Christine Coats has made bringing new speed and efficiency to legal operations the focus of her career. After an early stint with IBM, she became Director of Legal Operations at Symantec in 2005, at a time when the function barely existed. At Symantec, she acted as the general counsel’s chief of staff and ran business operations for the COO’s office. In 2015 she was hired as Vice President of Legal Operations at an even larger software company – Oracle Corporation – where she acts as the general counsel’s right hand. She also serves as the CFO of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC). The interview has been edited for length and style.
A lot of our readers are in smaller law departments, less than five people in many of them. Can you tell us more about what legal operations professionals do?
Christine Coats: Whatever its size, a law department has to focus on two things. First, obviously, there’s everything to do with the actual legal side: managing litigation, guiding the organization with legal advice and so on. Second, there’s everything else: setting priorities, managing resources, aligning with the broader needs of the business and on and on. Just like every other function in the business, the legal team has to be focused, effective and aligned with the larger goals of the enterprise. When you look at the skill sets of those who lead and staff legal teams, they tend to come heavily from the world of law. So they are really well set up for addressing that first category, but really not for the second. As legal operations professionals, it’s our job to make everything run effectively.
It’s all about how you can help your lawyers focus on the legal work instead of having to fumble around with the details of getting things done. What we do ranges from selecting technology tools to creating processes, templates and electronic signatures. Attorneys like paper, but even in smaller departments there’s too much of it to be very efficient. You have purchase orders and requirements for expenses. You can’t just walk down the hall and have the senior partner sign. So you put in workflows. You standardize processes so that people don’t have to reinvent that wheel. Legal operations people create processes by looking at the workflow and making recommendations to the general counsel.
Take the billing process. Here’s the problem: Too many people have to spend time on billing. Here’s the solution: We need to have one centralized person doing the e-billing, and the attorneys can get back to focusing on the law.
How do you view your role within the law department and within the company overall?
Coats: My role is to be the right-hand person for the GC. That’s doing everything from creating a budget, to gathering and summarizing information into a business case, to organizing team training.
When I started my career as a legal operations person at Symantec, no one knew what that meant. They just handed me a page with 10 pain points. Many of them wanted solutions, but we lacked the money to implement them. So I started by examining the budget, finding the money and then putting in solutions that fit our budget. I always had to find the money or save the money to put in the next tool. As I worked through the next eight years, I ended up being able to hand the piece of paper back to the general counsel and say, “OK, we’ve accomplished all these things. You have a solution in each of these areas that’s made the department much more efficient. And we either justified the spend, or I found the money or I found ways to more efficiently use the resources we had.”
Very quickly, I realized that a huge part of my job had to be managing outside counsel. This meant benchmarking these firms to understand what they were good at, what and how they charged and how to improve the value we saw from them. It meant uncovering new boutique firms and negotiating for better rates with key firms.
I always sought to keep the relationship between the general counsel and the attorneys from those firms separate from the business relationship. It’s my job to come in and say to those firms, “We give you X amount of dollars of work, you really need to consider giving us fixed rates. Think about alternative fees or bigger discounts.” And then we can consolidate our work with one top firm or several preferred firms. It becomes a partnership for the attorneys, because I’m the outsider negotiating for the business and trying to save money for Oracle or Symantec. The attorneys can sit back and discuss the case, maintaining a good relationship with their counterparts at the firm.
Tell us about your involvement with CLOC.
Coats: In 2005, when we started the operations department at Symantec, it really was nonexistent. No one knew really what the career path or even the title was. From my time at IBM I had 20 years of learning how you save money, do budgets, put in systems, so I knew what I wanted to do. But it wasn’t documented anywhere.
The idea with CLOC was that 10 to 15 of us could get together every month and talk. “What do you do? How can we make this role better? How can we make it more exciting, more effective?” We’re always trying to solve a new problem. It wasn’t just closing the books every quarter or doing the accounting at year-end or the taxes. This was taking all of our collective experience, thinking through our top priorities and the pain points of the business in our legal departments, and coming up with solutions. As we started sharing best practices, we became better at our jobs, and we were better able to make recommendations to the GCs we reported to.
These informal discussions quickly became must-attend meetings, where you could really learn invaluable lessons. People wanted to know what other companies were doing that could save them time. If I’m going to put an e-billing system or a contract management system in, I sure would like to know who’s tried several, and which one was the easiest, cheapest and best. That’s better than putting in an investment of a year to implement one into my company only to find out I made a mistake because I should have gone with the bigger solution.
CLOC has grown tremendously since those early days, which is a testament to the massive need out there for better, smarter legal operations. But at its core, we are still focused on the same things as we were then: networking, getting to know each other, bringing better value to our companies and finding innovative new answers to our shared problems. I’m the CFO of CLOC right now because I have that financial background. I can help run it efficiently as a nonprofit and help change the industry.
Has your involvement with CLOC changed your perspective on your role within the company? Has it broadened it?
Coats: My involvement with CLOC is to share my knowledge with others in this role. I’m very excited about this role. I love my job, and I constantly meet with people who want to pick my brain or are just starting out. If I run into a difficult problem at Oracle, I will go to the CLOC group and ask, “What are your thoughts on this, or how do you handle that?” It’s one of the beauties of CLOC – the collaboration and the immediate response. In 2005 I couldn’t go to anyone.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Coats: If you’re going to put in a system, you need an IT liaison who has a legal perspective. A lot of IT people don’t understand the legal side of the house. It’s different than a sales group; it’s different than a development team. For example, when I first started I didn’t know what a “matter” was. And I didn’t know how many matters we had, so it was very hard to size the cost of the solution. Or to understand how the solutions would connect to our internal IT systems.
That’s a huge challenge to the legal department. Attorneys typically don’t have that skill set. You always want to try to have an operations person who has the capability to work with both the IT team and with the attorneys. Without that, the solution could easily fail. For one of my first hires, I hired a gentleman who had the IT background. And I taught him the legal stuff. As we went to put our solutions in place, he worked directly with the IT team and he was translating for the attorneys. You need these pockets of expertise on your legal operations team.
Another challenge that departments face is when they need to implement and manage a billing system. You really want a person with an accounts payable background who can relate to the procurement side of the house or the accounts payable side – someone who knows that process and can help streamline it so the bills get paid. That was one of my other hires. So when I put the e-billing system in, this person ran it, did the data points, could pull the numbers, do the benchmarking, create a dashboard for me – all that. You can put the solution in, but the system doesn’t work for the department by itself. Whenever you’re implementing a solution, you need to have the expertise – not legal expertise, not paralegals. Sometimes you’ll see law departments put it all on the paralegal. You really need a different skill set that helps you fully look at the whole picture, the data, the analytics and the ROI.
An operations manager has got to be a jack-of-all-trades. They have to have a little bit of business sense, a little bit of technology sense, they have to be able to think about process, they have to be able to solve problems. It’s not someone that you can just go hire out of college and say, “Now you’re a legal operations person.”