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Amy Brookbanks: Removing the pain from Legal Ops

January 10, 2024
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In-house solicitor to Global Legal Ops

Amy: I'm Head of Legal Operations at the Ocado Group. I'm a solicitor and 16 years ago, I went in-house and became a general commercial solicitor, but with a specialist interest in competition.

I arrived at Ocado 12 years ago. I kind of worked my way up to become the Co-Head of the Commercial team. It's been the most fascinating company to be a part of because of the journey that Ocado has been on. In 2018, the General Counsel could see that we were transforming rapidly from an online UK based grocery retailer to a global provider of technology. He realised that we needed to set up a legal operations team.

I had first hand experience of where the bottlenecks were and with this exciting journey ahead of where Ocado was going, I just thought it would be a huge challenge to step up into the role and see if I could help to make a difference. With hindsight, what the legal department really had to do was reinvent itself to keep pace with a business that has evolved so drastically over the last three or four years.

Removing the pain from in-house legal

Amy: I think the difficulty is that all legal departments, on the whole, are incredibly busy. It's very hard sometimes to step back and prioritise. But it's also very hard to step back and work out what needs to be done differently because you're so busy firefighting.

This role gave me the opportunity to actually step back and take a look at what could be done slightly differently. We knew what we wanted to do, but it is about having the time to do it and the resource to really think carefully about it and what the implications were.

What does legal operations mean to you, Amy?

1) Legal process is key

Amy: Depending on the size and nature of the legal team and your company, it can mean different things. Ultimately, what it means is enabling the legal team to operate effectively. The key areas that I cover in my role are, first of all, taking responsibility for process, to streamline the business's ability to access legal and legal resources. But it's also putting processes in place to free up the lawyers so that they're working strategically and adding value to matters where they can really use their core skills.

2) Resourcing strategy

Amy: The second thing is overseeing resourcing strategy. By that, I mean making sure that you've got the right balance of internal resource versus external resource. Within your internal resource, you need to make sure that you've got the right professionals working on the right tasks: the more experienced people working on the more complex tasks, and the more junior people working on the more straightforward tasks. That sounds obvious, but in a busy team, very senior lawyers can get sucked into the things that perhaps someone more junior could take off their hands.

External resourcing is also important - making sure you've got the right law firms working for you on the right matters. That's another important part of the role - making sure that, whether using external or internal resource, you can deal with peak effectively.

3) Leveraging technology in legal ops

Amy: The third thing that has become key is leveraging technology. Where it's most useful for us is to standardise and automate process. You need your processes sorted out before you can start using technology to help you, which is why I put technology further down the list. It's to enable the business to self serve as well, and to ultimately free up the lawyers to concentrate on working where they can add most value.

4) Collecting and analysing data

I think then it's collecting and analysing data, which really helps to drive strategic decisions and helps you to tell the right story. When you're a busy lawyer or managing a busy legal team, having the data to back up what you're doing actually demonstrates trends. It also backs up the story that you need to tell your CFO or your finance team when you're looking for additional resource. Collecting and analysing data is also important to help with setting and monitoring metrics and KPIs.

5) Knowledge management

Amy: The fifth thing that I think is important for us, and actually we're just on the start of our journey here, is in knowledge management. Making sure the lawyers have somewhere to find resources so they don’t constantly reinvent the wheel. Having some way of managing your knowledge can really help to streamline you and make you more effective.

Another thing we do is oversee the budget process. I liaise with the finance team on that and track internal and external spend.

6) Lawyer welfare

Last but not least, it is really important that we take responsibility for looking out for lawyer welfare. Not only making sure that they have the right technology, the right tools, the right physical resources, but actually they're in the best place that they can be to perform.

I have a legal ops analyst who reports into me and she's a mental health first aider, it's fantastic. I'm very lucky to have her, but we like to keep an open door and make sure that people know that they can come and talk to the legal operations team about anything, including whether they've got stress and anxiety as a result of having too much work or whatever it may be causing it.

Electra: Wow. That was brilliant. I've never heard anyone actually say that lawyer welfare sits with legal ops, but it makes perfect sense. Legal ops usually comprises people that have been in law before, so they will have a very empathetic view and understanding of what it's like to be in such a high pressured role.

