January 2020 | Rachita Maker, Vice President, Chief of Staff and Head of Legal Operations, Tata Communications Limited
The 2018 Chief Legal Officer Survey states that only thirty nine percent of law departments surveyed employ at least one legal ops professional. Of that 39%, less than 50% of the legal ops professionals came from the legal department. Of course, these numbers don’t necessarily mean that the legal operations team is led by a seasoned leader. Even the largest legal departments may have administrators, or project managers, who chanced on the role with no one to guide them. The above survey also states that most General Counsels spend only 18% of their time in the management of their department, which means that they are probably not spending too much time thinking about how legal ops needs to be structured. As new ops leaders take on the role or existing legal ops professional broaden their portfolio, it is important to set clear vision and priority for your department or you will spend most of your day dousing fires.
As I started my journey of a legal ops leader, like any other leader coming to a new role, I spoke to my existing legal team to understand their pain points and challenges. I realized very quickly that I had to draw up a roadmap for my department before I was drowned in the laundry lists of everyone’s problems.
Here are my top tips for new ops leaders coming into an existing, seasoned legal team. I am sure there are many other tips which legal ops leaders would go by, but this is what is important in my opinion.
1. Understand team dynamics
To state the obvious, it is very important to spend your first few days understanding your legal team structure, key leaders and stakeholders. If you have the opportunity to interact with legal team leaders and managers before you start in your role, take that opportunity in a heartbeat. While formal catch ups are a great way to understand about people’s work, I find informal conversations to be insightful as people drop their guard. Make notes of each person’s requirements (but make no promises at this point), this is important when you plan your roadmap as it will guide you on areas you want to focus on. It also helps to gather support if you can personalize your road map to real life problems. When I came on my role early on, one of the biggest problems was our duplicative invoicing processes. Acknowledging the problem in my stakeholder meetings and providing a plan to fix it in week three of my job helped people realize that I was there to help. And, meeting that deadline established my credibility early in my position.
2. Don’t try to churn the ocean
As a new leader you want to work on garnering support early on and you will want people to feel you are there to help. As a result, your colleagues will pour out their problems to you and expect you to wave your magic wand and solve their issues. Unfortunately, organizations are far too complex for a magical solution. As I mentioned above, listen to everyone, but make no promises and for your own sanity, don’t try to solve every single problem for every single person on the team. Prioritize your vision based on your department structure. For my organization, our commercial and regulatory teams constituted the largest part of our team and I focused on those functional areas to find the low hanging fruit and quick wins.
It is also important to steer clear of operating in solution mode in your early conversations. As natural problem solvers, many new ops leaders jump into solution mode very quickly. Spend your first few weeks understanding and mapping your current processes. Most legal departments are not likely to have detailed process maps and you will not be able to get most of your programs off the ground if you don’t understand the current processes.
3. Make a plan
Never undervalue the power of a 30 / 60 / 90-day plan. I have used this in every single new role, and it has worked brilliantly. A 90-day plan gives me structure and helps me from getting lost. I draw my plan based on big picture themes and then build tasks to support the theme.
My plan as a new ops leader looked like below. You will see that I tend to start more internally and focus on vendor management only after I had a good understanding of internal processes and stakeholders. The plan gives assurance to the Chief Legal Officer (CLO) that I know what I am talking about and that s/he made the right decision in hiring an ops lead.
4. Do a SWOT analysis
My first month in my new job, I spent all my time making notes on what works and what doesn’t. Again, some of this is very basic and simple but it is the simple that we forget. When I presented my SWOT analysis to our CLO and the legal leadership team, all I got was nods and alignment in thoughts. It was great to know that we were all on the same page. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses also gave me a foundation to build the vision for my own department.
5. Build your own vision
I was lucky to have a CLO who gave me a blank canvas and asked me to paint what I wanted. I understand not everyone would be as lucky as me. However, this is the most critical for your own success and for others on the team to show that you mean business. CLOC has amazing content that can help you build your legal ops plan. I knew I didn’t want to tackle all twelve core competencies in year 1 and based on my SWOT analysis, I picked five, or six, competencies to focus on. I structured my team based on my priorities and drew a roadmap based on the pillars I chose.
The key competencies I focused on were – Technology, Automation and Continuous Improvement; Legal Finance, MIS and Law Firm Management; Knowledge Management and Process Documentation; Resource Allocation and Professional Development.
My main goal was to document our processes within the first 12-18 months. We didn’t have any standard operating procedures and our playbook and policy documents were outdated, so we created a plan to tackle those first. As we went through the documentation process, we were able to identify gaps in our process and define what we wanted to improve early on. It was the process documentation that led us to our technology roadmap. We focused on our existing technology and increasing technology adoption became a priority. Finally, we wanted to start capturing metrics and some of the tools we put in place helped us with that process. The ability to present data to stakeholders early on sets you apart from other ops professionals. Most stakeholders like to believe that they know the pulse of their department, but they face some harsh truths when they are presented with hard data. Your data may not be perfect in the beginning, however, metrics and KPIs are the best quantifiable ROI tools.
All organizations are different, and every ops leader will have a unique journey. CLOC is a great forum with some very relevant content that helps connect you with peers in the industry who are very open to sharing ideas and collaborating. Knowing you are not alone in this journey gives solace to a lot of us.
About the author
Vice President, Chief of Staff and Head of Legal Operations, Tata Communications Limited