate or eliminate? Or better yet, how much money will you save on external resources?

What essential legal operations skills, soft and hard, should a candidate have?

I get this question a lot, and though I feel reasonable minds can differ to a degree, there are core competencies that I see in most successful legal ops candidates. Like understanding and navigating technical concepts. Strong attention to detail. Flexibility and adaptability. Active listening, which I find especially important when reconciling cross-functional business needs.

On the soft side, I gravitate towards candidates who know how to keep things lively and social. As legal ops professionals, we’re tasked with developing and fostering a sense of team cohesion, so levity greases the wheels for intra-team collaboration. With the abrupt transition to a virtual workplace, the intentionality behind maintaining team dynamics becomes critical.

What are transferable skills to consider if someone doesn’t have past legal ops work experience? What’s a dealbreaker or dealmaker?

This is a great question, capturing one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of my career. I’ve been fortunate to hire folks without legal operations experience, and they have been the best colleagues I have ever had the pleasure of working beside.

A few years ago, I hired someone who had worked in a healthcare facility. What captivated me was their sense of ownership and tenacity; their work had a direct impact on their clients, and they brought that work ethic to everything they did.

What are the key responsibilities to include in a Legal Ops Manager job description?

Always include the standard core competencies (e.g., managing department budget and finances, tracking KPIs, implementing workflow improvements, handling knowledge management.)

Beyond that, it’s important to give candidates an expectation of the larger team’s areas of focus, and a sense of the team dynamic. For the former, be forthright if the position requires significant commercial experience or heavy litigation support. For the latter, let candidates know whether it’s a casual or formal team.

What should you expect your new hire to accomplish in the first 30, 60 and 90 days?

Deliverables will vary from organization to organization, but as a general rule the first 30 days should be foundational and educational. Companies are complex, and it’s important to remember that each has its own idiosyncrasies that are inherently difficult to navigate, at first.

By 60 days, a new hire should have a good grasp on their priorities, and the status of each pending initiative. At 90 days, they should be sufficiently dialed into their primary business partners, and proficient in road mapping future initiatives.

What is the usual career progression for a legal ops professional?

This is a big area of opportunity for the legal field. Unfortunately, there’s no “usual” career progression for Legal Operations, and many departments neglect to consider a career path when starting their team. Among other things, career paths can depend on the size and complexity of your broader legal team.

Regardless, career trajectories are like expectations — share and discuss them early and often. This gives those tasked with scaling your team a sense of their career path.

What continuing education opportunities are there to level up?

This, too, is an area for opportunity. Although there are niche certifications available (e.g., privacy, eDiscovery), the industry could benefit from more formal educational resources for Legal Operations.

I have two recommendations. First, for legal ops newbies, consider a project or program management certification to help navigate the basics, like formulating a project plan, gathering requirements and developing effective communications strategies.

Second, pursue technical educational resources or certifications for platforms or technologies that are important to your organization. For example, if your company’s backbone is Salesforce, there are plenty of opportunities and certifications available to familiarize yourself with the tech stack and, perhaps most importantly, integration capabilities.

Join Legal Matters to access a listing of in-house legal operations jobs in our community. And if you’re considering making a career change, check out this related post, Lessons in Navigating Your In-House Legal Career Path.

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Mooni Patel is Head of Global Legal Operations at Atlassian, an Australian software company that develops products for software developers and project managers. Patel has helped architect some of the industry’s brightest and most effective legal teams, processes and operational practices at Lyft, Airbnb, Snap, and Uber. As a strategic operations leader focusing on diversity and inclusion, Patel has significant substantive and operational legal experience in technology-focused and hyper-growth environments.