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Evolution of Legal Operations – from Efficiency to Strategy

By Brian Balistreri posted 01-19-2023 16:52


***Please enjoy this blog posted on behalf of the author, Mike Russell, Head of Global Legal Operations, Expedia Group.

Traditionally, many legal operations teams began as purpose-focused on technology project management and operational efficiency. Productivity gains in-house coupled with reductions in external spend have long been recognized as justifications for establishing legal operations, often focused on improving efficiency and reducing costs by streamlining processes, automating tasks, and using data and technology to support decision making.

However, “savings is not a strategy”1, and basing a legal operations function on this premise is an exercise in diminishing returns. Legal operations is increasingly being recognized as a vital strategic partner within the enterprise - rather than simply being a facilitator of efficiency, legal ops is a key contributor to the overall success and growth of the organization.

The principals and tools of agile and lean are a great way to get started thinking strategically. Specifically, one should:

  • Understand and document the current state (how is work being done now?)
  • Align organizational goals with those of the legal department (tone from the top)
  • Learn what the business client expectations are (are they being met? If not, what’s the gap?)
  • Prioritize what provides the most return on investment to the business (what gets measured gets done!)
  • Avoid fire drills – focus on being proactive so “urgent” matters don’t disrupt the critical path
  • Always plan for change – support the department’s journey by knowing their change style
  • Communicate far more frequently than you ever thought necessary
  • Don’t let a future “perfect state” become the enemy of good – get those quick wins and iterate

In terms of personal up-skilling to thrive in this role, legal operations professionals must be able to think and act strategically, taking a holistic view of the organization and its legal needs. This means working closely with senior leadership to identify and prioritize legal risks, developing and implementing strategies to mitigate those risks, and aligning the legal function with the broader business objectives of the organization.

What expertise might a legal operations professional leverage to accomplish these lofty goals? General business acumen coupled with strategic planning and risk management are good places to begin. Organizations at this level of maturity often are hyper-focused on growth and innovation – the legal department must adapt to meet these needs. Seek out opportunities to collaborate and build relationships with other departments and stakeholders within the organization in order to become the department of “go” rather than the lamented department of “no”.

From a legal practitioner point of view, supporting the senior leaders within the legal department will enable the team to rally around the most foundational strategic areas, including:

  • Prioritize legal risks: The legal department should identify and prioritize the legal risks facing the organization and develop strategies to mitigate those risks. Equally, understand the implications of sloppy legal practices and install guardrails to prevent.

  • Use data and technology: The legal department should leverage data and technology to make informed, data-driven decisions which continuously improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal function.

  • Foster collaboration and communication: The legal department should build strong relationships with other departments and stakeholders within the organization and facilitate open and effective communication.

  • Develop a strategic mindset: Legal professionals should cultivate a strategic mindset and be proactive in identifying and addressing potential legal issues before they become problems.

It has been said that strategy naturally flows from purpose. Help your legal department understand the basic questions of purpose – (1) Why do we exist? and (2) What unique capabilities and skillsets does the team bring that add value to the business? Those answers are foundational to establishing a strategy (often taking the form of a “roadmap” document) which ensures the department actually delivers on the stated purpose.

Readers may note that specific technology solutions aren’t even mentioned here, for good reason. Certainly, a modern technology stack is key to so many efficiency gains and automation of workflow, however it will never solve for lack of strategy or purpose.

For further reading on the topic, check out the multitude of excellent resources available from the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), and of course ILTA.


1Savings is Not a Strategy” – ACC Docket, 5/12/2022