What is Legal Operations?
Legal Operations (Legal Ops) is a growing branch of the “ops” family that’s evolved from a function focusing solely on risk management, cost reduction, and service to a key business partner pushing the organization forward from within the legal department. For example:
- Modern Legal Ops teams manage all the traffic of tasks and communication relevant to the functions of the general counsel (GC) or Chief Legal Officer (CLO).
- Legal Ops teams think about creating and managing internal processes that both help the organization work more efficiently cross-functionally and that ensure legal professionals are able to focus more completely on their core competencies.
- Legal Ops teams work to ensure their organization leverages innovative technologies like AI safely, in strict accordance with internal policies and guidelines, but in a way that still maximizes their utility.
- Legal Ops teams work to increase internal process adoption and, in the process, better guarantee regulatory compliance, lower risk, and improve operational performance—both in the context of the legal department and in the organization writ large.
Though even this doesn’t quite capture the full scope of Legal Ops’ true mandate—or the challenges they must overcome day-to-day.
All ops is fundamentally more about people than processes, but this is even more true in Legal Ops. Unlike an area like Revenue Operations, which is cross-functional but generally confined within the sales, marketing, and customer success orgs, Legal Ops teams regularly interface with every part of an organization. Often, those interactions are urgent and sensitive, or at least timely. As a result, Legal Ops teams must simultaneously maintain a holistic view of their organization’s legal needs and create processes for triaging new requests and problems quickly. They must think strategically about higher-level business goals and work deftly to rein in costs, support the legal team, and manage risk.
Run effectively, Legal Ops can have a huge impact on companies of every size, from tiny startups to massive enterprises. But what separates effective Legal Ops teams from less effective ones? And how can your Legal Ops department begin to truly level up, such that it proves a valued partner to the business as a whole?
Here’s where to start.
1. Increase process adoption by improving process experiences and meeting employees where they are
The first goal of every modern Legal Ops team should be to focus on finding a way to get more people to follow their processes.
In Legal Ops, the processes you create are the means by which you work to ensure your organization remains compliant. They’re how you work confidently and systematically to lower risk. They’re how you scale efforts to leverage innovative technology, increase efficiency, and provide more value to the business.
Compliance and efficiency depend entirely on high process adoption. The problem is, for most Legal Ops teams, process adoption is endemically low. Often, employees simply ignore legal processes altogether—a phenomenon which lowers efficiency and increases risk.
So, how can you begin to increase process adoption? To start, you have to create process experiences that are both easy to follow and that provide real value to requesters. High adoption hinges on great internal process experience.
What does “good” look like?
- The existence of processes—such as those facilitating intake, contract review, or marketing approvals—that wrap around your existing policies and systems, so that requesters can do things like submit NDA requests to Legal from whatever systems they typically work in… without ever needing to undergo change management
- The use of processes that proactively resolve employees’ requests through automations that preemptively reach out to users with suggested next actions, provide instant resolution for simple requests, and that launch cross-platform orchestration sequences for complex requests
- Guaranteed visibility for employees and Legal Ops teams into the status of requests
- 100% adoption rate of key internal legal processes
- 100% internal “client” satisfaction
- Unified workflow for intake of all legal requests, regardless of intake channel
What do you need to achieve that?
- Workflow automation tools that can be personalized, that connect with existing tools, and that are context-aware. (This is so you can create things like intake experiences that meet employees where they are, that are seamless, and that can be proactive).
- Automation capabilities that allow you to not only solve employees’ problems but reinforce your key internal policies.
- A single source of truth where all internal requests can be monitored by status and triaged by Legal on the backend. This is for reporting but also general transparency.
- Finally, you absolutely need tools that come with a no-code interface, such that Legal Ops can be the ones to manage process improvement efforts ongoing.
Dive deeper: There’s no way around it. To level up as a Legal Ops team—or to otherwise begin to increase efficiency, lower risk, or guarantee compliance—you have to increase adoption of your internal processes. But to do that, you have to make the experience of following your processes easy, enjoyable, and actively valuable. Your processes are how you’ll increase the business value YOU provide at scale.
What do processes that are easy to follow, enjoyable, actively valuable look like? They are intelligent, personalized, and proactive. They deliver resolution quickly. And they’re customizable by folks who don’t necessarily know how to code. (This is important for iterating on your processes and implementing feedback and learnings quickly.)
Once your processes are so truly intelligent, personalized, proactive, easy to follow, and actively enjoyable, you’ll see they serve not only to increase process adoption, but to increase your own capacity and performance.
But you can’t do this on your own. Investing in the right technology partner is key. Processes infused with Tonkean’s LegalGPT, for example—which fully automates the triaging of all incoming legal requests, classifies the appropriate legal discipline and category of every request, identifies the level of urgency, potential impact, and relative risk of every request, and, to help avoid costly mistakes, auto-escalates requests to a human if needed—help Legal Ops teams get more done with less. They also improve the performance of your organization more broadly. Not all legal tech tools do this, however, so it pays to be judicious when shopping around.
