legal operations
Legal07 June, 2021

Legal Operations is modernising the traditional legal sector

In conversation with Cindy de la Fuente and Douwe Groenevelt

Legal Operations is a relatively new specialism within the legal sector. Cindy de la Fuente, Legal Excellence Manager with AkzoNobel, and Douwe Groenevelt, Deputy General Counsel at ASML, say the sector is relatively new in terms of optimising work processes. Why is this specialist field gaining interest, and what is the benefit of appointing a Legal Operations Manager? An interview with Cindy and Douwe about the added value of Legal Operations.

Cindy de la Fuente joined AkzoNobel as Legal Excellence Manager in 2019. AkzoNobel was one of the first companies in the Netherlands to position this role at a strategic level. Douwe Groenevelt joined ASML in 2014, and was appointed as Deputy General Counsel in 2019. His responsibilities include managing the Legal Operations strategy of the legal department.

Why Legal Operations is necessary

According to Douwe, the legal sector is lagging behind other departments when it comes to optimising work processes: “Areas such as IT, HR and Finance started appointing operations managers some time ago.” Cindy explains: “It is only since the financial crisis that really stringent demands have been placed on the budgets of legal departments, putting greater emphasis on how the work gets done. It became increasingly important for the right people to do the right things. This meant a growing requirement for legal departments to optimise, and the need for Legal Operations was born.”

Legal Operations is a service that Cindy, herself, was looking for around ten years ago: “In 2012, I was working as an interim legal counsel. I was keen to focus on the substance of the tasks at hand, so I wanted to find an organisation to structure and optimise my work processes. This service didn’t exist back then, so I decided to do the job myself.”

“Legal work is increasingly being broken down into different elements, with more critical consideration given to what work needs to be done by a legal adviser or lawyer.” - Douwe Groenevelt, Deputy General Counsel with ASML

The added value of Legal Operations

The exact definition of Legal Operations depends on who you ask, according to Cindy. “It’s a management role in the broad sense; you do everything apart from the actual legal substance. You ensure that processes are optimised. The focus soon shifts to technology, but my feeling is that’s the end point. You start with your people, and then you look at the technological solutions. For Douwe, technology is a supporting tool: “Don't look at technology as an immediate answer to problems, or as a way of optimising work processes. You have to start by setting out what you want to achieve. Next, you look at whether the work can be optimised through different process agreements with the ‘business’ (the internal client). Finally, you assess whether technology can support your needs. And it is only when you can’t get the technological support you need with existing (standard) software within the organisation that you should look outside.”

“Automating activities that really aren’t necessary is a waste of time and money.” - Cindy de la Fuente, Legal Excellence Manager with AkzoNobel

A process of falling down and getting back up again

Douwe says that optimising the work processes of a legal department always involves some setbacks: “It’s a transformative process, and that involves falling down and getting back up again. The key thing is to manage expectations. Things don’t always go smoothly, and you have to be prepared for that.” That is exactly what Cindy wants to pass on to her colleagues: “Lawyers want to avoid making mistakes, which is understandable in a legal environment, but that can hamper innovation. To modernise, you preferably want to test a product or service at the earliest possible stage, and not spend too much effort refining it. Inherent to this ‘agile’ way of working is that a product or service sometimes doesn’t make it to the finish line. That shouldn’t be seen as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn.”

“Change isn't easy, and you are bound to make mistakes along the way. Teach yourself and your colleagues that it doesn’t matter if things go wrong.” - Cindy de la Fuente, Legal Excellence Manager with AkzoNobel

Convince people to work differently

If you truly want to give changes in the legal department a chance, you need to appoint a dedicated individual, thinks Douwe. “If you give someone the job of Legal Operations Manager, but that person continues to work on legal cases, the legal cases will ultimately always take precedence. So I would take a different approach. First consider your organisation’s needs; what do you want to achieve? Rather than appointing a permanent member of staff, you could start by hiring someone on a project basis. That will allow you to lay a solid foundation, and from there, look at how you can support the processes. Getting senior management, from within and from outside the legal department, on board is a key element for success, and so it is hugely important to place responsibility for Legal Operations at the highest level of the legal department, with someone with the right skills and level of seniority. To gain support, especially from those who are naturally more resistant to change, you  need the sufficient authority. And to embed Legal Operations as widely as possible, you can appoint ‘ambassadors’. These could be lawyers in sub-departments or different regions, who you make responsible for driving a specific project.”

“Make sure that the responsibility for Legal Operations rests with someone within the legal team who reports directly to the General Counsel. You need to have authority to successfully implement a transformation process.”
Douwe Groenevelt, Deputy General Counsel with ASML

Cindy maintains that you do not need a legal background to make Legal Operations a success: “But equally, you do need to know how the legal sector works. My team is not made up of lawyers. I see the added value in diversity. I don’t need my legal knowledge for my role, but that fact I have practised as an attorney and in-house counsel makes it easier for me to convince lawyers of my ideas.” Douwe agrees. He adds: “It also comes down to the maturity of the legal department, and how familiar the market is with this role. A few years ago, many legal departments wouldn’t have known how to benefit from a ‘Lean Six Sigma Black Belt’ on the staff telling them how everything could be done better. But even though there are still not many of these roles, we are seeing a significant increase in acceptance and interest in them. We also see it as our mission to further ‘emancipate’ this specialist field, and such a dedicated role often brings an immediate pay-off.”

Putting Legal Operations on the map

Knowledge and practical experience in Legal Operations are still very limited in the Netherlands. There aren’t many people working full-time in this area. Cindy notes that there is a need to exchange knowledge and experience: “Every week, Douwe and I receive questions from people involved with Legal Operations on a project basis about how we approach things. To avoid reinventing the wheel, we want to share our knowledge. We have, therefore, worked with the experienced practitioners Harm Cammel (Voxius), Leonie van Gulik (Xebia), Ron Henham (Irdeto) and Michaël van Leeuwen (Philips) to set up Law & Ops, with a view to clearly putting Legal Operations on the map as a specialist field.

One of these initiatives is the Legal Operations Academy, which provides training for and by Legal Operations professionals and gives a detailed overview of all the core elements of this specialist field. The emphasis is on the strategic aspects, illustrated with examples from our own practical experience. Through Law & Ops, we work with Wolters Kluwer to create a wider platform for (innovative) knowledge-sharing in this area.”

‘This interview is the first in the Legal Operations series. In the months ahead, we will publish various articles on this topic, with a view to informing lawyers about the added value of this specialist field. This content is the result of a collaboration between Wolters Kluwer and Law & Ops. Check  LinkedIn for updates.’

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