The dos and don'ts of legal ops

Charlotte Snowdon
Charlotte SnowdonIrwin Mitchell LLP
Gurminder Kaur Nijjar
Gurminder Kaur NijjarIrwin Mitchell LLP

Done well, legal operations can help your in-house team run as efficiently as possible and save you time and money. Gurminder Kaur Nijjar and Charlotte Snowdon explain how to make it work for you - and what mistakes to avoid.

People working

“I love doing repetitive tasks day in, day out” – said no one ever. The way we work and the tools we use make a significant impact on our day-to-day operations. If used very well, there is a low likelihood of repetitive tasks; if not, you may find yourself wondering why there aren’t enough hours in the day. Legal operations (LO) is about identifying the opportunities for creating and / or maximising efficiencies in modern-day legal working practices.

The current climate presents more pressure than ever to ensure that general counsel / in-house legal teams are operating efficiently, so that time and money is utilised at optimum levels and demonstratively add value – this can be achieved through LO functions.

Here are our big dos and don’ts when it comes to LO.

Do empower your people

Your people are working hard to deliver and know what works and what doesn’t. They will have insight into where the inefficiencies exist – in many ways, they are critical in transforming LO.

Trust your people to bring ideas to the table, listen to them and let them lead on their own initiatives. Most importantly, even if a suggestion doesn’t work or isn’t quite right, continue to support and encourage – you will be surprised with the marginal gains that your people can bring.

Don’t wait

Making changes to LO can be a massive shift for an organisation and its people. The potential for challenge may be off-putting and put to one side for months. Stop and think: staying the same will mean that your business will start to lag behind your competitors. This will impact your business and people. Big change will always bring its own challenges, regardless of when you make change, so there’s not much point in waiting.

Do implement an operating model

An operating model helps you to understand where you are heading as a function. Knowing the end state helps you see how you would like the function to run at high level. It is also important to align with overarching business strategy and future state.

The operating model creates clear lines of responsibilities as you set up your team structure to deliver in the most effective and efficient way.

It will deliver new ways of working, providing that all-important buy-in from stakeholders when you ask them to engage with you differently/more efficiently.

Don’t be unrealistic

Have high hopes and expectations when working through your LO model and programme of work. However, be realistic with your timescales. It will take time and you need to account for any hurdles to overcome, delays and winning people over to the concept.

Break it down into achievable chunks/goals, so that when you do meet your goals, it’s a celebration. If your overall strategic delivery of LO will take a few years, that’s OK – you just need to make sure your delivery timeline is not unrealistic. This will help you, your teams and management of your stakeholders.

Do process map

Processes are critical for identifying where things are going wrong and how to get them right. Process mapping current workflows will highlight inefficiencies such as repeated requests for information, or triple-checking of the same advice. The workflow then needs to be turned efficient, which can be illustrated in a new process map, and in turn can provide you with a data point of value added; in other words, once those repetitive tasks have been removed, the time saved can be monetised.

Processes also mean the creation of tools and ensuring the client experience is enhanced. The use of templates can help do this, so, for example, the client will always know what to expect if provided with traffic light advice, e.g. red-, amber- or green-labelled advice note rather than continuous narrative. This helps clients see at a glance whether what they want to do is possible:

  • red is considered a high risk, hurdle or problem that fundamentally may stop the client going ahead
  • amber shows the client can go ahead but with caveats or mitigations
  • green is essentially the go-ahead light

Operationally, the template just needs to be completed, rather than an advice note created from scratch. This is another process efficiency that can be demonstrated and monetised. This can take some time to prepare and embed, but well worth it to reap the benefits.

Don’t be short-sighted

LO is an ongoing investment and vision which will require continuous support. For LO to work, you must build quality relationships with your stakeholders and C-suite members. LO should always consider planning its strategy in accordance with the overarching business strategy and ensure the function is fit for the future. So, don’t just think about the next six months or year – LO must go beyond that to ensure the function can service the business and hold its place in the market long term.

LO should keep seeking marginal gains, continuously improving people’s capability, processes and technology. Marginal gains can provide significant efficiencies.

Do implement prioritisation framework

Operating models must include a process for the triage and prioritisation of work. The triage step is by far the most important to ensure your client’s experience is efficient and of high quality. Client needs must be assessed upfront to ensure that the deliverables are scoped correctly. Effective triage can be achieved through intake forms, which may vary according to the client need. Always ensure the client has completed the correct triage form before accepting their instructions.

We recommend a P1-P4 prioritisation framework, with P1 being the highest priority with a clear definition as to why and how a matter constitutes a P1. For example, priority 1 equals all work that falls into mandatory legal or regulatory needs that ensure the business’ licence to operate and therefore takes priority over all work. In contrast, priority 4 may be that the work is low risk, doesn’t add immediate value and can wait to be worked on. The remit of priority level should be tailored to your business needs; you may feel you only need three categories of priority.

Once you have a priority scale, you can schedule them in to be worked on, for which a resource model can help. Resource modelling is a topic in itself, so we won’t go into detail here, but essentially, it’s about pre-planning work in accordance with available resource on a day-to-day basis.

Don’t give up

If something goes wrong, learn from it and move on. When moving towards change and efficiencies, you won’t always get it right, and that is OK – just be sure not to dwell on it. Share the learnings and make sure you have set yourself up well for the upcoming stages.

Do use legaltech

We should all be using legaltech where possible and available. This does not mean reinventing the wheel and spending thousands on new software – there may be some hidden gems in your business already. You just need to look.

Once you have your processes in place, legaltech can then be utilised to simplify, speed up and automate the work.

Ask your IT team and see if they can help. We have certainly found using ContractExpress and HighQ integral to creating efficiencies. You may find that people are more receptive to the use of tech since the pandemic due to remote working and this willingness should be capitalised on.