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Three Year Strategic Plan to Build a Legal Operations Department from Scratch

By Rachita Maker posted 02-25-2021 09:00

Please enjoy this blog post authored by Rachita Maker, Head of Legal Operations and Compliance, Tata Communications.

The CLOC 2020 Survey found that 67% of the companies surveyed state that the Legal Operations team is perceived as a strategic partner within the Legal Department.  However, not many Legal Operations leaders set clear strategy for their own department.  Not having a clearly articulated plan can lead you to be reactive and focus on tactical aspects, whereas a truly progressive Legal Operations function is meant to be part of grander initiatives within the Legal Department and the Organization. 

This article states my top tips for creating a three-year strategic plan to build a legal operations department from scratch. 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. Hire right – Getting the right leader and team in place is most critical to success of any function, particularly when you are starting from scratch.  If you are a General Counsel who wants to set up Legal Operations function to be a strategic partner of your Legal Department then ensure that you hire a strong leader as a first step.  You do not necessarily need a lawyer in this position, but experience within the legal industry always helps.  The Legal Operations leader should be able to select their core team. 

In most companies, legal operations team have historically started off by providing billing support or document management.  But to truly build a world class Legal Operations team, it is important to have a leader with a clear vision and the support of a team that can execute the vision.  Legal Operations is a collaborative function, and they need to work with departments across the organization, such as IT, HR, Finance, and the business on behalf of the Legal Department. Legal Operations is also expected to take lead on number of transformative projects for the Legal department, therefore having the right team with required skill sets such as project management, technology, analytical skills among others are fundamental requirements. 

2. Build a vision – As a leader, it always helps to have a long-term vision for your legal operations team. I was lucky to have a General Counsel who gave me a blank canvas to paint on.  I understand not everyone will have that kind of luck. Write down your vision and share it with the leadership team within your legal function and with your own team.  This will ensure that you are aligned and are walking on the same path.  Each organization is unique, so make sure you understand the organization’s overall vision and more closely the vision of your General Counsel, as your vision should be an offshoot of the overall corporate vision.    

3. Define key strategic projects – Once you have built your vision, break it down into strategic projects. You will certainly not have projects defined for all three years, but you should have your first 12-18 months carved out when writing your strategic plan. You should define clear milestone and timelines for each project and assign project owners. Make these initiatives known to key stakeholders and prioritize based on their feedback.  Don’t try to churn the ocean and bite more than you can chew. You want to set your team up for success, so keep in mind the size of your team when deciding on the list of projects and their timeframes.  Start with projects where you can show some quick wins and kick start some long-term projects.  Clearly define KPIs and success parameters for the strategic initiatives. 

The strategic projects will vary depending on your vision, our goal in the first year was to document our processes and identify gaps and define what we wanted to improve on.  As we documented the processes, we were able to build our technology road map. The key for us was to increase adoption of our existing tools and technologies.  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 your apart from other ops professional.

4. Focus on the internal customer – Even though you may have a well-articulated vision and strategy plan, your primary goal needs to be customer delight. Continue to listen to your peers within the Legal Department and understand their pain point. Set regular cadence to connect with your internal customers.  These meetings don’t always have to be agenda driven.  You want to build relationships which are beyond work.  Be flexible about changing your goal posts as needed.  COVID19 made us all realize how quickly the world can change.  Each of us had to reset our priorities based on external factors, and as Legal Operations professionals, this will be a continuous part of our journey. 

5. Execute, execute, execute – While a well-articulated strategy and clearly defined goals give you a way forward, the success of any strategy depends on its execution. Clear focus on execution with a governance plan will set you on the road to achieving your goals. 

Legal Operations is a vast ocean, even with a three-year plan, you are likely to only scratch the surface.  The great thing about the Legal Operations community is that it is collaborative, and most people are willing to help their peers, so build your network along the way and learn from those around you.