Legal ops shouldn’t be satisfied with simply getting on the field

Like many of you, I’m a podcast listener. My podcast lineup is mostly filled with endless chatter about the NBA. But when I want to feel like I’m more connected to the news of the day and the politics behind it, I listen to the Ezra Klein Show (fear not, the connection between podcasts and the legal industry—specifically the world of legal ops—is coming soon!)

On the September 16th episode, Ezra discussed the Biden administration’s legislative accomplishments, such as enacting the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, with Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. (One’s thoughts on the merits of these sweeping pieces of legislation are irrelevant for the sake of this article.) What I found fascinating about the discussion was how Ezra and Felicia characterized the truly hard post-enactment work that went into these mammoth bills:

Ezra: “I think there’s a fallacy where people think once a bill is passed, the problem is solved. And this is just the opportunity to solve problems…. [I]t’s like they’ve created the conditions for this building to begin to happen.”

Felicia: “I think they’ve earned the right to get on the field.”

Ezra: “What we really have not built out is planning capacity…. But what strikes me is that it is not a challenge that they have given themselves a holistic set of new tools to address…. And I wonder how we’re going to get that much coordination done at the speed we need to do it, with the level of public administration we have.”

Ezra went on to say that “coordination is actually underfunded in all this.” Felicia agreed, and further said that coordination is “underconceptualized or undertheorized.”

Critically, Felicia observed that “Now, we’re on the field. What are we going to do next, right?” She proposed “staffing and capacity building,” explaining that

“[t]his feels like a small thing, or a medium-sized thing. But the truth is, you need great people in these roles…. [T]hese are really hard jobs. Where are we going to find these folks? … And so finding great staff, great human beings to actually think these problems through that you and I are just bantering about on a podcast, … where are we going to find these folks? I think it’s critically important.”

From my perspective on the legal industry, the past ten to 15 years has been a push for legal operations to “get on the field.” And they have! Did you go to the global Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) conference in May 2022? The packed conference center was Exhibit A for establishing how legal operations is securely on the field. Companies with visions of operational/process improvements around the globe have taken the critical step of acknowledging the need for the legal ops function within their legal departments.

But setting up a legal ops function, like passing a long-sought-after piece of legislation, does not solve the problem. It’s just the opportunity to solve problems. While it’s a vital first step, simply setting up legal ops within your legal department is merely creating the conditions for building to happen.

Back in January 2022, I described on this blog how McKinsey Legal was not satisfied with just creating the conditions for building to happen (that is, getting on the field); we still needed to build what was necessary for a world-class legal department (see our prior blog post “Looking for that legal tech magic? It’s in the management”). With respect to legal knowledge management, McKinsey Legal’s leadership had a vision of what it should look like, but they made it happen for the department by hiring yours truly, empowering me to coordinate with our in-house development team to build an intuitive/functional platform, obtaining buy-in with lawyers and legal professionals through direct curation of content, and taking creative steps to ensure accountability and reliability. Actually implementing our knowledge management platform (the “Legal Playbook”) was a significant change management project … and it wasn’t easy. To get the Legal Playbook up and running in an effective manner, it required much strategic thinking around its user-friendly format, fun interactive training sessions, periodic games across the department to encourage engagement, and more—all of which solidified the Legal Playbook’s adoption as a reliable tool.

But knowledge management is just one piece of the puzzle. The legal operations team is tasked with making the trains run on time for a myriad of initiatives. Here at McKinsey Legal, our general counsel, Pierre Gentin, is aiming (and in my humble opinion, succeeding) to make our legal department world class. We are devoting the resources necessary to build upon the vision of operational excellence, whether it’s in knowledge management, diversity and inclusion, contract management, and the list goes on. What is your organization doing to meet the moment?

Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to be part of a legal organization that (continuing with the analogy) passed the sweeping piece of legislation—if so, your legal department leadership believes in the legal ops vision. But now that they’re on the field, will they dedicate the time, effort, and resources to build it the right way? This is not a small or medium-size job—it’s critically important, and it will take great people to solve the problems that will inevitably arise.

It may not be the same as building up the United States with trillions of dollars, but I think it comes pretty close!

Note: comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.