Feature interview: insights into legal operations with Google’s Mary O’Carroll

Lauren Lee | April 26, 2016 | Articles

Corporate law departments are spending more on in-house resources than on law firms or external legal service providers, with the percentage of general counsel stating their companies need dedicated legal operations staff more than doubling. As in-house legal expertise grows, the demand for legal operations staff grows, too.

Continuing with our series of interviews with superstars in the legal industry, we’re sitting down with Mary O’Carroll, Head of Legal Operations at Google to better understand how in-house legal teams set themselves, and their companies, up for success.

Interview with Mary O’Carroll of Google

Mary, you’re a veteran in the world of legal operations, but when you first began, there wasn’t much of an legal ops industry at all. Why legal operations?

There aren’t many other roles this broad. Operational roles extend into finance, strategy, technology & IT, knowledge management, and people development from the training and development perspective. You get to work with every corner of the legal department from general counsel to lawyers in every practice area to the legal assistants and admins.

Every day is different and there is an entrepreneurial aspect to the role. It’s still a pretty nascent but growing field, so there are no playbooks, and nowhere to look for best practices. Every project and every problem that we solve is new, and we have the freedom to tackle it all.

It’s been exciting. There hasn’t been a dull moment. We haven’t stopped learning. The opportunity to improve operations and efficiency is just endless. I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface in this industry.

The other thing I love about it is where we are now. The industry is in a really interesting spot and the fact that this role is getting a lot of attention and growing at not just large companies, but also startups and legal departments that only have ten people or so, is incredible. Legal operations is gaining so much traction because it is so impactful, it’s able to demonstrate value quickly.

We’re at a turning point in the industry with the way legal services are delivered, and the way technology is providing transparency into our operations and into the value of our spend with outside counsel. It’s really just changing the way lawyers work, and the way legal departments operate, and we’re at a really interesting place in time. This is all why I’ve been so involved in CLOC (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) and bringing people from all sides together– not just from the in-house side, but also from the law firms, the vendors, and the other service providers to try and move the industry forward collectively, rather than in these silos where law firms are trying to guess what we want, and we’re trying to guess what law firms want. The vendors are in the middle trying to guess what everybody wants. If we can all get together and collectively move things forward, I think we can do it faster and better, and it’s just a really exciting place to be.

We’re all excited about the CLOC event coming up in May. In working with legal operations specialists across various industries, it’s hard to think of two that have the same exact role. What’s something that you wish more people understood about the legal operations role?

The role and responsibilities of a legal operations professional can vary by company because the scope of the role grows with the maturity of the legal operations function in the department. The longer you’ve been around, the more you’ve had a chance to tackle and own different functions. One commonality we all share is the e-billing challenge. It’s the first thing that folks dive into to solve because it’s such a big impact project.

I would imagine defining your role, and the industry itself, hasn’t been all smooth sailing. What lessons have you learned since you began in legal operations that you would tell yourself, or maybe someone else in your role, as a new head of legal operations?

If you’re a new head of legal operations, there’s a lot of resources out there now that you can leverage. There is a strong network of individuals in this profession and a willingness to share because we all benefit from helping accelerate those who are new to this space.

One of the biggest lessons learned is how much culture factors into success in this role. The culture of the company, and the working style of the GC and the head of legal ops has to be really closely aligned. What I mean by that is I don’t think that I would be successful in this role at a different company with a different culture, or perhaps someone who’s really successful at a company with a different culture might not be as successful here. Part of this is because change management is such an important part of this role. Being able to fit in and be perceived by the legal department as a team player or someone who is here to really make things better and more efficient, rather than just creating bureaucracy or process or rules and dashboards and such. We’re doing a lot more than that. We’re trying to do everything we can to allow our attorneys to focus on what they want to focus on, which is high value work.

The way you go about doing that is delicate and has a lot to do with how your general counsel wants the message to come across. The message needs to come across aligned and I think all that comes down to culture and a cultural fit.

You’ve pioneered so much of what legal operations is. What would be your top one or two recommendations to new or growing legal teams trying to take a modern approach to managing their legal teams?

I have found that if you’re the first one to show up in this role, and the team hasn’t focused on efficiencies to date, there’s probably a lot of low hanging fruit. For me, it was starting with outside counsel and standardizing and streamlining the way we worked with them. Also, look for work that is time consuming and is being done by folks in the department that it shouldn’t be done by, and right source it. Should it be streamlined and automated with some sort of technology? Should it be pushed out to an outsourced provider at a lower cost? Should that work be eliminated all together? Those were things that I would start with.

To say that technological advances in the last twenty years has changed the way we do business would be an understatement. How have developments in technology impacted you within your industry?

There is so much more technology targeted at legal departments today.  Efficiency and data transparency are focus areas that did not exist years ago. Using technology is a really easy way to demonstrate huge returns because it either offers a lot of transparency into your outside counsel dollars or it can streamline work flow (like e-signatures). Using technology secures really easy, quick wins.

What are some trends in the legal industry that you anticipate seeing in the next few years?

Technology will continue to drive change in the industry by forcing us to rethink the way we work or the way legal services are delivered. There’s also a big trend right now in legal knowledge management and being able to share and find things more easily. And, of course, artificial intelligence machine learning is a big theme that keeps coming up. There is a lot of manual and repetitive work that we do and there might be a way to stop doing it by relying on machines to help us more.

Can’t Get Enough Legal Operations?

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Mary for taking the time to share some of her personal experiences and strategies. If you’d like to hear more from Mary, check out this post and video where Mary was joined by other legal professionals to discuss the evolution of legal technology.