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Legal operations: how to make a success of strategic planning

Legal operations is so important, we’re writing an eBook on how to make it work for your company right now, with experts exploring CLOC's 12 legal ops competencies.

Mick Sheehy, Founder of CLOC Australia, former GC of Telstra and award-winning legal innovator, shares his insights on strategic planning in this preview post. For early bird access to the full eBook before its launch in September, get in touch. Don’t forget to follow us for the latest insights.

The context that gave rise to legal operations is still worth remembering. I imagine many of us remember where we were when we saw the employees of Lehman Brothers start to spill out onto the street with their belongings in cardboard boxes. The ‘more with less’ environment that followed for in-house lawyers perhaps didn’t arrive in such a single, iconic moment, but before long it was a fact of life that we all had to reckon with.

After a few years with tighter budgets, hoping that things would go ‘back to normal’, the realisation that they never would made us focus on internal productivity and innovation in a way we hadn’t been forced to do before. As the GC at Telstra leading innovation a key response was putting in place a programmatic workstream specifically to tackle productivity and innovation. Hiring a legal operations senior executive was also a critical instrument of change.

In the first year of our innovation workshops, we eliminated 40,000 hours of low-value, non-strategic work.

The strategic framework

Having a time horizon that stretches beyond the next annual budget approval wasn’t always a widespread attitude amongst in-house lawyers, but if lawyers are really to plan strategically, and add value to the business, then the edge of our ambition shouldn’t be managing to a simple deadline.

With that in mind, we set out a framework for strategic planning to overcome short-term thinking. It starts with two questions:

1. What is the strategy of the company, and how well do we need to manage and align to it?

For the most part, in-house lawyers do this well. Where lawyers have perhaps fallen down is the second question:

2. What is the strategy of the legal department?

This breaks down into three pillars:

How will I deliver more with less?

This means increasing productivity through innovation to deliver today’s service more effectively and efficiently tomorrow.

Where is the company going, and what kind of legal needs will it have in the future?

This is particularly important for a technology company like Telstra, because the technology it uses, develops or sells will evolve, and the law will evolve too to keep pace.

What new value could the in-house department be delivering tomorrow that it isn’t today?

For many legal departments, this is the hardest question to answer - but it’s also one of the most important. Are we empowered and incentivised to find areas of value that could be added to the company in the future? The resultant drive to improve processes might mean legal straying into territory traditionally reserved for other teams - such as sales or procurement - which means a collaborative, strategic approach is key.

Results your CEO can’t ignore

Our approach was to set up the Telstra legal innovation forum - a series of workshops focused on problem-solving and design thinking. These problems might be related to technology, but often they were about achieving cultural change.

In the first year of these workshops, we eliminated 40,000 hours of low-value, non-strategic work.

This was a big win, and a validation for our approach; but as time passed, the forum evolved into a workstream that trained our lawyers in how to be more objective about what they did, and to develop an innovative mindset. This meant that when they went back into their areas of the business, they’d make operational changes to their processes, and create incremental change for the business as a whole.

This made it easier for us to convince our colleagues that we were one of the company’s leading and most innovative departments. The CEO and the board suddenly took notice of what we did and how we did it; they asked for presentations from us, and the rest of the organisation started to follow innovation in legal closely, looking for lessons they could learn from and take back to their teams.

For Mick's practical advice on how to make this happen in your company - regardless of its size - stay tuned for our eBook on legal operations. For early bird access, get in touch. Don’t forget to follow us for the latest insights.

Mick Sheehy

Mick Sheehy

Mick Sheehy is the Chair of Corporate Legal Operations Consortium Australia and recently finished a 14-year stint as GC at Telstra.

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