Stephanie Corey, a veteran in the Legal Operations field, is co-founder and general partner of UpLevel Ops and Co-founder of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC). We spoke with her about the evolution of the legal operations role and where she sees it going in the next decade.
How would you define the legal operations role?
Historically, people in legal operations typically have had a business or finance background, but that is evolving. I think the face of legal operations will look very different in the next few years. More lawyers-turned-legal operations professionals and others from the technology industry, who bring a lean, agile approach will join the field.
The skills needed are changing, too. Individuals with a healthy mix of soft skills and analytic acumen, along with expertise in change management are very well suited to the ever-transforming legal operations role. I see legal operations as really being the face of the legal department within organizations. They are the people interacting with IT, finance, HR, and others to make sure the legal team gets what they need to do their jobs.
How has legal operations changed over the course of your career?
When I started in a legal operations role at Hewlett-Packard (HP), it was really a greenfield job. I was managing multiple homegrown systems and providing desktop support for attorneys and staff. As I grew into the role and saw how HP ran as a business and how the law department worked, I began making recommendations and changes. Both to the technology they used and the workflows to support both business goals and the day-to-day working environment. This was pretty typical of most big organizations at that time – the work was consistent but it was not particularly strategic.
At smaller organizations, the operations function became a part-time job for practicing lawyers. One lawyer managed the billing system; another was in charge of timekeeping, for example. The work was done piecemeal. Changes only happened when someone had the time to devote to operations.
Today, organizations of all sizes see the necessity of a dedicated operations person to manage the business of law. Even in start-ups, we’re seeing that legal operations is a much earlier hire for the legal team. Bottom line, today’s General Counsels (GCs) see legal operations as a lifeline to what is going on in the rest of the organization, which itself is more focused on metrics and efficiency. This gives legal operations a much more prominent role.
So now that there are dedicated legal operations teams across all sizes of organizations, what are the key challenges these teams face?
It really does vary depending on size. Large organizations have a lot of different projects running concurrently that involve upgrading and revamping existing systems. They struggle to get the right resources to see these projects through while still managing the day-to-day work.
Mid-sized organizations have just enough infrastructure in place to be efficient, but those operations teams need help assessing their technology and process landscape and prioritizing what needs to happen in order to meet changing expectations.
Small organizations are really interesting. Typically, the General Counsels in these companies were once Deputy GCs at larger organizations. They saw how hard it was to address entrenched but broken processes, so they are motivated to get it right from the beginning. As you can imagine, they are looking for scalable solutions to avoid further headaches down the road, and they’re implementing formal legal operations programs earlier than ever before.
Technology is a huge part of legal operations. What are some of the innovations that you think are going to make the biggest impact in the legal field in general?
I know it's been discussed everywhere, but artificial intelligence (AI) is truly a game changer for legal. It’s been in use in discovery and investigations for years. Now it’s moving into the operations realm, particularly in terms of contract and financial management. The opportunities here to automate and speed up routine yet critical tasks will put AI into the mainstream, changing the roles of both legal operations and the practice of law very quickly.
Today, the barriers to AI are price and time. While AI, once implemented, is amazingly fast, actually getting that intelligence programmed in and integrated into corporate IT systems takes some time. As technology vendors continue to speed the implementation of AI, by proxy, costs will also come down. Soon, we will see AI become a viable investment for any size organization.
What does the legal operations field look like in 10 years?
There is a good deal of investment and venture capital pouring into companies serving the legal operations market. With this, I think the rapid pace of change will continue for the foreseeable future. Mundane tasks will become automated and may disappear completely from daily human workflow as the level of intelligence increases and the technology becomes cheaper and easier to implement. In-house lawyers will move further up the value chain as they no longer spend time negotiating NDAs or writing simple contracts.
While AI is hot right now and on the cusp of larger adoption, I see blockchain at that point or beyond in the next decade. There are some really interesting applications of blockchain when it comes to “smart” contracting.
Finally, we’re already seeing this, but I think fee structures and compensation models will be dramatically different than they are today. Hourly billing (and compensation based on hourly billing) is on the way out. Flat fee and value-based billing are much more in tune with the way automation is changing legal workflows. Forward-thinking corporate legal departments at traditional organizations, along with the newer types of law firms coming into the market today, will drive this change.