Looking for tomorrow’s legal team: rotating through Legal Operations
What exactly is legal operations? This is often the response from friends and colleagues who hear that I’m rotating into the legal operations team at HSF.
The confusion is understandable. HSF’s team has subject matter experts across innovation, automation and process, pricing, legal project managers and more. The Corporate Legal Operations Consortium lists twelve areas as the core competencies that every legal operations team should have. Most lawyers, and law students, will have encountered some aspect of legal operations under another guise: knowledge management, document services, alternative legal services, legal technology. There isn’t even a Wikipedia page.
Legal operations is about improving the delivery of legal services: understanding and refining how corporate in-house counsel and, increasingly, their counterparts in law firms, actually do a lawyer’s work. When you actually break down those responsibilities, it turns out that they involve not just substantive legal work (drafting, reviewing, negotiating, analysing), but also a substantial amount of non-legal work (administration, non-legal communication, internal reporting, billing). In fact, the non-legal work can sometimes exceed the legal work; when that happens, lawyers are delivering less and less of the high-value specialty services they’re supposed to provide.
As a clerk, paralegal and then graduate entering the legal market, I was excited to get into work at HSF and frustrated at the many stumbling blocks that would pop up along the way. When you leave law school hypotheticals and start dealing with confidential client information and billable hours, it’s much harder to take the time to sit down, examine and dismantle the way things have been done, and figure out a newer way of doing things (that may or may not be better, faster or even workable). Google Drive, Slack and Trello are no longer available; even worse, I found out that many lawyers strongly dislike Excel. For someone who used to spend their day time-rich but resource-poor, creating extensive spreadsheets and basic data automation tools, I found myself looking at the long marked-up Word documents, email chains and out-dated how-to’s and thinking: why haven’t we automated/systematized/fine-tuned/dismantled and rebuilt how we do that?
In my clerkship season, every law firm wanted it to be known that they were ‘innovating’ with apps, virtual activities, hackathons and more. Those are all ambitious initiatives that move legal businesses into the 21st century and shake up the way things have been traditionally done. But they don’t necessarily indicate whether time, money and thought into how those same forces will impact the day to day work of delivering legal services.
Legal work may have moved from typewriters to laptops, and from law reports to online databases, but much of the substance remains the same. As other sectors put emerging business practices and novel technology into use, it becomes increasingly apparent that the way we work in the legal industry is overdue for a significant change. And if a corporate in-house legal team strapped for resources and time (and, yes, wanting to do ‘more with less’) can benefit from legal operations optimizing the legal work they do and doing away with as much non-legal work as possible—imagine what a legal operations team could do for a business centred entirely around providing legal services.
That’s why I am looking forward to joining HSF’s legal operations team for a graduate rotation, and spending time with the innovation, automation and process clusters to work with the systems and practices that underpin how HSF delivers legal services. To figure out: is this really what our clients want? What our lawyers want to spend time doing? What are the constraints, assumptions and pain points with which we can do away, hopefully permanently, and what do legal services look like afterwards?
I will be bringing my experience with other teams in the firm to my work with the legal operations team, and later, hopefully, my legal operations knowledge back out to the legal practice groups. HSF, and other law firms, can and must figure out their unique value propositions beyond what data rooms, eDiscovery and natural language processing software can offer. It is an exciting, and necessary, skillset for young lawyers to be able to look at a matter and assess both the legal answers and legal operations framework around it.