Nicole Arbiv was Head of Legal Operations EMEA at HP Enterprises for many years. Now she is Director of Legal Operations at law tech company LawGeex. She speaks to Catherine McGregor about why Legal Operations is the new black for the legal profession …
By Dr Catherine McGregor
Whilst legal operations has been around for at least ten years, it’s only beginning to get more press now – why do you think that is?
First off, I think that like anything new it takes time to get buy-in, to deliver results and to learn from the successes of others. With organizations such as CLOC and ACC Legal Operations, we are finding that there is a community and network of legal operations professionals who are working together to share their knowledge, experience and develop the standards for the industry, which has raised awareness and sparked interest across many companies and continents. I am truly impressed by the knowledge sharing I see happening at CLOC. To see people share work that has taken them months to develop and implement in their own departments is admirable and makes the CLOC community unique.
In addition, the growing pressure for Companies to deliver on financial goals, has forced the General Counsels to run the department as a business and as a result, they are turning to legal operations to help them meet those expectations. The financial discipline legal operations drives, reduces costs and efficiently allocates the resources of the department, providing specific metrics and measurements of how the department is contributing to overall cost savings company-wide.
Beyond that, legal operations enables lawyers to practice law by acting as an interface between the General Counsel, the legal department and other interfacing departments (ie: HR, Finance, Procurement). So we allow lawyers to focus on “lawyering” and excel at what they do best, which saves both time and money.
As a result of this legal ops movement, the economical expectations and other factors, today more than ever, we are seeing more General Counsels becoming aware of the necessity and advantages of having a legal operations function within their department.
From your experience in setting up and running a globally focused legal operations function, what are the most significant benefits a legal team can gain from having this or thinking in this way?
One of my favorite aspects of working with a global team is the scale of opportunities that it entails. From my experience, one of the biggest benefits legal operations can bring to a legal department is we serve as the pivotal point of contact between the leadership, senior managers, junior lawyers as well as hold the various practice areas and functions of the department together. This enables us to focus on contributing to a number of core priorities to drive a winning and successful team.
One of those priorities, which does not get as much visibility as it should, is employee engagement. Creating career opportunities, through stretch assignments, rotations, training and promotions, provides the team with a sense that they can grow professionally and be part of a team that celebrates collaboration. I feel especially passionate about promoting recognition through examples of teamwork and raising awareness of both individual and team accomplishments. At the end of the day, we all want to feel that our work and contributions are not only completed at the highest of standards, but that they are appreciated and recognized by our management and peers.
Overall, we serve as the advocates for the success of the department – to help ensure processes are efficient, financial resources are properly allocated, strategic plans are in place and being measured against progress, that lawyers are spending their time on the right tasks and getting sufficient opportunities to learn and grow professionally and above all, that we all have fun along the way.
For teams that might be too small to have a formal legal operations function, would there be some tips you would give the GC about how to start to use ideas from legal operations to assist in producing greater efficiencies for their team?
Well, I am a CPA…so naturally, I would say start with financial discipline. Understand what you are spending your money on, where you are investing your resources, what costs can you avoid altogether, how you are working with outside counsel to approach value based billing structures, etc…Get your hands around the financials and make sure you are creating metrics and processes to measure success.
I would recommend that they develop a mission and vision for the department and set up a 3 year strategic plan to understand and be accountable for the defined goals. Based on this, they can create quarterly and yearly objectives, metrics and strategic goals that are aligned to both the Company and the business goals. I think it is imperative to be regarded as trusted advisors to the business and build strong relationships with the customers. Through strategic communication plans and initiatives around the department goals, the GC and their team will gain the trust and develop those relationships with the business and other global functions.
After assessing the department from a financial perspective and having developed a strategic plan, the General Counsel will be more informed and better equipped to make the business decisions around further legal ops priorities, including efficiencies, technology, initiatives and innovation, etc.
You ran HPE’s Legal operations for all of EMEA from Israel. Technology offers companies ways to work more agilely and in vastly different ways to in the past. Can you speak a bit about the practical experiences of being responsible for such a large region and not being based in its headquarters?
Many managers are keen to hire people into hubs or only in their own office location. I get it. I do. They think that by having the person in their sight or in the office next door, it will guarantee the success of the role the person was hired to do. It will be easier to grab the person for a discussion and go over department priorities. Unfortunately, when location is a non-negotiable factor, it disqualifies many talented people from the pool of candidates. With video conferencing and an era of constant communication, it is easier than ever to develop relationships, build trust and productively work together to drive success in the department.
For me, not being in the headquarters or next to my boss, pushed me even harder to ensure I was in regular communications with my boss, bi-weekly meetings with the leadership staff and supporting legal operations professionals as well as the lawyers on the team. Building trust remotely with a department that spans various countries and cultures requires patience, positivity and empathy. You want people to enjoy working with you and you get to develop relationships along the way. Most importantly, I prioritized the rotations of leadership staff meetings between the different hubs, which allowed me and the staff to meet the teams in person and build those relationships further.
With a positive attitude, a genuine interest in building relationships and trust and a high standard of work, being remote does not need to hinder the success of a role, rather it can enhance it.
Legal operations is becoming much more solidified as a discipline with the emergence of industry groups such as CLOC. What do you think might change as this trajectory continues, if you think it will?
Yes, I believe it will change. I would like to see the development of certified and recognized courses and programs for legal operations professionals to take to broaden their knowledge and learn about topics challenging the function. I know these exist today in the UK (ie: Winmark’s CLO programs), but I would hope to see this spread. There is no degree in legal operations, so at least to have these type of learning opportunities to provide a platform to enrich legal operations professionals would be valuable. For now, CLOC’s institutes are providing an amazing learning platform — over 75 sessions are planned at the upcoming event in Las Vegas — and I believe that GC’s should be supporting their teams to attend and get involved.
Finally, what do you think will be the big trends and changes in legal departments over the next five years?
I would say that there are several things that are going to be happening simultaneously. Specifically, I believe the role of the GC and lawyers is becoming more proactive, in the sense that the old way of practicing law was more reactive and putting out fires. Today we are moving toward a trend of being trusted advisors to the business, identifying and assessing risk and leading innovation ideas to help the business succeed.
There is an onset and appreciation of hiring junior lawyers, investing in internship and graduate programs which we did not see in the past. With the culture of enabling senior lawyers and leadership, we can effectively nurture these junior lawyers and develop an effective talent philosophy for the team.
Lastly, I am confident that legal technology which supports processes and workflows through AI and other platforms is going to be a hot topic to follow. And we will see an influx of legal departments investing in these technologies to more efficiently run the department.
Find out about Catherine’s work at www.catherinemcgregor.co.uk.
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