Note: if you’re a bit hesitant about embracing AI or automation technology, feel free to skip ahead to step #3, where we address how to go about implementing innovative technology within Legal safely, and in a way that doesn’t result in your team or organization getting left behind.
2. Prove the business value of Legal Ops every day
Legal Ops teams already provide lots of very real value to the organizations they support. It’s no longer the case that Legal Ops supports only the legal department. Legal Ops teams are connected to every department in an organization. If the sales team needs something signed, or the marketing team has a question about language they should use, or the C-suite is closing an acquisition, or HR is dealing with a serious issue, the legal team gets a call—which means Legal Ops gets a call.
But Legal Ops should not rest on their laurels. To create and more prominently broadcast their business value, for example, smart Legal Ops teams proactively interface with all those departments to anticipate their needs and preemptively create solutions. Legal Ops can (and should) build the ability to operate so proactively into their day-to-day processes, such that they can provide this kind of value systematically and at scale.
But how can you begin to prove, quantify, and market that increased value? This is a challenge in Legal Ops currently because most Legal Ops departments lack a single source of truth for reporting. Intake channels don’t funnel into a centralized reporting system. Requests—even crucial ones related to strategy, ESG compliance and other business-critical issues—come in from a sporadic array of channels: forms, phone calls, emails, chat messages, etc. Services are performed manually and ad-hoc. This makes them difficult to track, and obscures the work Legal Ops is doing to outsiders. Poor visibility into how Legal Ops works, in turn, lowers appreciation for Legal Ops as a function.
Legal Ops teams want and need to prove their value quantifiably. To start, you need tools that centralize and make easily consumable the data you collect—but that, more basically, allow you to operate more systematically and in a manner that’s also generally easier to track from the jump.
What does “good” look like?
- Department-wide use of technology that allows Legal Ops to create internal workflows that automate the task of intaking, triaging, and coordinating responses to unstructured inbound requests—but that also funnel those requests to one place on the backend. (Such a platform will allow you to funnel all inbound requests into one centralized dashboard where both Legal Ops and all other employees inside your organization can track the status of what Legal Ops is working on.)
- Use of automations that handle 100% of the high-volume, repetitive tasks involved in legal intake, triage, and coordination—such as matter intake, document management, vendor onboarding, conflict waiver processing, contract review, and more. This will help you reclaim your own time as well as that of your in-house attorneys, which they’ll appreciate, and interpret as a valuable service only Legal Ops can provide.
- Importantly, however, “good” here also looks like being able to track all this, preferably in a widely accessible dashboard or portal that broadcasts not only the status of requests, but how much time the Legal Ops department has saved the organization through its automations, the number of requests its processed, how much money its improved processes has saved, how many fewer errors are being made, and how quick are its turnaround times. So: funnel intake up front; organize the correlated data on the other side.
- Legal team is energized, fulfilled at work
- Clear visibility into risk factors
- High-risk matters are given priority and adequate resources
- High internal client satisfaction
What do you need to achieve that?
- At base you need a tool that gathers requests from all the sources of intake across the organization, including forms, emails, chat, or other systems, automatically enriches the information using available data sources—such as Workday—and organizes it all in a portal view.
Dive deeper: This is what we’ve designed Tonkean to do. Tonkean allows you and your team to track every request that comes in from across the organization. It automatically categorizes the request and tracks its current status. It corrals all pertinent data related to each request in a single, unified dashboard. It quantifies and reports on mission-critical metrics like ROI to demonstrate how Legal Ops is everyday helping the organization achieve its broader goals. Everyone internally has access to this dashboard, but only Legal Ops can manage it.
At any rate, proving the value that Legal Ops brings to the business is a matter both of improving visibility into the work that Legal Ops is doing and of improving Legal Ops’ capacity to do more good work. The latter task requires a variety of interventions—the most important of which we’ll touch on next—but the former is all about centralizing and making accessible your data. Make sure that whatever platforms you invest in come with reporting functions that prove so capable.
3. Leverage innovative technologies like AI safely—with guardrails—in a way that both lowers risk and increases capacity
Innovative technologies—such as AI-powered business automation platforms—are the best available means by which Legal Ops can begin to do everything discussed so far: increase process adoption; improve their own performance; broadcast their value and importance to the business; etc.
This is for their ability to help Legal Ops teams use their existing tools more harmoniously—without mandating change management—better centralize their data, and more systematically automate cross-functional processes end-to-end. Also: their ability to help Legal Ops reduce business risks, accelerate time-to-resolution for internal requests, and drastically reduce matter cycles.
But that doesn’t mean you should go out and invest in whatever appears to be the shiniest new AI or automation tool willy-nilly. In Legal, in particular, using new technologies safely—in a manner that does not in any way compromise sensitive data or open your organization up to risk, for example—goes hand-in-hand with using those same tools effectively.