Legal function

Electra: What do you think the legal function should do versus what it shouldn't?

Amy: The key thing for a legal department is to really understand the business's objectives. What is the strategy that the business is trying to deliver? If we're not aligned with that, we're not going to add value. Lawyers need to understand that and work with business colleagues, so that business colleagues see them as someone who is trying to further their cause.

Of course, the other thing that legal needs to do is protect the business. They need to be technically excellent and look at risk and protect the business. That said, it's very important that their appetite to risk is aligned with the appetite that the business has. If there's a mismatch there, it could cause issues and a lack of trust between the legal team and the business.

The flip side is what legal shouldn't do. That is spend a lot of time working on matters that aren't strategic because that takes up an awful lot of resource and actually isn't adding any value. I think lawyers should not spend time doing repetitive, low-risk work.

The other thing a legal team shouldn't be is any kind of blocker. It needs to have a can-do attitude. If the business starts to think we will avoid legal, you immediately lose the ability to add value, to partner your business and take them forward. You want to create a culture where legal is part of the business. Then we can really start talking and adding.

Strategy and objectives

Electra. You just mentioned there, Amy, that lawyers shouldn't be doing anything that's not strategic. What does strategic mean?

Amy: Strategic means understanding what it is the board has set out that they want to achieve this year or over the next five years. You need to understand the direction that the business is going in and what they want to achieve long term, then look at what their objectives and priorities are for the next 12 months.

Then look at your objectives and see that your objectives are tying in with those business objectives. So when I say strategic, it's almost asking yourself the question: "am I helping the business to achieve what I know the board has set out it wants to do this year?" If the answer is yes, then fabulous. You know, that that piece of work is very, very worthwhile. If the answer is no, this really isn't a priority for the business. Then you, the lawyer, would need to question whether you should be doing it at all.

Secondly, consider how much time they should be putting into it, or if it's something that actually needs to be done. Could it be something that could be outsourced because there are more strategic things that our in-house lawyers need to be spending their time on?

In lots of organisations, legal might think of themselves not just as a strategic team, but one that needs to get stuff done. They increase their head count so that they've got someone who's doing NDA review. But when you speak to other people, they say, "actually, you should be outsourcing that stuff".

When you're looking at what should go external, you want to keep the strategic stuff and outsource the stuff that isn't strategic. So I draw up a quadrant. In the possibly high risk area, it could be something that's legally high risk but actually low strategy. Does our legal person in-house really need to spend time on it? Possibly not. So that's how I decide what needs to be outsourced.

Outsourcing legal

Electra: What about outsourcing really low value, high volume stuff? Do you think those should be outsourced or do you think you should hire someone to just do it?

Amy: Again, it depends. I'll talk about my quadrant. On the left-hand axis is highly technical, then high strategy on the bottom axis. So in the top right quadrant, you've got the highly strategic stuff that is also highly technical, and you need to put your best in-house people on that. If it's strategic, it's important to the business and it's something that we need to have firsthand oversight and knowledge of. We may need external advice as well.

Then you’ve got the top left quadrant, which is highly technical, but low in terms of strategy. That's where you might consider outsourcing because it’s not key, but if it's highly technical, you need an expert.

The bottom right quadrant is where it is highly strategic, but technically not that tricky. You want an in-house lawyer because it is strategic and partner with the business on it. But there, you could put your more junior lawyer.

The bottom left quadrant is low risk and low strategy, which you don't want your lawyers to be spending time on. I would always first of all, say, should we be doing it at all? Is it something that legal just stops doing? If so, is there some other area of the business that needs to do it? The second question is: is there a process that we could put in place to help the business self-serve on it? It's a bit of effort upfront, but it's certainly worth doing.

The third question I ask is: could this process be automated? If it's a repetitive task, remove the human effort - it pays absolute dividends using technology to take some of these tasks off the lawyers' hands. There are other things you can do, like FAQs and creating guidelines and templates.

That bottom left quadrant is absolutely key and very close to the heart of any legal operation’s function. It constantly needs reviewing and categories can move depending on the maturity of your business.

Self-serving safely

Electra: To what extent do you think the business can safely self-serve? It is quite common to see legal teams buy a tool, release it into the wild and then expect that to work. Which of course it doesn't. What's the way to set people up for success? What can you automate or not?

