Legal ops co-founders discuss 'the value of running legal like a business'
Ari Kaplan. Photo by Tori Soper.
Ari Kaplan recently spoke with Connie Brenton and Jeff Franke, the founders of LegalOps.com, a membership community providing legal operations and other professionals with resources and events, including an inaugural conference in October.
Ari Kaplan: You have served as the VP of legal for NetApp for over a decade and also founded and served as the first CEO of CLOC. How did your career move from legal in the traditional practice sense to focus on legal operations as a unique discipline?
Connie Brenton: I was very fortunate to have started early on in the evolution of the legal operations role. I had a fantastic general counsel, who saw the bigger picture and looked at legal as a competitive advantage. He truly understood the value of running legal like a business. I stepped into that role with a team of 23 almost 20 years ago. The role was unique, and at that point, it was almost unheard of to have a team of that size. I was also active in the legal process outsourcing space and visited India to find LPO partners. We built a legal operations team that bridged all of the different groups within the company into one optimized team and produced a true general counsel/legal operations partnership to help provide value beyond the strict delivery of legal services.
Ari Kaplan: You are also a co-founder of CLOC and like Connie have practiced in a legal department while leading legal operations. How does LegalOps.com combine those two elements?
Jeff Franke: At its core, legal operations is really about delivering legal services. I spent about 10 years practicing law and received an MBA when I got my JD, so I have always focused on the bigger picture. This function is multidisciplinary, and there are three components to it: (1) finding the right tools to help deliver services; (2) the delivery of those services; and (3) the core elements of the business—from finance and communication to technology and organizational design. If you were going to design the perfect person for the most senior role in operations, it would be somebody who had a JD, an MBA and a background in IT.
Ari Kaplan: How has legal operations changed since you led the team to formalize it from a book club, as you’ve described it in the past, into a global community?
Connie Brenton: There have been some big advancements, and the number of professionals in the role has expanded exponentially. When we started the book club, there were probably 150 executives who labeled themselves as legal operations leaders. Now, the vast majority of legal departments in the Fortune 500 have a legal operations position. The progression of the role itself has been slower, and one of the reasons we started CLOC was to define the role. As the role of the general counsel evolves, the remit of the legal operations executive changes, so we have seen quite a bit of change recently, with those responsibilities now including strategy, HR and technology.
Jeff Franke: People still ask: “What is legal operations?” It is unusual because almost all of the roles within a corporation are defined while this one is not because: (1) the initial role of the general counsel was as a risk manager, and there was no legal operations support; (2) the GC evolved into a business partner as legal departments focused on helping the business move forward; (3) GCs are now strategic and trusted advisers; and (4) the ultimate paradigm is the general counsel who is helping to create a competitive advantage for the business. Those four paradigms result in four distinct legal operations roles—from tactical, cost-cutting and efficiency-focused to supporting and driving strategy. The strategic GC, however, needs a chief of staff, who can extend the reach of the law department. And the ultimate result is merging the role of operations with legal, with legal operations woven into the fabric of the general counsel to deliver legal services, where everyone in the legal department is a legal operations professional.
Connie Brenton: Redefining legal operations is really about helping GCs understand those four paradigms and the stage in which their legal departments exist to support their growth, as well as explain to CEOs, CFOs and COOs the breadth of legal operations.
Ari Kaplan: How do you see LegalOps.com’s first conference distinguishing itself from others that focus on this topic?
Connie Brenton: We will have the entire legal ecosystem in a room together. The LegalOps.com conference is being produced in partnership with the Women’s General Counsel Network and LawVision, which largely supports law firms. In addition, we curate all of the content so that attendees will leave with additional knowledge that improves their performance and an expanded network to increase the available resources when people have specific questions. In fact, we are dedicating the entire afternoon of the first day of the Running Legal Like a Business conference to personal development.
Jeff Franke: We are also creating a community to both discuss and apply the concepts that help law departments thrive. We see this as an educational event and also an opportunity to share new ideas to help drive the profession forward. We created the CLOC Core Competencies or CLOC 12, which is still a great paradigm, but we have also created the Personal Effectiveness Skills and Traits Competency Model and will provide training around it, as well as on a third model we will be introducing at the conference. In an ideal world, business and law schools would already have the content and incorporate it into their curricula.
Ari Kaplan: Where do you see legal operations headed?
Connie Brenton: Legal operations will follow the evolution of the general counsel and align the delivery of legal services to the creation of a competitive advantage for the business. Law firms are also now creating their own technology solutions and overhauling the way they are thinking about delivering services. As alternative legal services providers, law firms and technology companies change, so do legal operations professionals.
Jeff Franke: Changes in technology, including ChatGPT and the expanded use of automated workflows, will impact legal operations, as will creative staffing models and ALSPs. Regulators will also influence this shift because the regulatory environment will become more complex and increase the relevance of legal. We are even breaking certain services, such as legal project management, into components and identifying their true value in a process of de-aggregating and reaggregating. The evolution of the role of the GC and legal operations, in general, is largely driven by changes in the law.
Listen to the complete interview at Reinventing Professionals.
Ari Kaplan regularly interviews leaders in the legal industry and in the broader professional services community to share perspective, highlight transformative change and introduce new technology at his blog and on iTunes.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.