The Skills You Need To Succeed in Legal Ops
A few months back, we introduced The Fluid Lawyer as our vision for the modern legal professional. Our point was (and is still) that in today’s legal market, lawyers must resemble Renaissance men (or women) shaped in the image of Leonardo da Vinci. You don't have to be a genius, but you have to excel in a wide variety of disciplines.
The idea was promoted in this ebook and in an op-ed for Thompson Reuters to some success. We must admit that the Da Vinci comparison was a bit far-fetched, and the illustration of the Vitruvian Man was a bit over the top, but the essence is still very important. The future legal professional must adopt a polymathic approach, move seamlessly across disciplines, and hone various skills. In addition to their deep legal knowledge, they must develop a “profound understanding of business matters, a high level of tech-literacy, great people skills and most importantly, they need to be agile and adaptable professionals who are able to respond to an accelerating, unpredictable and ever-changing world.” They must, in other words, become fluid.
What we didn’t see back then was that it matches the legal ops movement brilliantly. In that way, The Fluid Lawyer was just a sketch of what is a much broader picture. As we explored in one of our previous posts, the legal operations movement is reshaping the legal function forever. Legal can no longer solely be a risk-mitigating cost centre. It must be redefined as a value-creator. Something that supports the commercial goals of the business and seeks out opportunities. This movement forces lawyers to develop many of those exact traits.
With the Fluid Lawyer in mind, I would therefore like to elaborate on what I believe are the crucial skills in running a successful legal operations function: whether you work in a legal counsel or you are a revenue operations person looking to optimize your contracts for profits.
The New Skills of Legal Ops
We have covered the topic of skills in this blog a few times before. As an example, it was the topic of our first Legal Tech Academy webinar, where we discussed what skills young lawyers should have to succeed in the future. In addition to that, we have discussed concepts like the O-shaped lawyer and the T-shaped lawyer, and it was even the centre of our most-read piece ever. Do lawyers need to learn how to code?
We are having these discussions because the legal field has been undergoing some significant changes these years. The developments within digital technologies have made basic legal tasks remarkably easier and cheaper for laypersons and smaller businesses to manage and automate themselves. On top of that, consumers have gained more power in the past decades, which forces every industry to innovate the delivery of their services. Consumers demand more predictable pricing, more transparent communication, excellent service, efficient use of technologies and a whole package around the core product. They demand more for less.
The same goes for the legal operations movement. Modern businesses are no longer satisfied with legal being a risk-mitigation centre. Not getting sued can no longer be the sole KPI. Through the use of technologies that can automate mundane routine tasks (or at least make them significantly faster to solve), people in the legal function should get more time on their hands to think strategically and support the business commercially.
What we are left to see is how that dynamic will play out in smaller businesses where legal professionals do not manage the legal function.
Nevertheless, it is clear to us that people working within legal ops must have 3 essential skills to succeed: 1. Legal expertise. 2. Some degree of tech literacy. 3. A fundamental understanding of business.
The Core Disciplines in Legal Operations
You can't be a jack of all trades and master of one. When working with legal matters, it goes without saying that legal knowledge is important. In fact, it only becomes more important. Routine tasks and standardized low complexity work can be automated and managed more efficiently digitally, allowing the legal function to spend more time digging into legal matters and see how they can be used strategically to the advantage of the business. That requires an even better understanding of legal matters.
As we wrote in The Fluid Lawyer: "Simple triggers and actions can be automated, but profound knowledge of a legal area cannot. Being able to use this knowledge to find creative and actionable solutions is what separates man and machine."
In that sense, the perfect legal ops person is T-shaped. They combine specialist legal knowledge with a broader set of skills.
Tech is the foundation of the legal ops movement. If you can't augment yourself with new technologies and let them do the dirty work for you, there won't be much time to add value, think strategically and find commercial opportunities for the business.
Should you be able to code? No. You don't need to know how to code, just like doctors do not need to know how to build surgical instruments or software developers do not need to know how to make computers from scratch. The idea behind the modern legal tech is that it should be able to enhance the skills of anyone working with legal matters. They do not need to know how to make the technology, but they must be able to understand how to use the technology and explore the potential they create.
