On November 9 -10th the PoLI Institute at Vanderbilt’s Law School hosted a workshop on Legal Operations with participants from law departments, law firms and law schools. Starting with dinner on Friday night at the Saltine restaurant a few blocks off campus, our cohort came together quickly to candidly talk about the explosive growth of this function and how an operational mindset continues to reshape the delivery of services throughout the legal ecosystem. Lead by Susan Hackett @HackettInHouse, CEO of Legal Executive Legadership LLC, Lizzie Shilliam, the Chief of Staff and Legal Operations, Office of the General Counsel at Vanderbilt, and Cat Moon @inspiredcat, the Director of the PoLI Institute, this graduate level, seminar-style workshop provided us with an opportunity to tailor these discussions to our immediate interests and explore questions that reflected the nuances of our current situations - the kind of conversation which is hard to find at the larger conferences and TED meet-ups.
Legal Operations 2.0
During the two days that followed, one of the facilitators would kick-off each topic by introducing the salient areas based on their experience as a consultant, in-house professional or faculty member and then engage each member of the cohort with questions related to our position in the market or within our organization. Topics for the workshop included areas such as strategy, standards for client service and professional performance, operating in a corporate environment, workflow and collaboration, data and metrics, and talent management. As a group we were all vested in learning more about managing legal services and the high-level of engagement within our cohort was amplified by examples and case studies from both faculty and participants. At the end of the second day, the faculty asked each participant to craft a playbook for a priority project based on an idea from one of our discussions.
In addition to the substantive content, the conversation also pulled in references to additional resources provided by the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), ACC Legal Operations, UpLevel Ops and others, plus the streams of information flowing through social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn and even some semi-public listservs which host conversations for the Ops community. While consuming this information online is often like drinking from a fire hose, this immersive experience helped to distill announcements, like Denton’s Golden Spike, into perspective and consider the strengths of the different networks and how to leverage them to full advantage.
The need to understand and practice the tenets of change management emerged as one of the central themes of in our discussions. In each topic area change management protocols, such as developing a sense of urgency, communicating one’s strategy and demonstrating quick wins in addition to not declaring victory too early, threaded through our conversations and examples of how well-intentioned projects could easily unravel when best practices were not woven into the fabric of strategic planning. Likewise, the use of design principles and a focus on the customer versus the client experience also surfaced as important considerations when creating new approaches to service delivery or the creation of centers of excellence.
Elevating In-House Teams
Susan Hackett introduced the cohort to the importance of framing legal operations within the context of the individual organization. How one frames the role of legal operations within a law department and communicates the aim of transformational projects defines in many ways the opportunity to elevate in-house teams to work more strategically and at the “top of their license.” While the playbook of legal operations is often focused on measurement, efficiency and sourcing, the strategy behind legal ops should promote higher-level, team-based work, better corporate alignment (and its corresponding value to the department) and a healthier work/life balance. As Lizzie Shilliam shared from her experiences at Nike and Hertz, the conversation must be more about elevating in-house counsel to provide the most value to their organizations than simply managing the cost of talent and services. With an eye to change management, it’s also essential to provide the right professional development opportunities early on, so lawyers can acquire new skills to manage and lead projects and replace the more traditional mindset of servicing requests with a growth mindset that considers more innovative solutions.
DELTA Model for Legal Professionals
Many people interested in legal operations have probably heard of the T-Shaped Lawyer, a concept which broadens out the skillset (the bar of the T) of an attorney to include business acumen and skills such as project management. However, the extent to which lawyers and other professionals need to acquire these skills to perform their primary responsibilities continues to be the subject of debate. For instance, is the goal to create an “uber lawyer” with high level skills, even certifications, in each area? And what is the optimal mix of skills for the legal operations role? If “collaboration is the new black,” as Cat Moon suggested while facilitating a couple of our conversations, are teams more effective when each role has the appropriate level of skills and experience versus more traditional multi-disciplinary teams?
To move this dialogue forward with others in a working group, Cat Moon proposed the use of the DELTA Model which describes a more versatile way of identifying the required mindsets and skills, and configuring one’s strengths to support the roles one aspires to. Similar to the idea of re-arranging a musical composition to make it one’s own, like the set Carl Stewart performed at BB Kings on Saturday night, the DELTA Model allows one to shift the midpoint to reflect the degree to which each set of competencies is required for various roles.
In an industry where the event stage is dominated by large conferences, the faculty at the PoLI Institute delivered an truly immersive experience for our cohort by facilitating more relevant conversations, sharing multiple perspectives and a depth of insight that is hard to capture face-to-face in other venues. Regardless of one’s level of exposure to legal operations, this forum raised our level of understanding and appreciation of the challenges and opportunities for legal operations professionals in a rapidly changing industry.