What Is Legal Operations?

As they recommend and establish processes, systems and technology, in-house Legal Operations professionals have the unprecedented opportunity to transform Legal — often seen as a blocker to the business — into a valued business partner. Even as remote-first enters today’s business lexicon and culture.

Whether working inside a startup or a Fortune 100 company, in-house Legal Operations across companies and industries share a common mission to transform Legal into an efficient, agile business unit, aligning people, processes and tools toward a company’s core business metrics. 

According to Law.com: “The 2010s were a decade of slow growth for legal operations… Now, thanks to technological advancement and consistent incubation, we are hitting that critical mass where legal ops is recognized as an important part of the legal department across industries, company size and geography.”

Lawyers spending too much time on non-legal tasks is a huge drain on any company’s resources. Fortunately, in-house Legal Operations, trusted with driving efficiency for the organization and supporting business priorities, can minimize the time lawyers spend on non-legal or easily automated tasks. 

This article will show you how a new breed of in-house teams are leveraging transformative technology like Ironclad Digital Contracting to do just that.

Where in-house legal operations sits in an organization

“Legal Operations describes a set of business processes, activities, and the professionals that enable legal departments to serve their clients more effectively by applying business and technical practices to the delivery of legal services,” according to the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), which introduced the legal operations role as an industry-recognized profession. 

“Their capabilities allow the legal organization to more effectively manage risks, monitor compliance, incorporate the right technological tools, and deliver more value to the enterprise.”

Typically, an in-house legal team may consist of one or more senior counsel and commercial counsel reporting to a General Counsel or VP of Legal, augmented by a legal operations head, specialist or team.

Among the key duties of Legal Operations, besides vendor management, internal staffing and departmental budgeting — part of CLOC’s so-called Core 12 responsibilities — are contract management and business intelligence. This includes the creation, management and storing of legal contracts, e.g., NDAs, MSAs, sales contracts and business agreements, including those launched by business users from other departments outside Legal, for example, Sales, Finance, Marketing and Operations. 

From efficiency and proving value to working remotely, the challenges facing in-house legal operations 

The in-house legal industry is at a crossroads. If legal teams do not adopt new ways of handling business requests, they will find themselves unable to keep up with the accelerating pace and complexity of the rest of the business.

Most legal teams have realized that departmental responsibilities like financial management, technology support, analytics and record management require skill sets that attorneys may not have. That’s why they’ve turned to legal operations specialists, who have the knowledge and expertise needed to apply best practices to these problems. 

Legal’s key operational challenges are:

Slow legal turnaround time and efficiency. Without technology to automate and manage contract intake, approval, review and archiving in a timely manner, Legal can’t prioritize legal asks. Result? Legal is seen as a black hole, holding up business.

Legal seen as a cost center. Without technology to access key intelligence locked inside contracts — from contractual obligations to governing law — Legal can’t quantify its value to management, putting a dollar value on its work (e.g., risks mitigated or time saved). Result? Legal is flying blind. 

Working remotely. Without technology that facilitates both in-office and out-of-office contract collaboration between Legal and its business partners in other departments, Legal can’t maintain its contractual obligations. Result? Legal is unable to keep pace with business.  

Stagnant budgets, increasing workloads and a mandate to “do more with less” can lead to unnecessary stress and slow processes, especially for chronically understaffed Legal teams. Further, when in-house Legal spends too much time on low-risk or low-value tasks, it slows down the rest of the company and leaves the business exposed to contract, compliance and other risks.

Legal teams that fail to modernize their contracting may spend unnecessary weeks or months on manual tasks that more efficient teams spend only hours or days on. 

Faced with all this, GCs at companies of all sizes are asking what are, essentially, Legal Operations questions. How can Legal get more done for less? What’s the best use of a lawyer’s time? How efficient is my legal team relative to legal teams at other companies? How much does it cost to process a typical contract? 

Enter digital contracting.

Why digital contracting means a roadmap to success for in-house legal operations

By automating contracting processes and repeatable workflows for high-volume contracts like NDAs — everything from creation and approvals to managing to archiving — digital contracting can bring modern order to outdated, manual contract processes. It can help Legal:

  • Work strategically by prioritizing incoming requests such as contract review
  • Gain real-time visibility into the contract pipeline, from intake and negotiation to approval status
  • Streamline contract approvals by enabling business users to launch their own contracting processes with self-serve confidence
  • Drive efficiency and lower costs, reducing the need for outside counsel
  • Focus on risk management instead of paperwork
  • Become a collaborative partner to the business, rather than a black box

Identifying high-volume contracts and creating cloud-based templates that the entire company can access also eliminates the unnecessary emails that different departments send back and forth between Legal for routine signatures and contract review.

Finally, being able to tap and report on a goldmine of process data (like average cost and turnaround to process contracts) and contract metadata (like upcoming contract renewal dates) is key to turning Legal from a cost center into a business center, a single source of truth for the organization. 

