Predictions for legal ops in 2023 with LaTrece Johnson of Palo Alto Networks

Kara Wen | March 15, 2023 | Articles

Lately it seems like every legal new source is releasing whitepapers and webinars on topics like “How To Do More With Less?”, “Use Data to Drive Business Decisions”, “Improve Your Contracting Process”, and “Minimize Your Outside Counsel Spend”. Legal professionals are inundated with emails and overwhelmed. Of course they want to focus on these areas, but for many they are focused on keeping their GC engaged and informed, supporting leadership’s new ideas and projects, ensuring all legal tools are working, and strategizing on how to help the department become more proactive than reactive—all while remaining agile and adapting when needed during a challenging economic climate where resources continue to be reduced.

We’re sitting down with legal professionals to get a first-hand view of how their teams are handling the situation and discuss their view on the future of legal and legal technology in 2023 and beyond.

We have the pleasure of chatting with LaTrece Johnson, Head of Legal Operations at Palo Alto Networks as part of our ongoing interview series. With years of experience across different industries and in developing legal ops education, LaTrece shares her perspective on what legal operations and the wider in-house legal industry should be focused on in 2023.

What do you see legal ops focusing on in 2023?

For years, Legal was usually seen as a nuisance to get any contract, policy, or program in place to support the business. So general counsels had to start to shift and demonstrate the ways that their team can be strategic business partners and help drive the business forward in a much bigger way. But even when the CEO strives for a 20% increase in sales YOY, we have seen that legal headcount to support the increase in deals doesn’t usually equate the same as other groups like legal.

So instead Legal has to make do with the resources that they have, which is where legal operations play a critical role. Last year, Gartner reported that in 2022 “58% of all legal departments have a legal operations manager, which is a 75% increase from 2018.” That increase is because legal now needs to focus on how to find inefficiencies, enable automation, reduce redundant work, outsource when applicable, and sometimes having to do all these things with the same or less budget. It’s not necessarily about cutting costs— it’s thinking about efficiencies, workload, and sourcing.

Legal operations is the driving force of business efficiency. More than ever before, our weeks are filled with meetings with finance to track spending and keeping them informed of new projects and matters, meeting with the business groups to understand the challenges when engaging with legal for contract requests, drafting and updating policies to provide proper guidance and enforcement, working with IT to get the right level of support and resources to maintain systems, collaborating with other operations teams on how to make the most use of the tools that are used in other groups within the organization, engaging with solution providers to ensure we are maximizing the new and existing functionality available to us, launching RFPs to get competitive pricing on projects and new matters, working with service providers on how to shift or outsource work to flex resources, implementing new systems like legal intake and workflow automation, contract management, eDiscovery, and the list can go on.

We’re now running our own unique legal organization within a larger organization. That means a huge shift in thinking about what the team needs. There are a lot more discussions about making the right decisions, having to adapt to the needs of the wider organization, and how they impact us and the needs of the team.

How do you see legal ops tackling the focuses you brought up?

Workload efficiency is something that at some point or another, you will be forced to address whether you want to or not. General counsels are no longer just attorneys. They have to be business leaders and guide people through change. Not all attorneys are resistant to change but there is a level where GCs have to be strategic leaders to help people see that there is a better way to do things despite not knowing what that better way might be.

That’s where legal ops practitioners have to become the “champions of change” especially in situations when you are trying to convince experienced attorneys that outsourcing and automation doesn’t mean loss of control. Our job is to navigate these conversations and reassure counsel that they still have their job while showing them there is a better way. Thoughtfulness is crucial to these challenging conversations because it will directly impact the shift on their mindset and the outcome of adoption.

Efficiency has increased with the adoption of legal technology. But there’s a lot of tech out there now, so much to the point that we’re all overwhelmed by it. Legal teams are suffering from what I like to call “technology anxiety”. They are trying to avoid it more than they are going toward it, not because they know they don’t need it but asking “Is that the right thing to invest our money in right now?”

