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Suzanne Hawkins has seen legal operations from every angle, as a practicing attorney, legal operations head, consultant, and law firm leader. I had the good fortune to speak with Suzanne about her career and get her insights on the emergence and evolution of legal operations.

In the late 1980s, Hawkins was a litigator at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, where she handled high-stakes litigation for GE. In 1994, GE hired her as an in-house counsel and she worked in Germany, where she led cross-business initiatives, including the formation of a European Lawyers Council.

On her return from Germany in 1996, GE General Counsel Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr. asked Hawkins to fill the newly created position of Senior Counsel, Legal Operations, aka “Managing Partner”. Her mission was to manage the expanding global law department which grew to more than 1000 lawyers by early 2000, and hundreds of external law firms. Her role included financial management, technology, Six Sigma, and global integration. Hawkins was a direct report to Heineman and partnered closely with senior practice group leaders and business general counsel. She engaged with GE’s CIO, CFO, and Six Sigma leaders.   

One of Hawkins’ first projects was to design and implement a matter management system to gather information on the law firms, legal matters, and costs across GE. Other early projects included designing a GE Legal intranet and document management system. Hawkins was named co-inventor on two patents GE filed for these systems.

"My co-inventor was a technologist, Mary Lee,” Hawkins said. “The systems were developed by several on-site developers, supported by our in-house team in India. We worked together extremely well and we respected each other’s contributions. They understood I was the subject matter expert, and I admired their technical expertise. It was a great experience."

After gathering information regarding outside counsel use, GE Legal set out to reduce its use of law firms and related legal fees. In 1998 Hawkins partnered with senior practice group leaders and procurement to launch a preferred provider program (later referred to as GE Select) an RFP program, which included an innovative on-line auction.  Still in place, GE Select has gone through many iterations, and the number of firms GE uses globally has reduced dramatically.  In addition to these projects, Hawkins led the Legal Six Sigma program, technology implementations, and related management initiatives. She was able to achieve these accomplishments with the full support of Heineman and other senior leaders.

Hawkins joined ACC in the late 1990s and served a term on the ACC Board and Executive Committee.  At the time Hawkins was one of the only legal operations leaders in the industry, as operational responsibilities were typically assigned to attorneys in addition to their law practice. She was often asked by General Counsel and Deputy General Counsel of sizable corporations to benchmark and advise on operational matters. 

In 2004 Hawkins decided to leave GE and join Hildebrandt International, where she partnered closely with Jon Bellis, who brought the in-house counsel survey (now the most industry’s most well-known) from PwC. Hawkins handled convergence programs for major companies, and since  Hildebrandt advises law firms, she decided to shift to Huron Consulting Group as Managing Director. 

In 2007 Hawkins accepted an offer to become Heller Ehrman’s Chief of Practice Excellence, a newly created position heading a team that handled RFP responses, fee arrangements, and knowledge and project management. When the firm closed in 2008, she returned to GE subsidiary GE Capital as legal operations leader. She partnered with GE corporate and procurement in the next iteration of the GE Select outside counsel management program. While negotiating the convergence program, Hawkins dealt with the relatively new role of law firm pricing managers. When GE Capital was sold in 2015, Hawkins shifted to the consulting firm RGP as Managing Director, running their East Coast law department practice. 

In 2017, Reed Smith LLP brought Hawkins in as Global Senior Director of Client Value. Reed Smith was among the first firms to hire a pricing director and dive into Alternative Fee Arrangements. In her time with the firm, the global client value team has grown to 22 FTEs. The team brings value in the firm internally and externally, supporting partners in fee negotiations, and negotiating directly with clients. The team also advises clients on operational issues including legal project management and technology. The team supports the trusted adviser role law firms have traditionally served for their clients. 

Reed Smith’s Client Value Team was awarded the 2020 “Best Business Team” by the American Lawyer, the FT 2018 Innovative Lawyers Award for “Best Business and Service Delivery Model” (Hawkins received Special Commendation), and named a BTI 2020 AFA Powerhouse Firm. 

Hawkins has a rare full ecosystem perspective. Going forward, Hawkins sees closer relationships between law firms and law departments, in part facilitated by their respective professional operations staff in technology, financial management, legal project management, and organizational design.

"The business relationship between firms and legal departments continues to grow by virtue of expertise contributed by these professionals,” Hawkins remarked. “The size of the legal industry warrants the application of business principles critical to the profitability of any organization." 

What’s next for Hawkins? Hawkins decided to step away from legal operations to pursue her passion for fashion design. Earlier this year, Hawkins attended Parsons School of Design. She is now obtaining her LLM at Fordham School of Law in Fashion Law. Given her expertise as an attorney and strong knowledge of legal operations, she will undoubtedly make a meaningful impact in addressing the legal issues of the trillion-dollar fashion industry. 

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