You must have a basic understanding of what an API is. You must be able to imagine how you can automate work. You must know how to evaluate tech solutions based on metrics like user experience, compliance, interoperability and whether they are using a future-proof data format. And you must be able to operate no-coding platforms and understand how if-then statements work.
Take your time to stay updated on the latest trends, look out for optimizations and feel comfortable testing new products all the time. The more you can have the computers do for you, the more time you have to make a difference.
In a nutshell, legal ops is about supporting the commercial goals of a business by adding more value. To do that, you must understand how the business operates, how you lead an innovation process, manage a project, and how the company is structured financially. You must understand your customers better, know how the markets you operate works and develop a fundamental understanding of what it takes to run a business.
As we mentioned in the previous article on legal ops, the movement is connected to the development of one-stop-shop concepts among the big four. They leverage cross-service collaboration to create synergies and offer their clients more holistic services at a favourable price. They have expanded their services, covering a broader spectrum of offerings, from accounting and compliance to legal services, business strategies and management consulting. That means they can function as a full-service supplier of professional services and thereby give their clients a more holistic service and a lower price. In other words, they can provide more for less. A legal ops team should, ideally, be able to do something similar.
Businesses are no longer looking just for risk mitigation and legal advice that tells you what you cannot do. They are looking for multidisciplinary, holistic counsel. They are looking for proactive, creative solutions and opportunities in the market. Consequently, legal ops should become strategic advisors and see changes in legislation and new geopolitical conditions as opportunities to develop new services and take up new markets."
The Mentality and Soft Skills in Legal Ops
In addition to these hard skills, legal ops is also a mental paradigm shift and a new philosophy that favours other soft skills.
In the old model, where mitigating risk was the only aspect of the job description, the most risk-averse and cautious lawyers were usually successful. In the new model, an extreme risk-averseness can become a disadvantage. In the old days, football teams we satisfied with defensive defenders if they just prevented conceded goals. Today, the best teams need their defenders to build up attacks and distribute the play from behind. They must be comfortable on the ball, have attacking abilities and be ready to take bigger risks to support the team offensively. Something similar goes for the legal function.
Furthermore, legal function tends to be a bit conservative. The legal world has been prone to competition which has kept it artificially protected and stable. That is okay in many instances, but when working with commercial aspects, the legal ops team must be agile, curious to learn new things and willing to change. That is the way you optimize a business today. You test, iterate, fails, test a bit more. You change strategy, try out new things and adapt to new situations. You must be comfortable in a world that is increasingly dynamized, changing at a higher pace and in a constant state of reshaping. That is hard, and it requires a certain mindset.
The technological development might alter the skills legal ops teams need in the future even more. Digital technologies are evolving at a rapid speed, and the development has an exponential logic. We may not be able to predict what the future is going to look like, but there is a good chance that artificial intelligence has reshaped our lives significantly in 20 years. What that means for the legal function can be hard to say. But it is rather easy to predict that those who are able to adapt quickly will thrive better.
The truth is that the legal is exposed to a more social Darwinistic logic where adaptability is key to survival.
Other traits worth mentioning is data literacy as well as communication and collaborations skills. You are less and less likely to be allowed to base your decisions on gut feelings. You must have data to support your claims, and you must be able to show your results in a digestible, quantitative manner. The KPI's of a legal ops function is a bit different from traditional legal counsels, and it will be more performance-driven, so you must be able to measure your impact to some degree.
So what about communications and collaboration skills? With the legal ops movement, legal is no longer a secluded silo. The businesses will depend on legal ops being able to move seamlessly through different eco-systems. They need people who can work in interim teams and utilize their expertise in a more collaborative environment. Legal ops people must be able to adapt and co-operate on projects with ease and empathy. They will also benefit from showing good networking skills and simply being a friendly person.
Going from a traditional legal counsel to a legal ops professional is challenging and demanding. You need to adopt new skills and adapt to an often changing environment where you are measured on other metrics. But it will also be a more fun job with more strategic exercises where you can have a bigger impact on the success of the business.
Let's conclude where we started - with reference to Da Vinci: "Learning never exhausts the mind."