In-house legal departments say they want a revolution but what are they overthrowing and what are they replacing it with?

The forces of change have been gaining momentum. By one measure they have reached a crescendo. For the second year in a row, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) annual conference was the largest (in-house) legal operations event in history. Approximate attendee numbers at the annual conference were 500 in 2016, 1,000 in 2017 and (almost) 2,000 in 2018.

Where does the work culture of an in-house legal department come from?

The lawyers who populate corporate in-house legal teams typically come from law firms. The starting-point culture of an in-house legal team is the culture of the law firms that their lawyers have come from. An in-house legal team can therefore be perceived as a transplanted law firm sitting inside the four walls of a corporation.

The rapid growth of the CLOC organisation is part of an awakening that it doesn’t have to be this way. The revolution is about a cultural overthrow.

The overthrow is the easy part of the revolution. If an internal legal department throws out elements of law firm culture, then what are they going to replace it with? That’s the more interesting question.

In her closing remarks from the 2018 CLOC conference, Mary O’Carroll (Head of Legal Operations at Google) said:

When I first got to Google, we didn’t have a good way of tracking our outside counsel spending, so we invested in building an outside counsel dashboard. This won us awards and a lot of attention. It helped us win “Most Innovative Dept of the Year”… that’s right… “Most Innovative.” In what other world does a dashboard that reports your budgets vs actuals somehow “innovative”?! Do you think a marketing department has ever won an award for having a means to track the spending on its marketing campaigns? The reason it was so “innovative” is because no one else was doing it. I didn’t want to have to use our internal resources, but no one else was offering it. And when I asked software companies, they told me no one else was interested. So what do I do? Do I wait? I asked everyone else what they were doing… and the answer was nothing. So we went first.

Now, we are at the stage when we finally feel like we have good answers to some of the most basic challenges. And so suddenly we have examples of well-run teams, real best practices… it’s no longer the great unknown. Now, everyone has a dashboard. We’ve taken all these practices and ideas and packaged them together into a neat little bundle we now call “Legal operations.” What used to be bold and innovative is now business as usual. And you have this new phase of legal ops maturity, when many of these practices – due in great part to CLOC – are now established and widely followed. In fact, it’s almost irresponsible not to have a legal ops function now. And believe me… no one loves best practices more than me, but this is a time in our movement when we need to start looking beyond best practices. I don’t want to see us end up sitting around, patting each other on the back and thinking: We’ve benchmarked with each other and we are all doing this the same way, so we must be doing things right. That’s not the spirit that will keep this movement making progress. That will make us static and complacent.

In-house legal is approaching a cultural crossroads: Are we going to see a new ‘uniform’ culture of legal operations where Legal Operations from different organisations align with each other? Alternatively, will legal departments align more closely with the culture of the organisations they serve? How much of ‘traditional’ law firm culture will continue to form part of in-house legal operations as the revolution rolls on?

© 2018 Legal Practice Intelligence