The key is putting structure around the firepower inherent to these tools, such that both you and the employees you serve can only use them within the confines of your internal policies and systems. The kind of AI-powered platform you’ll want to invest in, as a Legal Ops team, should come with this structure and governance capacity built-in.
What does “good” look like?
- Use of AI-powered tools that are limited to specific, predefined data sets and whose functionalities can be parsed and leveraged only at specific times in automated workflows.
- Such tools effectively corral the capabilities of generative AI into pre-packaged structures and only extend to employees what feature-sets they need when they need them.
- Visibility enables more optimal capacity planning, work allocation, and prioritization
- Legal can manage automation workflows
- Consistent compliance with regulations
What do you need to achieve that?
- Not a chatbot. What you really need here are automation platforms that incorporate the functionality of large language models at the process level, which is important for making the most out of innovative tech at scale, but which also allow you to set the limitations and conditions that your use of AI will be governed by on your own.
- This will be a platform that resolves employee requests only according to your own predefined processes and rules. It should wrap around whatever systems and policies your organization already relies upon, and it should only leverage whatever data sets you give it access to.
Dive Deeper: Many people and organizations are skeptical of recent advancements in AI. Much of this skepticism is rooted in a wariness of tools like ChatGPT, which readily lie and hallucinate and don’t come with many guardrails.
Leveraging AI-powered process automation to improve the experience of interacting with your internal processes is much different, but it still pays to be strategic and careful about how you’re leveraging this technology.
For one thing, leveraging AI at the process level is simply what making the most out of these powerful new tools requires. Large language models represent a paradigm shift in how people interact with and utilize technology. Tools like search engines and common SaaS applications perform, in general, one primary function: accessing information. Which means the user is the one researching or organizing the information. AI allows end users to leap frog from research to resolution, which is far more useful—and comes with massive potential.
But realizing that potential inside Legal Ops depends upon your ability to harness AI in a way that’s structured, accessible, and repeatable at scale. This is also what leveraging AI safely requires.
AI is very powerful. For Legal Ops, AI-powered process automation is perhaps the most powerful tool for improving process experiences that we’ve ever seen. But it’s also just that: a tool. You determine how you use it—and how you don’t. Any technology vendor you partner with should understand that essential dynamic.
4. Continue to control costs
At a high level, controlling costs remains a major task for Legal Ops, but it encompasses so much more than just balancing the ledger of money in, money out. And it’s a big enough of an imperative for Legal Ops that it’s worth calling out individually here. Yes, we believe increasing process adoption is the most important thing Legal Ops teams should be focusing on now and the best way to prove its value over time, and yes, to do that, we believe Legal Ops must be thinking seriously about how to leverage innovative technology structurally and safely—but saving your organization money is also, of course, very, very important.
What does “good” look like?
- Optimal balance of costs between inside work and external work; 100% of automatable tasks given a process
What do you need to achieve that?
- An automated process for collecting itemized invoices from outside counsel; processes facilitating ongoing evaluation of legal matters that can be handled internally versus externally; a system for conducting cost/benefit analysis of hiring more legal personnel versus paying outside counsel
- A regular, iterative system for identifying additional automatable tasks
Dive deeper: The billable hour is a hallmark of the legal field, and for good reason. It’s simple to track billable hours for both the client and attorney, and therefore it’s easy to calculate costs. The irony of billable hours, though, is that it disincentivizes efficiency for outside counsel and therefore runs counter to organizational efficiency. With today’s Legal Ops, reducing costs is about a lot more than that, though. Because you’re a business partner of the entire company, you’re looking at making everyone and every process related to legal tasks more efficient whenever and wherever possible. Generally, greater efficiency results in cost reductions. One specific example of this is with the legal intake, triage, and coordination process. How legal takes incoming requests from the business can impact how effectively every legal request is handled and the overall experience other business units have with legal. When you can suss out some task that’s taking someone time, toil, and/or frustration and then automate it, the net effect not only improves your balance sheet, but makes the company that much stronger. (This process, if you’re just starting out, can inform your initial business process automation efforts.)
Glossary of terms
- Legal Ops - all the business activities, processes, and people that enable an organization’s legal department to focus on core competencies
- Automation - the creation and application of technologies that minimize manual human labor or intervention
- GC - General counsel
- CLO - Chief legal officer
- Technology roadmap - a document that defines how technology will support an organization's strategic initiatives over a given period of time
- Workflow automation software - an application that minimizes manual human labor or intervention in the course of designing and executing workflow processes
- Legal intake - the process of onboarding contacts when they become clients
- Request turnaround time - the amount of time it takes to triage and respond to incoming requests from clients or business units within an organization
- Contract processes - the steps required to complete a signed contract
- Business intelligence - knowledge and insights about factors pertaining to your organization’s business, generated from data and analytics