The future is automated, the legal industry is not an exception, and the role of legal operations has increasing relevance to departmental performance. Both lawyers and paralegals can capitalize on this. In this post, we propose opportunities corporate in-house legal leaders in the US and beyond have in leveraging their paralegals as they develop new legal operations roles, and ways that paralegals can position themselves for a career in legal operations.
- Lawyers should look to high-performing paralegals to fill legal operations roles.
- Paralegals already perform congruent functions to legal operations industry benchmarks like the CLOC 12 (see below).
- Current pathways for paralegals to enter legal operations are narrow.
- Making the shift to legal operations as a paralegal means actively positioning yourself.
Why Lawyers Should Fill Legal Operations Positions with Paralegals
Paralegals are ready for legal operations roles and responsibilities. The CLOC Core 12 functions outline the ways legal operations teams deliver impact in an organization. They are methods by which professionals can think through the priorities a legal department might have when it comes to their unique approach to legal operations. When one reviews the CLOC Core 12 and juxtaposes the work of seasoned paralegals working in house at companies without dedicated legal ops functions, it is evident that these paralegals are fulfilling much of the CLOC 12 already. Paralegals know the company inside-out, have pre-existing relationships, and understand specific technology used in the legal department. They touch the contracts, understand the current processes, and this could set them up for success as legal operations professionals.
For example, Business Intelligence is a function of CLOC 12 that involves transforming data into useful metrics that a department can act on to allow for informed, strategic decision-making. In-house legal departments focus on quantitative values like financial expenses and revenue, contract volume, and performance metrics from services to make choices. Many paralegals are already familiar with how to find this information, pain points that might arise in contract lifecycle management, and ways technology could allow for transparency and optimization in workflows. Despite using these skills day in and day out as paralegals, they are best leveraged within a legal operations role to implement solutions.
Other functions include Information Governance and Knowledge Management. These mean managing a company’s knowledge and best practices through documentation, organizing various forms of communication (i.e., records, systems, data), and serving as a go-to point for questions from across the organization. Because paralegals are familiar with interdepartmental interactions, exposed to various forms of information, and already find answers to lawyer’s questions by collaborating cross-functionally, they are strategically positioned to fulfill these roles in legal operations. There is no boot-up time for existing paralegals. On the other hand, a new hire would need to learn a company’s unique means of sharing information and working together.
The activation energy a paralegal needs to transition to legal operations is a lot lower than that of external hires.
Current Pathways are Narrow
Legal operations is a growing pathway in the legal industry, and it is an expanding option for paralegals looking to advance their careers. But first, what is legal operations? In short, it is the application of business and technical practices to increase efficiency by shifting non-legal tasks towards subject matter experts and away from lawyers.
For a corporate paralegal, is there a concrete way in?
The legacy pathway is for a paralegal to start in a private practice (law firm) move in-house (corporate legal department/function) and, consequently, from multiple clients to a single business. Transitioning from private practice into an in-house legal team has a learning curve. When a paralegal goes in-house, they are going into a role that oversees the entire department. Taking on legal operations means using project management and tech savvy to tackle budgetary issues, knowledge management, performance metrics, and third-party vendor relationships. Entry level roles are more centralized and focused in discrete areas, whereas leadership roles are where you oversee and manage all the functions in legal operations. Advanced legal operations teams approach these challenges by using data analytics and systemize best practices by using tools like contract management platforms. Ultimately, legal operations is about using technology and data to streamline processes, people, and payments.
But, in the midst of these buzz words are hosts of opportunities to grow within the legal department. A paralegal who works in a legal department can have duties that include maintaining client relationships, conducting statistical research, investigative law, and managing data. These functions can reach a ceiling in career growth potential, but transitioning to legal operations provides a new path to develop and enhance these capabilities. Legal operations roles can be more lucrative from a compensation and corporate hierarchy perspective and allow you to advance in a way that a Senior Paralegal might not. According to the 2020 NALA Utilization & Compensation Survey, paralegals make US$68,240 on average. This compensation has increased 11% since 2016, but paralegal role seniority has largely remained the same. In contrast, legal operations analysts make US$99,350 on average. Across all position experience levels, legal operations professionals make more than US$163,000 on average. Legal operations positions also continue to grow in scope, prevalence, and structure, with 70% of legal ops professionals reporting directly to the General Counsel and growing opportunities to enter into advanced legal ops positions. The growth potential for these roles is huge.
