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'Legal operations' for aspiring solicitors

'Legal operations' for aspiring solicitors

Harriet Herbert

13/11/2020

The delivery of legal services is changing

The law firm today is where legal, technological and business expertise intersects. As modernisation in business and technology has seen a pivot towards data-driven efficiency, a similar shift within the legal sphere looms. The tradition of ‘gut instinct’ decision-making within law means that the emergence of a results-based approach has dramatically transformative potential.

The move towards data takes root in increasing consumer demand for higher-value services at lower costs. For law firms, technology provides a way to collect, analyse and leverage data to improve service delivery. One such use is to predict the length and complexity of cases; providing an accurate cost estimation to help clients make informed financial decisions. The focus on maximising value is reflected in the surging popularity of fixed-fee billing, which aligns with the commercial interests of clients as well as firms themselves.

These changes provide a background against which legal operations has gained prominence

Like other buzzwords (‘private equity’, ‘capital markets’ or ‘fintech’), ‘legal operations’ is something that many have heard of, but not necessarily understood. The Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) offers the most comprehensive explanation – the CLOC ‘Core 12’ functional competencies to achieve operational excellence. 

Legal operations frames law as a business, to drive efficiency and lower costs. Central to this is the firm’s overarching strategy. Beneath which, CLOC describes legal operations as “a set of business processes, activities, and professionals who enable legal departments to serve their clients more effectively by applying business and technical practices to the delivery of legal services”.

An illustrative example of how this takes shape is through optimising workflows. Rather than forcing solicitors to navigate numerous desktop applications to work on a single case – the aim of an in-house legal operations team may be to integrate the relevant tools into a single program for ease of use. Streamlining arduous manual processes helps lawyers to practice law and, as a result, helps firms offer a higher value service to clients. 

The 2020 Legal Operations Maturity Benchmarking report by the Association of Corporate Counsel found that departments that employ at least one legal operations professional are significantly more advanced (‘mature’) than those without. Therefore, for law firms, particularly incumbents, to remain competitive, they must focus on their strategic position and invest resources to improve processes and promote efficiency. 

So, what effect is legal operations having and how should aspiring solicitors prepare?

There is a growing client expectation that solicitors, particularly in the corporate sphere, are equipped with an understanding of business basics, technology and project management. The ‘Core 12’ interlocking competencies outline non-legal skills vital to the lawyer of the future. Twelve may seem like a lot to learn, and it is, especially in tandem with the seemingly endless reading that a law degree entails. However, a deep understanding of one or two of these areas will give candidates a great advantage over applicants with no such awareness.  

Secondly, aspiring solicitors should cultivate an understanding of the changing internal structure of the law firm in 2020 and beyond. A key aspect of this is to understand how law firms function as businesses – adapting to consumer demands and challenges from competitors (eg, BigLaw versus The Big Four). Commercial awareness of this nature will lend itself to application questions, such as, ‘How do law firms maintain a competitive advantage?’ or ‘How do law firms make a profit?’.  

Fundamentally, the growth of legal operations enables lawyers to focus on high-value, legal work. As professionals are relieved from repetitive administrative tasks, having a refined interpersonal skillset will become ever more important – if it is not the most important already. This may seem obvious, but a machine can (hopefully) not replace the creative, client-facing, and collaborative dimension of being a lawyer.