Paralegals and Lawyers: Seize Opportunities in Legal Operations

The role of legal operations has increasing relevance to departmental performance. Learn the top ways paralegals can develop into new legal operations roles and excel in a legal ops career.

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.

This article was written by Memme Onwudiwe, Executive Vice President of Legal and Business Intelligence at Evisort, Carl Morrison, Director of Legal Operations at a multinational gaming and hospitality company, and Lynn Ma, JD Candidate at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and was first published by the Centre for Legal Innovation. Stay tuned next week for the follow up piece, including how to make the move into legal operations.

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