How to Make the Move to Legal Operations
Actively positioning yourself for these opportunities in legal operations means proactively seeking out these roles and probably upskilling. If you’re considering the move, from paralegal to legal operations, bear in mind these three things:
First, what do you do when your company doesn’t have legal operations? Legal operations is not a formalized domain. Legal operations is a relatively new concept to the industry, and therefore has no true standardization in role. This is unlike the paralegal role, which, in the US, has built up ample certifications in the past 25 years. Few institutions offer study in legal operations. In the US, UC Hastings and New York Law School are among the few that offer a “Legal Operations” course for students. Both schools are trailblazing courses to support a function organically grown by necessity. The options are limited throughout legal education and industry levels; therefore, legal operations professionals opt for informal ways to credential themselves but do this from a variety of different education foundations. This can be advantageous for those willing to take initiative in (1) convincing the company that legal operations should exist, and (2) advocating for yourself to transition from a paralegal role to a legal operations one because there is no one path suits all here.
Second, there are pre-existing hierarchies about the role of paralegals. Biases about lawyer versus non-lawyer roles can arise, and paralegals can get pigeonholed into certain functions where they are skilled and educated to do more substantive work. But, the industry shift is increasing demand for technical paralegal skills. Paralegals-- take advantage of this. There is growing demand for your skills despite traditional hierarchies of the legal industry.
Finally, there can be a challenge of translating what paralegals have done in their work and experience to a lawyer in a way that shows they’re ready for running legal operations. There may also be competition from external hires who, although not be more experienced, have already worked in a legal operations department. As such, there is a need to advocate for your capabilities and sell the value of a paralegal’s existing institutional knowledge.
Practically, paralegals need to respond to these challenges by providing practical solutions to pain points in their legal department. Demonstrate how you as a legal operations professional could make the processes more efficient. This might look different depending on the infrastructure of legal operations in the company.
In a larger department, working in a legal operations function might mean working on processes specific to litigation, or that you work on regulatory issues only. A skillset that a paralegal has to have here also includes communication and collaboration skills when managing a case from beginning to end. In a smaller legal department, a person working in a legal operations role might wear a lot more hats. A paralegal looking to transition might need to know everything from managing vendor and outside counsel relations, to project management, or financial and budgetary skills. You’ll need to understand if e.g., if the goal of the company is to consolidate analytics, or the focus on outside counsel management. These questions affect whether a legal operations professional with data science or legal background would be more suitable for the role. It is important to find out what “legal operations” means for your company, and department. Paralegals should be deliberate about pursuing legal operations as a growth opportunity so they don’t miss out.
Legal operations is a growing field with increasing relevance in our technological society. Lawyers— your paralegals have the know-how, relationships, and savvy necessary to fill legal operations roles. Paralegals are perfectly positioned to capitalize on opportunities in legal operations, because they already have overlapping skills needed to succeed in a legal operations role. There is a real opportunity for the legal industry to grow and meet client demand quickly if it provides more pathways for paralegals to transition from private practice to in house and legal operations in the future. In the meanwhile, lawyers should recruit from their paralegal teams when looking to hire for and build legal operations teams. Paralegals are positioned for success in legal operations, and we need to rethink their role in the context of a new era of legal digitization.
About the Authors
Carl Morrison, ACP, CAS, RP, PP, AACP, is an experienced and award-winning Director of Legal Operations for a large gaming and hospitality company, and has been in the legal industry for over two decades. Carl’s highly sought-after speaking expertise has afforded him numerous opportunities to share his devotion to the legal industry. Since 2017, he has been the award-winning podcast host for The Paralegal Voice and loves to share his passion and dedication to the legal industry with his listeners. He is a published author for nationally recognized legal professional and award-winning magazines, as well as a contributing author for an educational legal textbook, Advanced Manual for the Legal Professional, 13th Edition. He also serves on the Education Advisory Board for Consero Legal Operations Forum. An active member of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), IPMA, NALA, as well as the ABA, Carl is passionate about educating and mentoring future legal operations professionals.
Memme Onwudiwe is fascinated by legal issues around AI, and helped to build Evisort Inc., an AI company, from the Harvard Innovation Lab while in law school. He currently serves as Executive Vice President of Legal and Business Intelligence at Evisort Inc.. He also founded/chaired Harvard's Legal Technology Symposium, is on the Advisory board of Innovation Law Club Africa, and is a lecturer at Harvard Law School.
Lynn Ma is currently a law student at UC Hastings and graduated from UC Berkeley for her undergraduate degree. She is a Legal Technology and Business Intelligence Fellow at Evisort Inc.. She enjoys exploring the intersections of corporate law, tech, and operations. Outside of work you can find her bouldering or mentoring international students.