Feature interview: building a solid foundation for legal ops success with Ryan Black
We’re sitting down with legal professionals to learn more about their roles and responsibilities, uncover useful insights and best practices, and discuss their view on the future of legal and legal technology.
This month, we had the pleasure of chatting with Ryan Black, Head of Legal Operations at Opendoor – an online home-selling service headquartered in San Francisco. Ryan’s got a strong foothold in the legal operations industry and experience across numerous law firm and in-house roles, making him the perfect person to share his advice with the emerging community.
There are many paths that lead to the legal operations role – where did you start your career and how did you come into legal ops?
I started my career as a corporate paralegal, working with several firms on the east coast prior to moving to San Francisco for a job with Latham & Watkins. While at Latham, I became really interested in improving efficiency through technology and started looking for ways to build out processes to streamline repetitive tasks.
Paralegals do a lot of repetitive tasks! I kept finding myself thinking, “There’s got to be an easier way of doing this…”
Eventually I decided to pursue my MBA, after which I began looking for ways to combine my legal background with my learnings about good operational processes. I realized there was a lot of room for improvement for both law firms and in-house legal departments in terms of how they managed processes and divided labor. I saw a solid operations foundation as the perfect complement to a good legal practice.
Around this time, legal operations was emerging as a field and I realized that the types of process improvements I’d been putting in place and some of my broader ideas around organizational management had a home in this new field.
The responsibilities of the legal operations function tends to be different at every company. How do you define legal operations?
Legal operations is a broad category and is defined differently by every organization. Some organizations have legal operations teams primarily handling paralegal work, while others focus them solely on managing just budget or just e-billing or just the technology component.
That said, I see the overall mission of legal operations to be putting the right structure in place to make a legal department run like its own business. The right “structure” is a unique to each business but is usually a combination of three ingredients: the right people, technologies, and processes.
What is the most misunderstood aspect about the legal operations role?
I tend to cast a broad net over what the legal operations team handles because I think it’s difficult to make real positive change in an organization without understanding all aspects of both the business and the legal departments’ practices.
The biggest misunderstanding around legal operations in my own experience is that people underestimate just how much a legal ops professional can do. My team routinely handles a broad range of work, from budgeting and financial planning, to more practice-specific work traditionally handled by attorneys and paralegals (such as project-managing strategic transactions like fundraising rounds or M&A deals).
You recently embarked on a new opportunity at Opendoor. What did you want to accomplish on your first 30 days on the job?
At Opendoor, my first 30 days were focused on developing a technology roadmap that we can implement over the next 2-3 years, focusing first on technologies that will provide us with data about how we operate, where we’re investing our money, and where we can save time.
There were also several processes that needed cleaning up and did not require technology solutions, so I worked with the business to develop process maps (inspired by Lean Six Sigma principles) to better clarify who was doing what, when, and how. I learned that presenting process in this graphical, map format was received well by the business, who often weren’t following existing processes because they were written in long, policy-style narratives that were difficult and time-consuming to digest.
Finally, the first 30 days on any new job are also an opportunity to really understand how the legal department interacts with its internal clients, so I went on a listening tour with our major internal stakeholders to understand what was and wasn’t working and how the legal team could better support the rest of the business. In what ways was the legal department bottlenecking projects? And, on the flip side, what was the business doing that needed more legal attention, and how should we go about rebranding the legal department as a business partner rather than an authoritarian power that had the ability to derail or put a stop to projects altogether, to ensure the business was engaging with us at the right time in a project’s lifecycle?
Legal technology (and the data extracted from these solutions) plays a big role in how legal teams manage the department. What do you think are the biggest pros and cons of legal tech for operational folks?
One of our goals as a department is to become more data driven in 2019 and beyond, and we are looking at ways of harvesting that data. Tech is a crucial part of this, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.
Pros of Technology
- Tech provides a common method of measurement. Having a prescribed tool or set of tools to provide both a baseline and then measurements over time produce consistency and reliability in data.
- Tech drives efficiency. Through tech-driven automation, we can speed up processes that used to take hours or days. With tech, you can often pull data in real time and can spend less time gathering information and making calculations – jumping straight into the analysis and decision-making stages.
- Tech increases the frequency with which we can monitor our performance. Because technology has made gathering and analyzing data quicker, easier and in many cases cheaper to process, we can do it more frequently and therefore keep better watch over trends.
Cons of Technology
- It’s only as good as the inputs. If you put garbage in, your output will also be garbage. This is often seen in a company’s Contract Lifecycle Management technologies. You can have the most sleek and sophisticated CLM, but you aren’t properly capturing all of the metadata in your contracts that are important for driving business decisions, your reports will be useless and you just as well be storing your contracts in a shared folder.
- Tech and its data outputs don’t always tell the entire story. Some level of qualitative analysis is usually required in order to truly understand the data and make sure you are measuring what you want to be measuring. You still need to understand what additional variables might be impacting your results in order to truly understand the entire story. I is easy to assume, for example, that costs have gone up because of inefficiencies or poor management of outside counsel, when actually there were business decisions, political or regulatory issues, or other third parties’ actions that impacted costs or timeline. So while the data that tech provides can help you establish trends, it can’t be a complete substitute for a human brain.
- Tech sometimes gets in the way of a good process. I’ve seen teams try to put tech solutions in place (and at fairly high price tags) and the solution actually interrupted processes that were already working and made attorneys less efficient. It’s important to ask, “What problem am I trying to solve here?” at the outset of any procurement process.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing a career in legal ops?
If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in legal ops, here are a few things that will prepare you for the role:
- Be observant in your current role and look at what’s broken and may need fixing. Ask yourself where your department is doing something in a difficult or cumbersome way just because that’s the way it’s always been done, and think about ways you can make the process work more easily. Look for opportunities to present information in a new, simplified way.
- Get comfortable working with data. Learn some basic Excel functionality, like how to make pivot tables and build charts and graphs. These skills will make you more valuable regardless of the next step in your career.
- Be curious about everything happening around you. Whether you’re an attorney or a paralegal looking to transition into legal ops, you will be better for having gotten involved in matters that fall outside of your assigned area of responsibility and learning the pain points of other people’s practice areas.
- Get organized and share your organizational methods with others. In my law firm days, I learned the value of a great checklist to keep track of all of the many moving pieces in large transactions I was project managing. Now there are any number of apps available that do this for you and can help teams collaborate and increase productivity.
Drive Positive Change in Your Organization
We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Ryan for taking the time to share his anecdotal and tactical advice on a wide range of legal operations topics – from how to think about and approach technology to building the foundation for a successful legal ops career.
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