What is Legal Operations

In the past decade, the role of the “Legal Operations Professional” has gained in prominence in legal departments of large and small companies alike. We look at what's behind the term.

Pieter Gunst
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Definition of Legal Operations

The term “Legal Operations” is a broad and often vague term used to cover a wide set of business processes (and corresponding roles and responsibilities) meant to increase the efficiency of the legal department and the organization as a whole. It is a multidisciplinary field that involves a broad series of competencies including finance, engineering, data analytics and marketing. 

Many of the functional areas typically grouped under the legal operations banner tended and still tend to fall under the responsibility of the general counsel. In this sense the field of legal operations is a natural evolution of existing practices of legal departments, seeking to apply business and technical practices to further streamline delivery of legal services in an increasingly international, complex and competitive environment.

The field of "Legal Operations" is concerned with leveraging people, processes, and technology to increase the efficiency of legal services delivery. The term is typically used in the context of the corporate legal department, but can arguably be applied in other contexts such as delivery of legal services by a law firm or through the court system. 

Similar to the dichotomy between substantial and procedural law, legal operations professionals are not concerned with the substance of legal rules that affect the business (e.g. the law around non-competition clauses in employee contracts) but rather with the processes and procedures that can streamline the activities of the department as a whole (e.g. standardizing contract terms around non-competition through a contract playbook).

Industry organization CLOC describes Legal Operations as follows on its website:

"Legal Operations (or legal ops) is a set of business processes, activities, and the professionals who enable legal departments to serve their clients more effectively by applying business and technical practices to the delivery of legal services." 

ACC has a similar description for the term:

"Legal Operations is the function within the office of the general counsel that takes responsibility for efficient and effective delivery of legal services for the corporation."

Readers who are just beginning to immerse themselves in the concept of legal operations can expect to see a significant number of recurring themes in the writing on the topic. A word-count analysis of the Legal Operations Maturity Models published by CLOC and ACC brings forward some of these themes. We'll discuss these and the CLOC and ACC maturity models in more detail below.

Word Cloud based on ACC and CLOC maturity models

History of Legal Operations

To understand the evolution of the field of legal operations in its wider context, it is useful to look at the history of corporate legal departments themselves. The earliest corporate legal departments date back to the late 19th century, when companies in the oil, railroad, insurance and public utilities industries began employing lawyers in their business.

After 1930, corporate legal departments greatly expanded in size, number and influence, and literature on the subject starts to appear more frequently after 1950. As corporations were force to cope with more complexity and rules in the post-war are, legal departments further grew in size, and companies saw themselves forced to build these departments earlier. 

In the 1990’s, companies with large legal departments such as General Electric and Bank of America started employing dedicated legal operations specialists to better manage legal spend and drive efficiencies within their legal departments. In the past 30 years, the legal operations function has matured and gained more adoption. As the scope and complexity of legal tasks handled by in-house departments increases, and software plays an increasingly important role in supporting legal tasks, the legal operations function will only increase in importance.

The term “legal operations” is relatively young. Google Trends started picking up signal for the term in 2004, with interest steadily increasing throughout the last decade.

Google Trends for the term "Legal Operations"

As the field received more attention, new industry groups specifically addressing the legal operations field such as CLOC (“Corporate Legal Operations Consortium”) have emerged, and existing groups such as the ACC (“Association for Corporate Counsel’) have added sections addressing the area. 

Scope of Legal Operations

Both CLOC and ACC publish "maturity models". These models help decision makers assess the current effectiveness of their legal operations and figure out what capabilities they need to acquire next in order to improve the performance of their legal department. They also provide an overview of the different activities that often get grouped together under the legal operations banner. 

CLOC Maturity Model

When describing the broad reach of the field of legal operations, CLOC identifies 12 core functional areas in its “Core 12” model:

CLOC Core 12 Model

The 12 functional areas covered by the CLOC model are:

  • Business Intelligence - Make better decisions through data.
  • Financial Management - Maximize your resources through sound financial management.
  • Firm & Vendor Management - Develop firm and vendor relationships that deliver value.
  • Information Governance - Design information policies that fit your business and minimize risk.
  • Knowledge Management - Tap the knowledge and capability of your entire organization.
  • Organization Optimization & Health - Build effective and motivated teams.
  • Practice Operations - Free up your legal teams through focused practice operations.
  • Project/Program Management - Launch and support special programs and initiatives.
  • Service Delivery Models - Match the right work to the right resource
  • Strategic Planning - Set strategic goals that matter.
  • Technology - Innovate, automate, and solve problems with technology.
  • Training & Development - Support your team with targeted professional training.

ACC Legal Operations offers a Maturity Model that covers 15 law department management functions, presenting a different perspective on the same subject matter. These "maturity models" describe a number of stages within each function, reflecting the level of organization / efficiency within a corporation for that specific functional area. For example, the image below shows the 15 functional areas as defined by the ACC, with the "average maturity rate" for each function across their membership (more mature = better). 

ACC Maturity Model

  • Change Management - A systematic process to enable an organization to embrace targeted changes in the way work is done.
  • Compliance - The set of activities to ensure organizational awareness of and adherence to rules and regulations in all jurisdictions in which the enterprise does business.
  • Contract Management - The process of managing contract creation, execution, storage and compliance with contractual obligations
  • eDiscovery & Litigation Management - The process of identifying, collecting and producing electronically stored information in response to a request for production in a law suit or investigation.
  • External Resources Management - Oversight of vendors and law firms from selection through performance management and payments.
  • Financial Management - The discipline to allocate financial resources, forecast revenues/expenses and create/maintain budgets to ensure compliance with accounting and cash flow requirements.
  • Information Governance (Records Management) - The system to manage electronic and physical documents enterprise-wide to support an organization's compliance and operational requirements.
  • Intellectual Property Management - Operations to optimize the return on investment in the intangible assets of an organization, such as patents and trademarks.
  • Internal Resources Management - The activities to advance the human resources in the legal department, including recruiting, onboarding, training, work allocation, performance management, talent development and employee communications.
  • Knowledge Management - The process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using both structured and tacit knowledge assets, from work products (such as legal memos) to understanding of an issue due to prior experience.
  • Metrics and Analytics - The system to collect, organize and use data to inform decision making and performance management.
  • Project & Process Management - The disciplines utilized to plan, coordinate and oversee multifaceted initiatives and matters, as well as to continuously improve process efficiency.
  • Strategic Planning - The process to set legal department goals that align with enterprise objectives, prioritize initiatives, allocate resources and define metrics to assess progress.
  • Technology Management - The set of activities to optimize utilization of technology, including planning, selection, procurement and/or development, training and promotion of adoption.

 

A comparison of the two models shows the areas of overlap. Where there is no matching competency, these models typically group similar tasks under a different header. For example, “Change Management”, one of the explicitly named areas in the ACC maturity model, is handled under “Strategic Planning” in the Cloc Core 12 model. 

 

ACC Maturity Model

CLOC Core 12

Change Management

 

Compliance

 

Contract Management 

 

eDiscovery & Litigation Management

 

External Resources Management

Firm & Vendor Management

Financial Management

Financial Management

Information Governance (Records Management)

Information Governance

Intellectual Property Management 

 

Internal Resources Management

Organization Optimization & Health

Knowledge Management 

Knowledge Management

Metrics and Analytics 

Business Intelligence

Project & Process Management

Project/Program Management

Strategic Planning 

Strategic Planning

Technology Management

Technology

Innovation Management

 

 

Service Delivery Models

 

Practice Operations

 

Training & Development