We are trying to understand which solutions are going to deliver exactly what we need rather than being transfixed by the new shiny thing we see in a demo. It’s like “Cool, you have two different things that set yourself apart from the competitors. But is that really going to solve how my business runs today and adapt to how it may change in the next 2-5 years?” The solution might be nice to have, but it may not be the right tool to consider right now.

As organizations become more complex, unfortunately some of the newer solutions don’t do what you need them to do. We are going to get to a point where the legal technology we see all feels somewhat similar from platform to platform. So the shift to doing your own discovery and determining exactly what you need before you actually begin shopping is becoming more apparent.

So with all this at play, how do you think legal ops can continue to support the wider legal department and organization as a whole?

The shift in how businesses operate have forced attorneys to develop new skills and adopt a business mindset. It’s no longer just about the practice of law, it’s becoming the business partner to the groups they support. Those attorneys are going to rely on their legal operations team to help understand business aspects like financial planning and strategy to address the broader organizational needs when issues arise and priorities need to be adjusted. Based on my experience supporting different legal leaders over the years, law firms don’t usually expose every level within the firm to these aspects so there is a bit of a transition for those that join straight from law school or from a law firm. This is a great opportunity for us to teach and guide them, ultimately demonstrating that our business experience as legal professionals brings value to the department (regardless of a JD).

As a legal professional, you need to be prepared to assess, scrutinize, strategize, prioritize, and execute. You will have to learn a lot of things on your own, ask others for help, and may even feel like you are in a constant stage of “in-progress”. Your sleepless nights will leave you wondering about workload efficiency and how that impacts your team, questioning “Why is this work being done by attorneys but does it really need to be?, and asking yourself “Why is this job so hard sometimes?”

There is an opportunity for legal operations to grow during these times and figure all this out. But it is a challenge and I always say this is definitely not a role for the faint-hearted or the easily-overwhelmed. Personally as a people manager, I always have to think about team development. Where will I get the money to hire the team I want? How will I develop the talent that’s already here and available to get to the point I need them to get to?

The legal ops role has changed so much over time. You have a lot of new people entering with different backgrounds which is great for bringing in fresh perspectives like data analysts, learning and developing professionals, and system administrators specifically to support legal data lakes, training programs, and tools. But you also have the challenge of leading a team of people now. There isn’t a playbook for this as legal ops may still be a fairly new concept to some organizations— but we are very much on the fly in terms of our own development. Teaching people the complexity of everything we do is not easy. Also how do you fit the newcomers into the right roles? Legal ops starts with a generalist role but as your team gets bigger, you have a lot more complexity to deal with and you are going to have to hire more people to deal with those growing pains.

This discussion has been incredibly insightful and full of great tidbits for any legal ops professional to leverage during the year. Any last thoughts you’d like to leave for us today?

Build a network of legal operations professionals that you can connect, share, and learn from.

There are so many communities in this space now that everyone can quickly have access to an entire network of people who do what you do. I was lucky enough that my first legal operations role reported to Lisa Konie, my mentor and one of CLOC’s first Board Members. She guided me into learning areas that I didn’t know, but she helped me make connections with others so I can learn different perspectives.

If you intentionally make connections beyond just “teach me how to do it”, you will quickly notice that so many of us are willing to share our learning and failures. Some may even call it “trauma bonding” over failed programs and implementations, but all great lessons that we can share so the next person doesn’t have to.

Now there’s a space for everyone to be in it and you will see that each person will have a different perspective and way that they are trying to solve for. The stage of maturity, industry, company size may be different, but you gain perspective and ideas to bring back to your own organization. This demonstrates the fact that we’ve all just built our networks where we can ask questions and consider the experiences of our peers as we move forward. I think that network is invaluable to any legal ops practitioner at any point of their career.

Stay in the know

We’d like to thank LaTrece for taking the time to chat with us! If you enjoyed today’s interview, subscribe to our legal ops blog to make sure you never miss insights from our feature interviews. And if you, or a fellow colleague, is interested in sharing your in-house experiences, email [email protected].

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