Colin McCarthy, founder of Legal Operators, talks about recent developments in the world of legal operations, how to think big to solve current legal ops problems, and what to expect in the future of this exciting field.

CCBJ: How did you arrive at your current role in legal operations?

Colin McCarthy: I took a nontraditional path. When I graduated from law school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took the first job I could find. I was working in Kansas City, as a document review attorney for a law firm called Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Although the experience was good, I knew it wasn’t for me. I moved to California, where I worked for several small law firms over a short period of time, which each gave me a different perspective. I also worked at the district attorney’s office as an attorney intern and got great experience there. However, I still hadn’t found my calling.

Eventually, I got a job at Sonos, a home audio company in Santa Barbara, working with a small legal team. The company was undergoing hyper growth at the time, which gave me the chance to experience many different opportunities. I learned from the general counsel there to always ask “Where can I add value?” – this was his mantra every day, and it has become mine. At Sonos, I got to learn about contract management systems. We had one that was not working for the company, so I learned to unwind it and map out and build another system. I was the first beta tester for a company called SecureDocs – who later, after building our system at Sonos, launched a new company called ContractWorks. I’m still a big fan, and I champion their success whenever I can.

After Sonos, I made a move to the Bay Area to work for a semiconductor company called GlobalFoundries. There, once again, I did a little of everything – intellectual property work, mergers and acquisitions, contracts, etc. I had a big focus on two particular systems – a contract lifecycle management system and an e-billing tool – and was spearheading both projects, from a legal standpoint, for a global team of 20,000-plus people. I credit a lot of my growth to these opportunities.

With that experience, I moved to Rubrik, an amazing startup in Palo Alto. I had free rein to lay down new systems. The company was, and still is, in a hyper growth stage, so I had an opportunity to make a huge impact in a small timeframe.

From there, I was hired by Twitter as their sole legal operations person. There was a huge amount of alignment at Twitter with what I’d already learned and accomplished, which allowed me to make an effective impact there as well.

Most recently, I launched an organization/movement called Legal Operators. I have brought 600 thought leaders in our community together on a Slack channel to solve gaps in the legal ecosystem. We do this by identifying the issues, talking out loud about them, and putting brainpower together to figure solutions out. The focus of this group is to provide the best content, collaboration, community and culture to move the needle forward.

We solve legal operations problems by looking at them through four lenses: process improvement, legal technology, legal spend management, and industry metrics and data analytics. It takes the whole ecosystem to solve these issues.

What are some of the most significant developments you’ve seen in the industry in the last year?

There was massive movement in legal tech in 2019. Contract management companies have never been so hot. Companies like, Akorda, IronClad, Parley Pro, Malbek and Concord are all out-innovating themselves. These are exciting times for selecting tools that are not enterprise, like Apttus, Conga, SpringCm and Icertis. If I’m considering any of these tools, I know I will have to reevaluate soon, as the technology is improving year after year, with an emphasis on customer success and easy user interface.

There is an apparent skills gap in legal operations. The industry to this point has reacted by putting finance people, legal people, senior people, junior people and project managers into these rolls. This has absolutely bridged the gap, but it takes a whole ecosystem to solve the issues presented to companies – such as change management, project management, tool extractions, tool implementations, tool selections, etc. It was a year of progress and moving forward.

General counsel should be receptive to bigger ops teams to support the growth of the legal department over the next year or two.

What’s your forecast for 2020?

Expectations are growing across the board. There’s a big transformation happening. You’re going to have a lot more work, but there’s only so much bandwidth and budget in a law department. Add in all these new privacy implications across the whole company, and there’s a lot more strain on legal.

We’re going to see much more of Axiom and/or hiring to solve the privacy problem and the shortage of talent in the market. More remote work too. And legal operations has to grow. Technology can bridge the gap between manual processes and automation, but general counsel will have a lot of new challenges, and they should be receptive to bigger ops teams to support the growth of the department over the next year or two.

Tell us about Legal Operators and what you hope to achieve with this organization.

I co-founded Legal Operators last May. I’d been going the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium for a couple of years, and I’d seen the amazing things they were doing for the industry. However, I felt that they had some blind spots and were missing out on some things that, frankly, seemed obvious to me. I felt that given my connections and abilities, and my understanding of the industry, I was the person to put a plan into action to fill the gaps in the market. Hence, Legal Operators was born!

We started with sponsored happy hours with a UK law firm called Penningtons Manches Cooper, with as core sponsors and champions of our group. Our mission is to bring people together from the legal operations community, but I also wanted to include the rest of the legal ecosystem, because everybody lends a different voice. We want to bring the collective power of the legal community together and connect these collaborators, inventors and disrupters who are defining the future of the profession. That’s our mission statement. It’s bold. We started with the happy hour in San Francisco and then did the same thing in Los Angeles. Each happy hour is infused with education, with two to three 15-minute TED-style talks.

Our Chicago chapter launched in February, and more than 80 people attended. The audience was fully engaged, with a great lineup of speakers. Once the sessions were done, we brought the participants back to the Slack channel for further discussion. The New York launch is on March 19 at the Bloomberg Law headquarters, and it is quickly filling up.

Other areas where we will launch domestically soon are Atlanta, Austin, D.C., Seattle, Philly – and maybe in your neighborhood, if there is demand. Internationally, London, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne. We have teams on the ground in these areas that are just as enthused about Legal Operators as I am.

We solve legal operations problems by looking at them through four lenses: process, technology, spend and analytics.

What’s your advice to people looking to advance their careers in legal operations?

Join the community. Try to learn. To quote Sheryl Sandberg: “Lean in.” If you want to advance your career, you’ve got to tackle the hard things, and you’ve got to get the right knowledge from people. Don’t be frightened by that.

You’ve got to look at it through a process lens. What are the existing processes? Learn them – and how to put new processes down. You’ve got to figure out, from a process standpoint, where the frustrations are, where the blips are, how can you get information to and from people, how to share information with the various teams, because you’re working with them collectively. There should be knowledge transfers across the whole department.

Then look at it through a legal technology lens. Make a technology road map of your whole company first, and then do the legal department. Identify what systems your company is using. What systems can you leverage that other departments may be using? Can you get different licenses and bring them in? That’s one way to save money, be efficient, and get the best technology without paying for it. As you make the technology road map, ask, “Is this working for the team?” Interview everybody and get as much information flow as you can.

The third lens to look through is spending. You’ve got to know your spend inside and out. You’ve got to have that relationship with finance, that relationship with the general counsel or manager, and you’ve got to own that process. You have to know what your law firms are expecting. You’ve got to understand the relationships. You’re building processes for that as well, and understanding that spend.

Finally, there’s analytics. This is a big trend. If you’re not measuring what you’re doing, you’re missing the boat, because you need to quantify where the company is and where the company is going.

To summarize, look at it through the lenses of process, technology, spend and analytics. I’m sure there are more layers to it, but if you want to advance your career and build a legal operations function, this is a great place to start. Expect the best from your team, and give them an opportunity to grow. And never stop asking yourself, “How can I add value now?”

Keep a positive attitude, and don’t take yourself too seriously. It should be fun!