Exploring the growing trend of legal operations executives - an interview with Christine Coats, VP of Legal Operations at Oracle

The last decade has witnessed an ever-increasing presence of the legal operations executive within in-house legal teams. Christine Coats, vice president of legal operations at Oracle and board member and financial officer for the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), discusses the value and benefits of a legal operations executive (LOE) as part of the legal team.

What are LOEs and how do they fit within legal departments? Who do they generally report to?

Normally, LOEs work alongside the general counsel (GC) in a legal organisation and report to the GC directly. Our role is to help the GC reach goals and outcomes and realise their strategic vision. We do this by driving efficiencies in the operations of the legal department and by liaising cross functionally.

Why are we seeing a trend towards the appointment of LOEs? What benefits do they provide for in-house legal departments? Equally, what may be some drawbacks of having an LOE?

At the CLOC, we are seeing an increasing trend for organisations to appoint LOEs, partly due to the growing recognition of the value of the role. In 2005, my career as an LOE at Symantec was not a fully recognised role, no-one knew us. Now, the LOE role is an esteemed function in the legal department.

It used to be the case that you needed at least 50 people in the legal department before it was considered necessary or advisable to have an LOE. This is no longer the case, the role has evolved to the LOE becoming a significant executive contributor in small to medium legal organisations to the GC.

LOEs have also grown in professional stature. They have progressed—in American organisations for example—from being directors to vice presidents to a critical component on leadership teams. Many LOEs now have sizable teams themselves. When I joined Oracle in 2015, I had three people on my team. I now have a full team of dedicated highly qualified professional skilled legal operations employees.

LOEs benefit their organisations by helping them drive efficiencies in the legal department, which often enables them to save significant return on investment. By streamlining various processes and procedures, the legal operations team frees up the time of lawyers to practice law. Many legal departments are now tasked with ‘running like a business’—skilled LOE’s not only optimise operations, they also implement changes that benefit all lines of business. These functions include manual or automated managerial tasks, process improvement, data and matter trends, which are now run through a central legal operations team. The role improves and aides the service delivery of the legal department across functional areas.

LOEs often pay for themselves within the first year on the legal team and many times over in subsequent years.

What does the job of an LOE entail? What are some examples of their work?

LOEs address the whole spectrum of the work of the legal department, looking for ways in which to improve the processes in use and ways in which expense reductions can be achieved. For example, when I started in my role at Symantec, we lacked an e-billing system. 

Manual billing is one of the first pain points for the legal department in working with our external counsel. We had manual invoices which were cumbersome and time-consuming to handle. Attorneys couldn’t track rate changes, time-keeping and forecasting legal expenses were impossible. It was difficult for the lawyers to estimate the budgets or forecast for their financial teams. Nor did the members of the legal team want to negotiate fees with outside counsel—usually because they feared it may damage the relationship. The company lacked a contract management system to digitalise the contracts and move away from paper. Moving to an e-billing system not only cut costs and streamlined the process, it also benefited the company by reallocating resources to other areas. We also implemented an e-signature solution to speed up the signing of the contracts globally and streamlined an administrative function by utilising a technology solution to manage secretarial records and materials.

These were just a few examples of processes and approaches which were not efficient, and which needed to be altered. In this position—like others in my field—I built up the LOE role and established it as a valuable addition to the legal department and as an industry career within that.

LOEs identify ways in which the legal function can operate more efficiently and make recommendations to the GC. This is where the foundations established at the CLOC come into play.

The CLOC has identified twelve core competencies that mature legal departments should focus on and which LOEs address in their work. Many of these are also key issues in both large and small organisations. As a legal operations team moves strategically around the competencies identified in the CLOC model, legal operations can be optimised with systemic and methodical precision. As more competencies are embraced, the legal operations team move from having foundational to advanced knowledge. Finally, the careers of the legal operations professionals associated with this type of process are further heightened and developed.

The work of an LOE can include the forecasting of legal expenses and identifying spending trends to establishing vendor management programs to ensure the right quality of external counsel support. This includes the management of optimal fee arrangements, driving the use of technology for billing, matter and contract management, providing support in e-discovery in litigation and establishing and maintaining record management programs. Often, we manage the relationship with external counsel. An important aspect of the role is often to help standardise and streamline processes to make them more efficient. Overall, LOEs help the work of the legal team to be aligned with the broader work of the organisation and its goals.

LOEs must understand and engage in a cross-functional role with various departments within the organisation, from IT to HR, and be able to address all the issues that arise in the operation of the legal department. They must also possess an ability to work with others in different disciplines internally and externally and, where this is the case, manage a team with particular specialties.

The real key to a successful LOE is to manage a team of diverse skill sets, understand the different disciplines and specialties within the legal department and solve each department’s problem, while keeping track of the overall business strategy and priorities of the organisation as a whole. Some LOEs are lawyers themselves, others not—my background was in finance.

In the beginning of my career as an LOE, there was no training for the role, I didn’t have colleagues to discuss best practices or benchmark metrics for my GC. Today, CLOC runs legal operations institutes around the world. Legal operations teams can learn from the best in the legal operations industry at a CLOC conference or leverage a network of over 2,000 fellow CLOC members to obtain best practice information quickly. It is also an important meeting ground for LOEs, enabling them to share experiences and trade knowledge. Other than that, I’d say there were no drawbacks in having an LOE in the legal department. It’s no longer a ‘nice to have,’ it’s a ‘must have’ position for the GC.

Is there anything else within the role that could be developed further?

We are continually looking at how we can fine tune what we have already done and do it better. Advances in technology offer new solutions every day in dealing with problems within the legal department. Keeping on top of all this technology drives our work. However, there are new areas which LOEs are focusing on today. These include advancing AI tools and knowledge management solutions, which are both hot topics.

We are always looking for ways to perfect the pro bono work of the legal department and to improve the management of internships to help young attorneys learn the disciplines and value of an in-house legal department for a company. Another subject that is claiming more attention is diversity and inclusion. The legal industry needs to address this in working with our external legal advisors to ensure that more women and people from minority groups are working on our matters. At the CLOC, we are finding ways to more accurately measure diversity and inclusion, which helps us drive changes in behaviour throughout the legal community. Consequently, the work of LOEs is always evolving. In fact, the CLOC is leading this effort with its members who submit their ideas through initiatives. We are continually creating new teams to provide industry recognised processes like legal project management, diversity and inclusion and metrics to name a few.

Should more in-house departments appoint LOEs?

The fact that they have proved their worth lies behind the significant rise of their numbers in general and the expansion of existing LOE teams. This is also shown in the explosive growth of the CLOC’s membership from 40 to over 2,000 in three years. In a mere four years at Oracle, we have a world class legal operations team that is well respected by our Oracle legal team, across our various departments and the industry. In my opinion, the answer is yes, every GC will benefit from having an LOE on their legal team.

Interviewed by Diana Bentley.

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