(Photo: DenisIsmagilov / iStock)

Next week, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) will hold its second annual conference in Las Vegas, bringing together legal professionals from across the country and providing actionable insights from legal operations experts in some of the largest legal departments.

Yet it’s those middle two words that remain a sticking point: What exactly is legal operations? For many, it remains a mystery—and even those in charge of the CLOC Conference admit that it isn’t yet narrowly defined.

“Legal operations is not a really well-defined field,” said Jeff Franke, assistant general counsel of global legal operations at Yahoo. “When you think of how finance operates, or how real estate operates, those functions have been around a long time. They have well-established tools, financial models, policies and processes. That’s not the case for legal operations.”

Franke, along with another nine members of the CLOC board and input from the legal operations community, have developed 12 “core competencies” that they believe form the basis of legal operations. As found on the CLOC’s website, the group defines legal operations as a “multi-disciplinary function that optimizes legal services delivery to a business or government entity,” which then focuses on 12 key pieces:

·         Strategic planning;

·         Financial management;

·         Vendor management;

·         Data analytics;

·         Technology support;

·         Alternative support models;

·         Knowledge management;

·         Growth and development;

·         Communications;

·         Global data governance/records management;

·         Litigation support; and

·         Cross-functional alignment.

In discussing the development of these competencies, Franke noted that legal is different from other support functions in that “we have to run a business within a business.” In essence, legal departments are a law firm itself within the larger business of the corporation. GCs, then, own service delivery from the larger perspective, while legal operations owns all the other administrative pieces of the puzzle, along with a small portion of service delivery.

Legal operations, according to CLOC, is comprised of six players who aid in that administrative piece: corporations, law firms, regulators, law schools, technology providers and OSPs (outside service providers). The goal of the competencies is to identify areas where each of these six stakeholders can increase in their own way, in order to “create order from chaos,” as Franke said.

“Those six players make up the whole industry,” Franke added.

“Chaos may be an overstatement, but there are incredible inefficiencies in the marketplace because those six players aren’t really functioning optimally,” with four of them really being “highly dysfunctional,” Franke noted, excepting regulators and outside services providers that he said can “contribute to the dysfunction.”

These core competencies form the basis of the upcoming CLOC Conference agenda. This year, the agenda has grown from about 55 sessions to roughly 75, but the focus has not changed, only grown in scope.

“We build the agenda around those 12 [key pieces],” Franke said. “If you look at [the conference’s session] tracks, they loosely follow the core competencies. The original plan for this included all 12, and we try to build those out not only on importance, but what members are asking.”

And what members are asking for is clarity. Among the sessions, Franke said that CLOC will be developing a “Magna Carta”—an airing of grievances for the six stakeholder groups, their largest pain-points, and what concrete steps other stakeholders in legal operations can take to ease that pain.

“Everybody keeps talking about, ‘We’re at a tipping point in the industry; we need change; this thing is broken.’ But nobody’s really taking the time to define what that means and what we want to see. What is the true north point?” Franke asked.

To that end, practicality is key. It’s one thing to say, for instance, that growth and development is a core competency. It’s another to actually develop a plan to put development into action, and Franke said the sessions themselves were built to aid in this goal. That’s why, he added, each session will include a takeaway of some sort—a checklist, a schematic, a workflow, “something that really reflects a concrete, actionable document”—for legal operations professionals to take away.

Through those tools and bringing everyone together to create them, he believes, legal operations can finally begin to be defined.

“We can’t improve our ecosystem if we’re not in a conversation with our technology partners, with our law firms,” he added.