Amy: Before you automate something or before you ask the business to self serve, you need to have satisfied yourself that it's low enough risk in the first place, so that if the business person does happen to get it wrong, it won't have too much of an adverse impact on the business.

The next thing is training. You cannot expect one of your business colleagues to take something on that legal used to do, without thoroughly training them. It's explaining to them the benefit for them to be able to do it in the first place and train them face to face. You then reach a critical mass where you can start to produce videos and guidance online that people can access them. I cannot stress enough how important it is to train people.

Re-examine your training

Amy: The next thing I have found incredibly important is to listen to their feedback. Once you've launched a tool, you need to be empathetic to how it's being received.

I would categorise the feedback into four buckets:

  1. If a user doesn't understand something, I haven't made it clear enough. We need to take that on board and make sure we do make it clear in future.
  2. A user may have spotted a glitch in the system, so there's something that's not working properly. That's where it's really important to have an excellent relationship with your vendors so that you can go back and get them to fix it quickly.
  3. A user may have a really good point about a piece of functionality that isn’t working as you'd like it to, or it doesn't do. We'd go back to the vendor and say, could you put this on your roadmap? This will help your tech to be even better in the future.
  4. Finally, a user may say this tech doesn't do X, Y and Z. And you have to be really honest and say, yes, that's correct because it's not designed to do that. Being honest and open about the fact that that is outside the remit of this technology is the best thing, rather than saying we will get that fixed.

Any successful product needs iteration. You cannot put something out there and expect it to be the best it can be if you're not going to listen to feedback, because it boils down to the user and how they're experiencing it.

How to introduce new processes

Electra: How do we persuade the business to do extra work when asking people to self serve? There might also be a notion in lawyers’ heads that if they introduce a new process or friction with the business, they're not coming across as the collaborative partner that they used to be. What are your views on that?

Amy: It is a challenge, but you'd only be automating something if there is a bit of a bottleneck. So usually you can already sell the upside, as will get done quicker if we give you the right support and you can do it yourself. Set it on the right footing to start with because you've got ultimately the business's needs at heart. Holding their hands and taking their feedback also helps.

The other really important thing is not to alienate them and let them know that they can pick up the phone to legal. Once the business is used to the system and the process, they will crack on and those calls will become less and less.

Removing everything right up front might be a little bit of a step too far and different clients behave in different ways. You need to know your client to know how to handle them best. Emotional intelligence certainly isn't lost when you're automating things, because you still want to preserve that excellent relationship with your clients.

Again, it's, it's the design thinking approach. Empathise with your stakeholders, what frustrates them, how you can persuade them that this new process is a good thing for them. Start off with an MVP (minimum viable product) that doesn't take long. That's a quick win that you can get them on board with without totally changing the full process, and then iterating on that.

Automating processes

The first thing we did was automate NDAs, which was great for the business as well. The second thing we did was automate other templates that were very low risk and low value. The difference that made to the legal team was absolutely huge.

The third thing we did was automate matter intake by creating a legal front door. For any type of legal request, the person could answer some very short and simple questions. The system would then triage it and recognise which lawyer or group of lawyers that would need to be sent to. That lawyer would then have a dashboard that they can prioritise accordingly. For our business colleagues, that was just so much easier than trying to work out who to contact in legal and it was transformative for us.

The fourth thing we did was automate third party contract intake. When someone in the business has a third party contract, they answer a bundle of questions and the contract gets triaged to the right lawyer. The system also recognises when it falls below a certain value and risk threshold, and it will just send the user a set of guidelines and say, great news - this doesn't need to be re-reviewed by legal.

By automating NDAs in the first place, you're removing a headache from the whole business and legal. You're using that as a case study to say, look, we did this, it was great.

Measuring success in your legal team

Electra: There's one area that doesn't get enough attention, and that's how you measure success in the legal team. How do you go about setting KPIs and what do you look for?

Amy: That first question is a very poignant one. How do you measure success? If you want to show success, you want to be able to show that you've partnered the business to help it achieve its goals. And depending on your business's strategy, the KPIs are going to differ because there's no point having KPIs and metrics just for the sake of having them.

You can look at it in terms of how much work we're doing versus how much work we're no longer doing. One of the KPIs that I look at is how many hours we’ve saved the lawyers by automating or putting in self-service tools.