A legal leader’s questions like these can be answered:

  • What were our most commonly executed contracts in the first three months of implementation?
  • How does this number compare to prior measurements?
  • Do any trends emerge from the data that can help predict growth?

Housing agreements in a secure, searchable repository also decreases time lost to hunting down or recreating preexisting knowledge, which often costs companies tens of thousands of dollars in lost time.

How Branch and Asana legal operations took control of their contract management with Ironclad

The Branch story

Mobile linking and measurement platform Branch Metrics had little visibility and insight into its own global contract management, from formal review of agreements to associated data. 

Worse, every quarter, Legal Operations Manager Josephine Vong painstakingly reviewed 1,000+ contracts over email, spending hours simply looking for the latest version of an agreement in flight between teams. Looking to unblock the organizational bottleneck, centralize contract storage and keep better tabs on incoming requests from various teams, Branch implemented Ironclad’s digital contracting platform

“Our old way of doing things made even finding contracts difficult,” says Josephine. “By streamlining our entire contracting, Ironclad helped us accelerate high-volume, high-value contracts and create self-service process for our business users.” 

Those high-volume agreements included deal-driving NDAs, MSAs and DPAs — typically manually processed the same way time and again. By automating the contracting steps into repeatable workflows, Branch Legal Operations turned a time-consuming, scattered process into a fast-tracked business process.  

The Asana story

“Traditionally, legal teams have been viewed as a tower of no,” says Asana Head of Legal Operations Ashlee Best, acknowledging a standard complaint of teams who may wait days, weeks or months for contracts to make it out of review, redlining and approvals. 

Like Branch, Ironclad digital contracting changed the way work management platform Asana processed its own contracts. That meant reducing processing time dramatically, helping Sales and Legal collaborate more closely and efficiently on deals — a boon for an organization whose values and culture place a premium on collaboration — and freeing Asana’s commercial counsel to “focus on the bigger legal issues and deals.”

“Cumbersome” contracting processes that formally took weeks are now “spun up in minutes,” bringing “a whole lot of ROI and value” to the organization, says an Asana account executive.

“Ironclad is a highly collaborative contract management system, adds Best. “You just don’t hear those two statements combining together. Ironclad makes me look good, it makes my team look good and that’s priceless.”

How Ironclad empowers in-house legal operations in a remote-first world

In the wake of COVID-19, Ironclad Legal Operations Specialist Mikaela Waters believes the organization successfully transitioned to working remotely by leveraging its own digital contracting platform. Key factors were: 1) software-assisted communication, 2) programmed knowledge sharing and 3) on-demand reporting. 

Together, they helped Legal Operations work cross-functionally with business users across the organization in Sales, Marketing, Customer Service and Operations, keeping business rolling, even during a time of great transition and uncertainty.

Software-assisted communication. “Much like a Slack [instant messaging] stream, the Ironclad activity feed and dynamic contract assignment allowed our legal team to stay on track and accountable,” Waters says. Contract chatter is kept focused and in-app @mentioning of colleagues “enables users to loop in business partners as needed,” helping Ironclad Legal move quickly without contracts falling through the cracks. 

Programmed knowledge sharing. Contract approvals and signature authority can slow sales deals. Before going remote, Ironclad Legal Operations baked in rules concerning who signs what and when into automated workflows, removing guesswork and time-consuming back and forth communication. 

Further, the platform powered internal users to essentially negotiate low-risk contract clauses “with minimal involvement from our General Counsel, who had implemented negotiation guidelines in the software ahead of time,” Waters says. “In Q419, 60% of our contracts were self-service, meaning no legal review was required.”

On-demand reporting. “Ironclad’s Dynamic Repository, where all our contracts live, empowers our department to clearly provide answers and reports as they relate to our contracts — all while fully remote,” Waters says. “In seconds, we can pull reports ranging from “how many contracts have renewal opportunities this quarter” to “what percent of our customers are headquartered in Canada,” making it easy to be business partners while miles away. 

“Without Ironclad, answering those questions might take hours of digging through email inboxes and out-of-date Excel spreadsheets.”

Bottom line: In person or out-of-office, a digital contracting platform keeps everyone on the same page, virtually.

Legal can’t scale without in-house legal operations

The legal profession is notoriously change-averse. Part of this problem stems from the highly specialized nature of legal work, and part of this stems from the nature of the industry — a high-stakes profession where you’re rewarded for following protocol, not for taking risks.

For most teams, the main barrier to modernization isn’t just to decide what technology to implement. It’s aligning their people, processes and tools toward a company set of business values and metrics. Digital contracting technology enables Legal teams to work faster and more effectively than they have in the past. 

And it’s in-house Legal Operations as catalyst, making that transition reality, from streamlining contracting turnaround to delivering valuable business insights for an organization’s senior leadership. 

For more insight into in-house Legal Operations trends and best practices, download these resources: Legal Operations Field Guide and Modernizing Your Legal Team.

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