Legal operations in 2020 will focus on more than core competencies

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In 2019, legal departments were continuing to find the best ways to implement a legal operations function. In 2020, and in the coming years, there will be a greater focus on giving legal operations a seat at the general counsel’s leadership table and preventative measures, according to experts in the field.

Data shows the function has grown in 2019. According to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s 2020 CLO Survey that will be published in January, 53.8% of corporate law departments keep at least one legal operations professional on staff, consistent with a multiyear upward trend, Catherine Moynihan, executive director of the ACC legal operations, said.

Because many legal departments are still in the beginning stages of their legal operations functions, many are still focusing on the core competencies set forth by the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, or CLOC. The next step for more mature functions in 2020 is to find ways to prevent legal issues, Nathan Wenzel, CEO and co-founder of SimpleLegal Inc., said.

“We should be asking ourselves how we can prevent problems,” Wenzel said.

Wenzel said he would expect more companies who have a mature legal operations function to allow it to become more connected to roles outside of the legal department to take preventative measures.

“We haven’t really had that before,” Wenzel said. “Legal hasn’t always had a lawyer sitting with the departments. Legal operations is the connection.”

Similarly, Moynihan said it will be important for legal operations professionals to have a seat at the general counsel’s leadership table.

“They are driving strategic initiatives,” Moynihan said of legal operations professionals. “If they are seen as part of the leadership team, they carry with them that tone from the top.”

Technology will also play a big part of legal operations in 2020, Moynihan said. The stigma and skepticism surrounding uses for artificial intelligence have appeared to go away.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about legal departments exposing their leadership to AI-driven solutions in contract life cycle management,” Moynihan said.

Both Moynihan and Wenzel said there is nearly a universal acceptance that legal operations help legal departments save money and create efficiencies. Despite not many law schools or MBA programs having a dedicated legal operations program, there is no shortage of people who will be qualified to step into the role in 2020 as more legal departments create a legal operations function.

“If you want someone who is seasoned and has done this before, that category of person is limited,” Moynihan said. “We see general counsel getting someone from procurement or someone in the [chief financial officer]’s office.”

Organizations such as the ACC allow for people in the profession to collaborate and learn from each other.

“It is a natural role for experimentation and the job demands that kind of flexibility,” Moynihan said.