Another really powerful metric is looking at cost savings. Last year for our budget presentation, I looked at the cost of our internal team versus the cost of our external lawyers. We looked at the hourly rate, your average hourly rate of your external lawyers versus your average hourly rate of your internal team. And you can start to show what great value they add.

If you're wanting to recruit more in-house lawyers, you can easily show your case if you've got the data - that's why it's key to have the tech and measure the data. Cost-saving and time-saving is key, as well as looking at trends. If you can measure the volume of legal queries and show that actually it's increased by 50% from the previous year, that sets out your business case for getting more resource. If you can couple that with how many hours you're saving your lawyers, you've already built your business case.

Adding value

Electra: There's one area where lawyers think we can't measure our value and I've never really been able to solve this. Lawyers are also there to minimise risk. If it materialises, it has a huge cost. Is that something that's too complex to measure?

Amy: That is very difficult to measure and the challenge that all of us in legal ops face. If you're a business that has a lot of litigation, you can start to show trends in how quickly you can settle cases, or how many claims you've actually received. We've been very lucky in that, until we became a business to business company, we had about three claims in 20 years. We were able to use that as our evidence that legal was keeping the company safe from civil claims and investigations by authorities.

We've now moved into a very different phase because we're now a global B2B provider. We're going to start getting those sorts of claims. What I'd like to see over the years is that we're demonstrating that we can settle those claims in a more cost effective way. So it might be that you start to gather statistics on your external spend.

We use technology that analyses how law firms are resourcing our matters. We can start to see how many lawyers are working on a case and the partner to associate splits. This is new for us because we've only just started to get this type of legal work, but over time, that's the sort of metric I would quite like to start showing in terms of legal being more effective.

Setting up an effective legal function

Electra: Amy, how would someone who's listening to this podcast go about setting up an effective legal function from scratch?

Amy: The starting point has to be fairly simple, which is to list out what that legal department will be doing. What's your expectation and what is the business's expectations? Why are you setting up a legal team? What is the work?

List out all the work that you think your legal team will need to do, and then start plotting it on that quadrant. What's the core strategic stuff that we need to keep in house? Then you'll know how many and what type of lawyers you want, what type of skills you need, versus what sort of skills you will outsource.

What are you going to do if you've already got a legal team and you want to make it more effective? That’s when you have to stand back and look at what the lawyers are currently doing and what you can do to make their life easier. It's looking at what issues are specific to you and what you can do to address those. So talk to your lawyers. They're full of information and know what is and isn't working. They also know what they enjoy doing, what lights them up, what motivates them. Going back to welfare and mental health, you want your lawyers to be doing stuff that they really are interested in, because someone that's interested is also motivated and more efficient.

Spend time talking to them and then make a plan. Which pieces of work are going to be handled by who and how am I going to go about resources?

Electra: Brilliant. Going back to that outsourcing question (what should you outsource versus not), that's a really important factor to take into consideration. No lawyer has spent their lives studying law and doing their training contract to review NDAs every day, all day long.

Top tips on scaling your legal team

Electra: Amy, before we wrap up, if you had one top tip for legal teams that are looking to scale, what would it be and why?

Amy: My top tip is to really look inside your team, to work out exactly what it is you need to fix. You also need a slight crystal ball because you need to be able to predict what's coming down the line. That's an issue because there are so many solutions out there. So the real key is to work it out.

What does your team need, then how do you prioritise? And then go all out for it. Look at tech providers, attend loads of conferences, leverage and listen to what other people are doing. In the world of legal ops, we're all very keen to help each other. It's an incredibly friendly world and I've really benefited from the kind of people that have taken me through their journey. I would not underestimate the power of communicating with the community.

Electra: Can you recommend any of these communities for people looking to join them?

Amy: Absolutely. One of the communities that I've found incredibly helpful is The Alternative In-House Technology community. Whilst there's a big focus on technology, it's got a fantastic array of legal ops professionals that are members. We get together and we bounce things off each other. It really helps because we all suffer from the same challenges and it really is just a thoroughly lovely place to start.

Electra: Lovely. I really enjoyed that. Thank you so much.

Amy: It's been a pleasure, thank you Electra.

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