Jenn McCarron on the Journey to Legal Ops 3.0

Jennifer McCarron has a well-earned perspective on the evolution of legal operations and the role of artificial intelligence (AI).

Legal operations has undergone a spectacular transformation over the past two decades, growing through distinct phases that reflect the changing needs and complexities within corporate legal departments. 

From its nascent stage in the early 2000s to the current era, each phase has been marked by the advent of new ideas, practices, and technologies aimed at optimizing the function and value of legal departments within organizations.

A front-row seat for the legal ops evolution

As a member of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) since its inception, and now as President of its Board of Directors, Jenn has had a front-row seat throughout that evolution – as well as being one of the innovators driving it.

From her experience as Director of Legal Operations & Technology at Netflix and Head of Legal Technology at Spotify before that, Jenn is expert in the foundational technologies underpinning contract management, matter management, legal hold management, and litigation pipelines.

“Legal Ops 1.0, I would say, was formed in the 2000s,” Jenn explains in an episode of Evisort’s Meeting of the Minds: The Legal AI Podcast, where she sat down with Evisort’s Memme Onwudiwe and Hal Marcus. There was “a post-millennium corporate run of starting to care more about cost management and starting to expect legal departments to cost-manage, thank you very much.” 

This shift in expectations was accelerated by the financial crisis of 2008, which put an even greater focus on cost-consciousness, compliance, and the overall efficiency of running a legal department.

“That's when we saw some of these business-lawyer-minded folks come together,” she says. “They came together at the banks on the East Coast. They came together in the Silicon Valley companies and started business managing the legal department. Many had JDs, some had MBAs, some had neither but were just really good business stewards.” 

This “founders group” drove the inception of Legal Ops 1.0,  and some of them went on to found CLOC, itself a milestone in building the legal operations community.

The expansion: Legal Ops 2.0

Legal Ops 2.0 represented an era of expansion and consolidation of the practices established by the pioneers behind Legal Ops 1.0. This saw the emergence of up-and-coming leaders who were trained by the first generation of legal ops professionals. 

This “generation” adopted and adapted the foundational practices of Legal Ops 1.0, infusing them with a more pronounced technological bent. This era saw broader application of technology, knowledge management, project management, and organizational design, among other areas. 

The founding of CLOC led to the formalization of the functions and best practices – the CLOC Core 12 – that legal ops teams could apply to their specific demands. 

The Space Age: Legal Ops 3.0

As Jenn has put it in her recent article, I Know the Future of Legal Ops. Welcome to the Space Age, data and technology are really a springboard for storytelling – the “next planet” for legal operations exploration. 

“Legal Ops 3.0 is all about technology, data, and storytelling,” she says. “It's about using technology to drive meaningful change in how legal professionals work. It's about leveraging data to make better business decisions. And it's about crafting narratives and making meaning out of the data through storytelling.”

In her view, Legal Ops 3.0 will be built on three tenets:

1. Legal Ops should be centered around technology, allocating resources, agency, and priority.

Without the technology budget and team empowerment that can build, develop, launch, maintain, and iterate transformation, transformation isn’t really happening. In Legal Ops 3.0, budgeting is “baked into the department and the (legal) leadership knows how to budget,” Jenn explains.Moving transformation forward means legal operations should learn to wear many hats, since it “takes a lot of iteration, innovation…we have to have the tech competency. Is it IT? Is it engineering? Is it enterprise IT and eng? It's a mix of them all. We need that in legal,” she says.

2. Legal Ops should be centered on the data from technology.

Jenn tells Hal and Memme that data is the “crown jewel” in Legal Ops 3.0, as “technology is only an instrument. These are only instruments to get us meaning. They're not the end point…we need to think broader. In the race to innovate, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, but the entire point of technology is to produce data around the department’s workflows. “We’re seeing this at a scale that our industry couldn’t have imagined ten years ago: With AI at our fingertips, the amount of data will blow Moore’s Law out of the water,” she says. “We have to be ready to break big patterns, innovate and function in a new equilibrium. I’m talking about true, transformative disruption—not the day-to-day disruption we bring about in the tech industry as we iterate forward. It’s revolution versus evolution. And that means we in the industry must be skilled, flexible, and ready. Otherwise, we’ll be left behind.”

3. Technology and data lead us to storytelling

She compares tech and data to the fuel and engines enabling the journey, but aren’t the destination: that’s storytelling. Effective storytelling requires an individual with both creative and analytical skills who can analyze large data sets and create meaningful data narratives for the C-suite.“When we turned on Evisort for the entire enterprise at Netflix, and we saw how much AI'd metadata came with that,” she says, “I had a paradigm shift right there. I was like, ‘wait, now what?’”As she puts it, tools like Evisort may be able to free legal ops from the “caveman phase” that was only a prelude to what’s ahead. “What if it all starts now with this data and making meaning of it to accelerate the business, to light up the CFO's eyes when they hear that what we can do with accelerating deal velocity and changing how much revenue you can bring in in a year. I mean, that's an exciting point.”

Where does AI fit in?

"There's a lot of skepticism and fear around AI,” she admits. “I think a lot of people are worried that it's going to replace jobs. But there's a lot of excitement and curiosity in the legal profession. And I think it's really important for us to consider the legal implications of AI and to provide a sandbox for teams to experiment with AI.”

Legal Ops 3.0 won’t arrive all at once for everyone, she points out. “I am building a new level on the house, kind of a third story. Some will go up first. And we'll put in air conditioning and heating and we'll build it out and others will come up later. Some may stay in the 2.0 style roles for a while. That's okay. This all depends on the maturity of the org you are in.”

The episode covered a lot more ground, so listen to the podcast to hear what Jenn had to say, in her inimitable way, about other oncoming developments, how people can hone their skills to be part of this ongoing evolution, and much more.

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