Feature interview: legal operations within the law firm with Jerry Wyckoff

Lauren Lee | June 26, 2019 | Articles

We’re sitting down with legal professionals to learn more about their roles and responsibilities, uncover useful insights and best practices, and discuss their views on the future of legal and legal technology.

On the heels of Mary O’Carroll’s opening remarks at the 2019 CLOC Institute where she shared the group’s vision to pilot a new membership type for law firm legal operations professionals, we were curious to see what legal operations looked like from “the other side.” This led us to Jerry Wyckoff, Firm Administrator at Mullin Hoard & Brown LLP who shed some light on the topic.

Thanks for joining us as our first law firm feature in this blog series! To help give our readers some context, could you share a little bit about yourself and your role at Mullin Hoard & Brown?

I am honored to be the first law firm interviewee in this blog series. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts which might be a little different from the in-house perspective your readers are familiar with. A quick disclaimer before we get started – all of my experience comes from small to midsize law firms. I recognize my opinions may not be as applicable when looking at larger firms.

To answer your question; I am the Firm Administrator at Mullin Hoard & Brown, LLP, leading all daily operations, finances, and logistics for all three of our firm’s locations. My role requires me to be a jack of all trades. I must understand current human resource laws and best practices, network and IT infrastructure, cyber security trends, finance and financial planning principles, and vendor management.

Having this type of generalist mentality allows me to lead and grow my direct reports to be experts in each of their areas. As they become knowledgeable specialists, they teach and advise me on what needs to change so I can lead strategy and conversions with our executive committee.

We’re curious to know, what does ‘legal operations’ mean to you and your firm?

In the past, legal operations within a law firm meant hiring an office manager who would take care of administrative tasks around the firm. However, in progressive and mid-size firms, legal operations is viewed as a professional and strategic business leader to advise the executive committee on best practices and industry changes. It requires learning all the ins and outs of the firm so that new and innovative ways can be found to optimize daily operations, finances, and strategic initiatives while maintaining the current workflow.

Responsibilities vary daily – and vary from one firm to another – but can include everything from anticipating staffing, facilities, and equipment needs, to learning about new technologies that drive efficiency, to implementing financial planning and analysis techniques to ensure the financial health of the firm. I view legal operations as a business and operations consultant to the entire firm, which includes everyone from attorneys to the executive team of partners.

Your role spans across many functions and you also have experience as a paralegal. What lead you down the more operationally focused path?

I started my legal career 19 years ago and have worked just about every job possible within a law firm. Early in my career while working as a paralegal on the legal side of the firm (versus the business side where I see myself now), I saw a lot of duplicative work taking place. This led me to implement solutions and technology to make the daily practice flow more efficiently. The managing partner of the firm saw my ability to help lead her firm’s finances and operations and she allowed me to expand my role and responsibilities.

After relocating to Amarillo, Texas in 2009, I joined Mullin Hoard & Brown as a paralegal. I began seeing similarities to my previous role. I uncovered opportunities for better financial processes, technology to drive greater efficiencies, and ways to increase staff productivity levels, which led me to transition to the business side of the firm. While I enjoy both the legal and business side for various reasons, I like having a direct impact on operations which drives more positive results for our firm as well as our clients.

Speaking of positive results for your clients, do corporate legal clients realize any benefits when partnering with law firms focused on legal operations?

One benefit that stands out is collaboration. If both the corporate legal department and the law firm have legal operations personnel that can work together, solutions can be developed that work for both sides so neither feels inconvenienced or burdened. This more collaborative mindset allows for open lines of communication and ensures that we are able to help our clients to achieve their short and long-term goals. It would be a welcome experience if we could be provided the contact information of the corporate legal for collaboration.

47 percent of the chief legal officers surveyed by ACC in 2018 reported that they had at least one person dedicated to legal operations, a huge increase from 21 percent in 2014. In your opinion, why haven’t law firms seen the same adoption of legal ops?

I know it’s cliche, but in my opinion, a large reason why law firms have been slower in adopting a legal operations team has to do with law firm leadership. Many law firms have what I call a “positional leader” – a member of the executive team who wants to control the operational movements of the firm. Unfortunately, this often translates to the law firm running more like a consensus law practice where politics reign rather than allowing the best ideas to win.

Conversely, there are firms that have a “directional or visionary leader” who understand there is a need to run a law firm more like a business (a business that happens to focus on legal representation of clients). This type of leader will hire top talent to lead their operations, finance, marketing, client services, and allow their direct reports to be experts in the area they serve. By giving up control of daily operations to a dedicated legal operations professional, the directional managing partner(s) can focus on the vision, directional movements of the firm, and the larger long-term strategy of the firm.

Leadership is key when it comes to law firms adopting legal ops. We need more directional leaders within firms who build teams that they can rely upon, rather than positional leaders who try to control their firms from the top down.

Legal technology is one key area of focus for in-house legal ops professionals. How do law firms think about technology use and adoption?
I think it depends. This is another example of where having a directional leader is instrumental in creating a bigger vision for how the entire firm can leverage and benefit from technology. In cases where there’s a legal operations presence within the law firm, I’d say our approaches to legal technology are similar. I continually stay on top of current industry trends related to technology and data analytics so I can effectively evaluate solutions to see if they’re worth integrating into our firm. While my own experiences show me that technology is often met with resistance, especially by attorneys who don’t have time to dedicate to learning these new platforms, technology adoption doesn’t have to start out as a huge initiative. You can start small.

For example, our firm struggled to provide network access to our litigation teams when they were traveling and working outside of the office. This was a huge inconvenience to attorneys that are sometimes away for months at a time. I was able to introduce a solution that provided them with full access to their desktop from any device (phone, ipad, tablet, computer) from anywhere in the world — giving them secure access to client data while on the road. We were able to make a small tech change that instantly made our attorneys’ lives easier.

That being said, change is hard! In regards to technology, I know there are countless benefits to technology changes, but humans resist change. We must let the necessity of change and learning be greater than allowing the hardness of it determine the outcome.

How do you see the legal ops role within law firms evolving in the future?

A law firm will only grow so much without a legal ops team, so I think we’ll be seeing an increase in legal ops presence within law firms. In my opinion, it will be the newer boutique firms that will lead the charge for innovation. Formed by attorneys that break away from larger and more traditional firms, these boutique firms embrace the idea of acting as trusted advisers to their clients and focus on alternative fee arrangements and collaborative working environments.

I recently read an article on a law firm hiring a seasoned sales team to work alongside attorneys as they talk to new and potential corporate clients to ensure alignment between both parties. Another law firm that specializes in mergers and acquisitions hired several financial analysts to provide clients with a comprehensive financial audit of the business being merged or acquired. This brought additional value to the clients in addition to actual legal representation. It’s small changes like this that will begin to shape the legal operations role within law firms and ultimately create a more positive working dynamic between firms and their clients.

Excitement for the Future of Legal Operations

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Jerry for taking the time to share how he approaches legal operations at his firm. We’re always excited to hear new perspectives and anticipate in-house teams and law firms to continue to close the divide, creating stronger partnerships and more opportunity for greater outcomes.

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