Back to In the Balance

Legal operations on a global scale

Melissa Mason

Melissa Mason leads the global operations of McKinsey’s Legal function of over 200 colleagues across 47 countries.

This post shares reflections on best practices when standing up a global legal operations function, drawing inspiration from how we’re tackling Legal’s goals within the context of McKinsey’s broader mission and purpose.

The role and importance of legal operations has undergone a significant transformation in the last decade. While the trend began with practice groups and operations management within law firms, legal operations has now emerged as a core hub in corporate legal departments, as well as an academic focus in several law schools who have begun to add legal operations and management courses to their curriculum.

Across contexts, the emerging goal remains the same: to transform the legal community from a back-office function to a core business partner.

Highlighted below are some intrinsic aspects McKinsey’s legal department has learned along the way through best practices and real-time experience.

Five key elements in standing up an in-house legal-operations function

  1. Increasingly, the backbone of establishing a legal-operations function involves assessing the current state and aligning on both short-term and long-term financial and operational strategies.
  2. Financial and operational management
    • effectively manages the departmental budgets of internal operating expenses and external spending
    • creates a user-friendly financial dashboard with metrics and key-performance indicators; identifies spending trends, potential cost savings, and operational efficiency
    • streamlines the invoice and billing process, establishes project charge codes and an expense-approval system
  3. Technology and innovation are core elements in the development and maintenance of how to run an effective, cost-efficient, and cutting-edge function.
  4. Effective use of legal technology, innovation, and an allocation of resources
    • evaluates and onboards document-management systems and workflow tools such as contract automation, preclearance tools, self-service portals, standardized templates, and quick guides
    • empowers digital innovation focused on the user experience, process consistency, and the assurance of value in elevating lawyers to business thought partners
    • establishes a balance of in-house teams and external workers and secondments to handle any surge-capacity needs or vacancies
  5. Continuous learning, training, and growth of legal professionals drives the success of many functions, which brings together the best legal talent and helps them reach new levels.
  6. Talent, training, and professional development
    • implements a targeted-learning agenda
    • establishes critical skills and career-progression frameworks
    • launches substantive orientation, onboarding, and training-curriculum programming
    • creates systems for ongoing career and expertise-development opportunities
  7. Where are we without knowledge? Whether codified/written or oral through best practices, knowledge is a key criterion that continues to refine and unlock opportunities over time.
  8. Knowledge curation, sharing, and management
    • identifies resources to improve department approaches to collecting and disseminating knowledge via content creation, know-how tools, and training videos
    • establishes a go-to portal for on-demand expertise identification by region, subject matter, and practice area
    • builds a centralized repository that provides user-friendly search capabilities and streamlined resources
  9. In a global matrix organization, the ability to integrate, stay connected, mentor, and develop as colleagues is crucial to functioning as a cohesive, collaborative team with the best parts of everyone
  10. Inclusion and connectivity
    • ensures continuous learning and engagement across department functions
    • provides internal and external mentoring opportunities
    • increases connectivity and integration across the globe through newsletters, forums, and transparency
    • creates a culture of support and fulfillment, including bolstering mental health initiatives

Where we are now in our global matrix

In 2019, McKinsey’s in-house legal department embarked on a transformation designed to meet our firm’s evolving needs and aspirations globally. Our organizational structure—including a legal leadership team across regions and central internal functions—and a newly established legal operations role, focus on driving three overarching goals for the department that align with McKinsey’s overall purpose:

  • Improved client service: enhancing the quality and speed of legal support to clients worldwide
  • Enhanced risk management: identifying and managing key legal and reputational risks
  • Increased thought partnership: providing proactive and strategic advice and counseling

Legal technology has become a core element of in-house legal departments that professionals can have at their fingertips. However, suboptimal technology—or amazing technology improperly leveraged—can be a time and effort drain on an otherwise high-functioning department. With our colleagues spanning 47 countries, McKinsey’s legal team has focused on making sure our technology processes are targeted, strategic, streamlined, and accessible to all from a centralized location.

Additionally, knowledge is key to the success of a growing department, both in terms of helping clients find the support they need and helping legal professionals leverage existing expertise. In order to effectively recruit and retain talent, we invest in continued learning for all of our colleagues, whether it’s through substantive training programs, apprenticeship and mentoring, or day-to-day, real-time experiences to establish best practices.

Reinforcing connectivity and inclusion

With our legal department being so widespread, staying connected—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—is an objective we continue to keep at the forefront. This connectivity includes breakout sessions on hot topics across practice areas, industry alerts, substantive legal topics, and team building through informal virtual get togethers. In addition, we’ve led quarterly sessions on practical skills such as communication, problem solving, presenting with impact, and negotiations workshops.

In 2020, we brought diversity and inclusion to life in a more formalized way by launching the “Legal Inclusion & Impact (I&I) global initiative.” We hold sessions on allyship, conscious inclusion, and panel dialogues on race and cultural diversity to highlight how we can continuously learn about other cultures and be inclusive in our day-to-day involvements. We have hosted external speakers and have also had our own colleagues speak specifically on their unique characteristics and perspectives, giving the global department a very real view into our colleagues’ lives that is both wonderful and challenging.

On the intellectual thought leadership front, we established our “McKinsey Legal Speakers Forum” with guest speakers to share their valuable insights with our department colleagues.

What’s next?

The future state of McKinsey Legal is an ever-changing landscape that spans innovation, design thinking, use of machine learning, and sustained cultural evolution throughout the firm. We plan to continue leveraging technology to make McKinsey Legal even more efficient, letting our global expertise soar while staying focused on the mission, values, and purpose of our firm.