Legal ops 101: Find your data

Jean-Francois Denis recalls the first time he asked for data from the legal department at Bombardier Inc. when he was trying to figure out what was being spent and how much work was being sent to external law firms.

Legal ops 101: Find your data

Jean-Francois Denis recalls the first time he asked for data from the legal department at Bombardier Inc. when he was trying to figure out what was being spent and how much work was being sent to external law firms.

“I received 10 boxes of paper invoices — it wasn’t even possible to know what each firm charged us. I had to reverse engineer it and that is not uncommon — a lot of companies are like that,” says Denis, who was senior counsel, litigation and legal operations at the multinational aerospace and transportation company based in Montreal. 

He is now director of operations, legal affairs at SNC-Lavalin. “I’d rather pay in-house lawyers than suppliers, but in order to do that, you need to see where your opportunities exist.”

Those opportunities are around finding out how much is spent on what matters and what repeatable tasks could be tackled better in-house or done on another arrangement basis externally and knowing what law firms are charging for certain matters compared to others.

What Denis describes is but one important aspect of what legal operations takes in. Legal ops encompass a combination of disciplines that includes knowledge management, technology management, financial management, compliance, contract management, intellectual property management, external resource management, strategic planning, metrics and analysis. Both the Association of Corporate Counsel and Corporate Legal Operations Consortium have come up with lists of core competencies that help describe the maturity level of a legal ops department.

While it’s true that legal operations departments have been in place in large organizations such as the large banks and telecommunications companies for many years, the increased interest in the application of operations practices to legal is thanks in part to the overall growth of in-house legal teams and a focus on the legal department performing more like other business units and increased pressure to show metrics on performance.

But the first step can be the hardest and that is to get your arms around the data, as Denis did. He was at Bombardier for 15 years before joining SNC-Lavalin, where there are 75 lawyers across five continents.

“There’s a lot of horsepower here with a very talented team of lawyers that needed support,” Denis says.

At the beginning, he was the lone dedicated legal ops lawyer and now he has a person helping him with billing and invoicing and one full-time business analyst supporting him. That person is not a lawyer and increasingly, legal operations team members are being hired not from legal but from other professions.

Denis is past president of the ACC chapter in Quebec and is currently developing a conference for the chapter this coming September in Montreal. He will be speaking about the key performance indicators that will allow in-house departments to evaluate the health of a department.

“You need to speak the language of your C-suite. I can’t believe that there are not more dedicated legal ops functions in Canada right now. We have some world class companies here. In terms of an increasing sophistication of departments coming up with sound, better reporting, it’s a must.”

At Corus Entertainment the legal ops “team” was formed in late 2017 and consisted of Sara Chan, director, assistant general counsel, with the guidance of the general counsel setting the foundation for the strategy. “I still had a number of other matters I was responsible for. As of last month, we officially have a team of three who work on legal operations — myself, a legal operations manager who was just hired at the beginning of 2019 and a legal operations specialist (who also has other responsibilities in the department). Our legal operations manager is 100 per cent dedicated to leading legal ops initiatives. I am the only licensed lawyer of the team,” says Chan.

The first year at Corus was really focused on organizational design and ensuring the team was arranging themselves in a way that could best respond to the variety of business units they serve. “This year, our focus is primarily on ensuring that we work smarter and more efficiently and finding the optimal mix of technology and process management for each team. With four different ‘service pools’  in our department (content, media, corporate and regulatory/government relations), there’s a lot of work to be done, so we’re trying to be strategic about what we tackle first. It’s also really important in our first few years to build some trust and credibility within the department, so we want to address the low-hanging fruit that will have the biggest positive impact on the most people, as well as identify those roadblocks (whether systems or processes) that present the biggest pain points across the department,” she says.

From a technology perspective, Corus is working on rolling out eSignatures and looking into contract automation tools — all of these are aimed at removing some of the heavily manual or mundane tasks that the department undertakes on a daily basis so people can focus on the more complex and interesting work, as well as provide the business with more self-serve tools wherever possible. “We’re also investigating a move to a document management system, hopefully at some point in the next year,” she says.

However, Chan says they don’t want to fall into the trap of believing the technology alone will save them — so with every new tool they introduce, they are also ensuring that the right processes and policies are in place so that they get real adoption of the tools within the department or the business at large.

Chan says the key areas of focus in the first five years will be knowledge management — developing more consistency across the company with respect to how documents and precedents are managed and encouraging greater collaboration and resource sharing between the service pools.

Getting a firm grasp on what a legal department has been working on is critical, says Kent Savage, senior vice president, corporate legal and governance at Sun Life Financial in Toronto.

The legal department at Sun Life had what many law departments have — an administrative function that performed some of the core tasks that its current legal operations did, basically around office administration.

“There was far less direct interaction with the lawyers and less of a focus on helping the lawyers to actually enhance their ability to deliver legal services using a collective skillset,” says Savage.

In early 2017, Mimi Bowen was hired as the legal operations director for Sun Life in Canada. Her background is in operational effectiveness with experience in sectors such as food processing and automotive. She is not a lawyer.

“We thought that it would be best to have legal operations headed up by someone with Lean Six Sigma skillsets,” says Savage. “And someone who would come in with the fairly arduous task of learning how lawyers work. She has embraced that with great enthusiasm. She has helped to build a culture of acceptance to Lean Six Sigma principles and evaluating how we work to build a continuous improvement culture within the legal function.”

Bowen had worked at Ford Motor Company and Maple Leaf Foods and was part of the first wave of Lean Six Sigma black belts at those organizations. “Sun Life legal gave me the opportunity to bring that suitcase of skills and experience to Sun LIfe and work with the leadership to build out the legal operations function and at how to do things better,” she says.

“Every industry has its challenges and opportunities,” she says. “I have found legal more challenging; I find it like a puzzle — how do you put the pieces of the puzzle together when one piece is about managing risk and the other one is about managing change? At first glance, it’s an uncomfortable fit. It takes time, but you start to find the pieces that fit together and slowly this picture begins to form. ”

Sun Life has four dedicated staff in legal ops including a technology specialist. She hopes to apply the learnings in Canada across the company globally.

“To me, legal ops is not a portfolio of projects with start dates and end dates, but an ongoing responsibility of managing an in-house legal team’s business activities. It’s ongoing in terms of finding new and better ways of doing things.”

Bowen’s arrival also coincided with Sun Life’s move to new space on lower York Street in Toronto — a space that encourages “agile” workforce principles. People work where they want in an open-concept environment.

Bowen is also leading the Toronto chapter of CLOC —, which started in September 2018. “When you’re new to legal operations, the networking opportunities CLOC affords you are invaluable both locally and globally,” she says.

For Savage, it’s an ongoing initiative that is going to pay dividends to both the lawyers on the team and the company as a whole.

“It’s been a journey for everybody but hugely beneficial to be re-thinking how legal operations becomes an integral part of supporting and delivering a superior experience for business partners,” he says.

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