Taking Legal Operations Up a Level
UpLevel Ops is a Legal Operations consultancy company. Co-founded by Stephanie Corey and Jon Hoak a year and a half ago in response to a surge of interest in Legal Operations, UpLevel Ops provides Legal Operations support, strategic planning, and executive coaching.
Corey says, “Legal departments [and law firms] are feeling more and more budget pressure, and they need to figure out how to make the best use of their teams, push work down the lowest levels, and implement technology.” UpLevel Ops can guide leadership through that process – or even act as an “extra set of hands” to set up plans for streamlining work.
Up until recently, technology was a hard sell to attorneys, Corey says. “But now, it’s just a matter of course. They see that they can’t and shouldn’t review and hand-edit every single NDA that flows through the company [for example],” she says. “The environment is different, and attorneys are more readily accepting change. They know they should automate wherever they can.”
Not only are attorneys accepting that technology can save them time, they’re also eager to act as beta-testers for new programs and applications. That statement may surprise readers who have come to think of legal professionals as proponents of established tradition. Corey says the tipping point for this transformation was money. “CFOs started to push on law departments, treating them like any other business. They had to get more efficient – and you gain efficiencies through process improvement and technology.”
She also points out that technology is easier to execute now. “For the most part, it isn’t a multi-year, multi-million-dollar implementation anymore. You can be up and running with many technologies in four months or so for a lot less money.”
Another unforeseen side effect of legal departments embracing technology has been their willingness to bend. “Companies are becoming more flexible in terms of suiting their processes to new technologies instead of the reverse,” Corey says. “Now they say, ‘We can change our process to meet that technology.’”
Complementary skill sets
Corey has spent her whole career in-house. She met Hoak when she worked in Legal Operations “before Legal Operations was ever really a thing” at Hewlett-Packard. They went on to work together at Flex; Corey acted as the Chief of Staff and Legal Operations Senior Director and Hoak as the GC. “Neither of us can remember who came up with the idea [for UpLevel Ops] first.” The seed of the idea grew from the success of the first Corporate Legal Operations Institute (CLOC) conference. “We couldn’t believe 500 people had showed up, and there was a lot of interest.”
Corey’s and Hoak’s skills “complement each other phenomenally well,” she says. “Jon’s skill set is around how a department should be structured, how to best use attorneys and push work down, managing the board of directors, supporting the business in the best way you can, and ethics and compliance.” Corey’s skills revolve around technology, process improvement, and finances.
“The GC [formerly Hoak’s role] should be about big picture strategic vision, and the Chief of Staff [formerly Corey’s role] is the how. We’re still operating in that same capacity and bringing that skill set to clients,” she says.
Part of UpLevel Ops’ service package is that clients receive their “advice and counsel.” Corey says that many of their clients use its founders as mentors. “A lot of the Legal Operations teams we’re working with are brand new – but I’ve been doing Ops for 20 years,” she says. “I can advise a new team on approaching the CIO to get budgets for new projects [for example].”
UpLevel Ops also has a formal coach, Fran Evans, on its team. She is called upon when personnel changes necessitate a training investment. “You can’t just promote somebody and expect them to get to that next level by themselves,” Corey says. Evans “really knows how to pull the best out of people and get them operating at their highest level.”
Complex projects, impressive results
UpLevel Ops’ client roster is varied. “When we first got started, we thought only mid-sized legal departments would be interested – but that turned out not to be the case,” Corey says. For example, they have a “solo flyer” client, a GC who “knew she wouldn’t be able to hire a lot of heads and wanted to streamline everything so she could get low value work done quickly and focus on strategic work.”
They also have very large clients, such as the University of California, which consists of 10 universities and five hospitals. “The breadth of the legal issues they face is staggering. They have the majority of patents on genetically-modified strawberries, for example. Think of all the research they do in their hospitals and universities, all the way to Title IX issues, violence or staff issues on campus, etc. They are doing everything.”
Partnering with Ken Callander of Value Strategies, who initially developed the relationship with UC, UpLevel Ops took a modular approach to manage this significant project. Callander focused on outside counsel engagement, strategy and pricing, Hoak concentrated on department structure and strategy, and Corey focused on process and technology. She says of the UC project: “Of all my work, I’m most proud of that.”
The size variance in UpLevel Ops’ clients speaks to the idea that streamlining work is beneficial regardless of where a legal department might be in terms of implementing operations. “The value of taking a look at and streamlining processes is never going to go away,” Corey says, emphasizing that process improvement is constant.
Not just for legal departments
Although the majority of UpLevel Ops’ clients are corporate legal departments, Corey says there are ways in which law firms can benefit from having a deeper understanding of Legal Operations. “Law firms do a lot of the same things that legal departments do,” she says, “but it looks different.”
Corey says that working with UpLevel Ops could help firms to better partner with clients. For example, if a corporate counsel client were struggling with operations, a law firm could bring in UpLevel Ops as a service they provide. She says doing so could “make a law firm look really progressive.”
As those in the legal profession become increasingly tolerant of change and understand the positive effects of adopting technology and examining and adjusting processes, Legal Operations will only continue to play a key role in shaping how a corporate legal department – or a law firm – works.
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