Last week I had the opportunity to meet legal operators from more than eighty companies. Among other topics, I asked each how they became involved in legal operations and have emerged as leaders in the space. Strikingly, many had diverse career paths and did not start working in law, which made my day because I generally believe that the legal caste system holds us back.
I noticed a few trends in what I heard. Generally, I can group responses by the category of the speaker.
Former Senior Legal Professionals Who Have Been In Their Organizations A Long Time
Several legal operators had been corporate, transactional, or litigation attorneys in their organizations for a decade or more. They had volunteered or accepted the challenge to lead a legal department because they wanted to lead their department into the future. They were asked or volunteered because they held a deep understanding of the culture, history, and needs of their company, department, and general counsel. Many saw it as an opportunity to pivot careers and leverage their experiences for a great impact.
Recent Law Graduates And Junior Lawyers
Increasingly, recent law graduates and junior attorneys have a more expensive and evolved perspective on practicing law. Many are driven to make their law practice align with their life aspirations and interest in creating an impact. Many who grew up with technology get very surprised when they discover a somewhat still largely analog legal practice. Their enthusiasm and willingness to learn on the job are what gets them ahead. It’s how they get the opportunity to lead legal departments. For them, there is an opportunity to enter a new career early with relatively little competition and make a name for themselves.
Former Financial Professionals
Running a legal department is to some extent a numbers game. It often requires communicating with other executives and the board about how any given attorney contributes to the profit and loss of the company. While law schools increasingly prepare law students for this, for many practicing lawyers, accounting and financial statements are still foreign languages. While the rest of the business world speaks numbers, we often only speak legal. Thus, it is not surprising that more and more legal operations professionals have previous experience in finance departments. They are helping lawyers integrate better with the rest of the business.
Former Technology Professionals
It is apparent that many legal departments could benefit from new processes and technologies to gain efficiencies and perform how a modern business should. While anyone can research, test-drive, and implement new technology, it is often helpful to have a general familiarity, experience, and proficiency with office productivity applications. Thus, some general counsel staff up their legal operations functions with experienced technologists.
Some legal operations professionals are veterans. After multiple tours of duties, they have been recruited to head well-known legal departments. Their leadership skills, ability to get stuff done, and instinct to collaborate are the main reasons why general counsel like to recruit veterans to operationalize their legal departments. After all, doing mission-critical tasks is what legal departments and armies have in common.
Seeing so much enthusiasm and diversity in legal operations has made me optimistic for the future. We still have a long way to go, but after speaking with so many legal operations professionals, I’m very hopeful about the direction in which the legal field is headed. With so much enthusiasm from legal professionals of so many different backgrounds, and with an in-flow of professionals from other fields, we legal professionals will have an unprecedented opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and become more integrated with the rest of the business world.
Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. Olga founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. Olga also co-founded SunLaw, an organization dedicated to preparing women in-house attorneys to become general counsels and legal leaders, and WISE to help female law firm partners become rainmakers. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can email Olga at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @olgavmack.
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