2020, the year legal operations finally flourish

This article originally appeared on Law.com

The 2010s were a decade of slow growth for legal operations, first struggling to even find the initial cohort of professionals to create the identity, then working against inertia to help create a profession, then pushing for wider adoption. Now, thanks to technological advancement and consistent incubation, we are hitting that critical mass where legal ops is recognized as an important part of the legal department across industries, company size and geography.

Powered by the strength of its growing community, legal ops has gained the necessary traction and solidified its position as a critical business function. Members of the growing community have also come to recognize that the role varies between companies. More importantly, legal technology companies recognize this and 2020 has them leveraging the myriad of internal data available to drive new value for their customers.

The Emergence of the Legal Operations Community

Gone are the days of legal operations professionals attempting to implement change within their organizations with no support or structure to rely on. The difference now is that these professionals have industry groups as well as a peer network across companies. It’s somewhat unique to the legal world that professionals working at sometimes competing companies can work together in legal ops to move the industry forward.
With the emergence of a burgeoning community, legal operations professionals are beginning to reap the benefits of collaborating with peers on idea incubation, educational opportunities, resource sharing, and networking.

Two prominent legal operations communities, Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) play significant roles in elevating legal operations as an industry-recognized profession and powers industry innovation to drive change. It is through formal membership in these communities, as well as informal peer groups, that legal ops professionals are now able to not only share best practices but to understand themselves to be on a continuum where their roles become ever more clearly defined.

Legal Operations Roles Become More Clearly Defined

In addition to the evolution of the legal operations community, 2020 will see roles being more clearly defined. The legal ops community faced a major challenge this past decade as the role of the legal ops professional varied from organization to organization. It might be a paralegal at one company, but a business-oriented, yet senior attorney with staff of their own, at another.

As the legal ops function becomes more defined, we’re also seeing org charts within the legal department get organized with distinct roles and titles at more mature organizations, such as the head of legal ops, contracts management, vendor/spend management, and reporting/data analytics analysts. This helps define the departmental structure for smaller companies or those newer to adopting a formal legal ops function, and it provides real-world examples for them to consider and reference.

Additionally, according to the 12th annual Law Department Operations Survey (LDO), 33% of legal operations professionals are “new” to this role in the last one to three years. What’s interesting is that this may be slightly inflated, as some may have been doing legal ops related work in the past, but under a different job title.

Early on, legal operations professionals relied on commonalities in job descriptions:

Now, nearly a decade later, the community recognizes they are not only at very different stages of maturity in their legal operations, but that the team almost always looks different from one organization to another, and that is OK. Regardless of the position of the individual legal ops team member or where the function is in their ops journey, one of the democratizing forces is technology. Legal operations software has become a unifying and synchronizing force for the legal ops community at large.

Technology Utilization for Data and Analytics Will Increase

The imposition of technology onto a discipline can occasionally be detrimental. However, it is difficult to imagine legal operations would be starting 2020 with the wind at its back, if not for the incredible impact software has had on raising awareness and also providing structure for this dynamic business function.

2020 will see the increased use of technology to bring the freshest and most relevant data to the table, as legal operations professionals rely on systems that track the work being done and to provide leadership with insights into their department’s health. 52% of companies surveyed in the 2019 LDO survey report collecting metrics in 2019. A legal operations platform with spend and matter management capabilities can provide visibility into legal spend by providing line-by-line awareness of where the department is spending money. That same survey demonstrated that participants found a year-over-year increase in access to the “right technology” to their job, as well as an improvement in the technologies themselves.

With great transparency and a greater quantitative focus, the overgeneralization that “legal is expensive” will be replaced with a greater understanding that legal is an investment in accelerating company objectives. While it’s definitely still a cost center in most companies, legal ops is now using technology to demonstrate that every dollar has a traceable ROI, whether through mitigating important risks to the company or driving revenue through contract management.

A Legal Operations Decade

In 2020 and beyond, legal operations will be seen as a driver for cross-functional change, and it will also result in a perception shift. Legal ops is in the process of a transformation powered by the community, their organization and insights from data. No longer thought of as the “department of no” where deals go to die, legal operations will become the strategic partner who, seen through the prism of valuable metrics, drives value to the organization.

Nathan Wenzel is the CEO and co-founder of SimpleLegal, which he launched with CTO Patrik Outericky. He brings more than 20 years of experience in business intelligence and analytic applications, as well as driving business success and growth. As CEO, Wenzel leads company strategy, product direction and adoption. Prior to SimpleLegal, he was a founding partner (with Patrik Outericky) of Edge Solutions, Inc., a business intelligence and analytics consulting firm.