You’re the inaugural chair of the ACC Legal Ops section. What compelled you to take on this effort and what did you and your colleagues set out to do?
Reese Arrowsmith: Looking back, this was an important time in legal operations. The number of legal ops roles was exploding. More positions were being given more responsibility and being empowered to run departments and make impactful change. Legal ops leaders were being asked to do this without tools. The ACC Legal Ops group set out to create the first of its kind maturity model, toolkit and Legal Ops 101 (the bootcamp) to really jumpstart the industry. I am proud to say, it worked! Several other groups, consulting firms, and tech companies copied the concepts emphasizing the need and importance of this groundbreaking work. It is all for the benefit of the industry.
What’s on the horizon for the ACC Legal Ops Section?
RA: The legal ops group includes seven interest groups and regional groups in select areas around the country. These groups are run by legal ops members for legal ops members so the agendas are current and relevant to the issues we are all facing every day. Recent and upcoming topics include discussions regarding methods and tips for process improvement, legal project management, DEI initiatives, and implementing and utilizing various tools and technologies. The legal ops section is in the process of updating the maturity model and adding tools to the toolkit. The legal industry is changing fast and the maturity model is a living breathing framework that changes with it.
The ACC Legal Ops group has 1,700 members. They are all in house working in Legal Operations. There are no vendor, consultant, external party members. I think the by member for member philosophy is what makes the content so rich and brings people to the interest group meetings.
Over the next 5-10 years I expect to see data leveraged across the in-house community to better predict matter spend, outcomes, total case cost, etc. I also anticipate digitization of legal. Out of all of the legal ops groups that exist today, the ACC is still in the best position to be the hub of digitization of legal.
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the legal ops community?
RA: This is changing, and it is changing fast. Five years ago I would have said the biggest issue facing legal ops was inter department influence and empowerment. Let’s take a minute to review where we were and where we are now. According to the ACC Chief Legal Officers Survey, about 60% of departments have at least one legal ops professional. That number nearly tripled from 21% in 2015. That is an incredible increase. What is even more exciting is 69% of ACC Chief Legal Officers Survey participants report that the most important strategic initiatives fall within the legal operations area. Legal ops leaders went from not existing, and not having a seat at the table to leading the most important strategic initiatives in just 7 years.
It is great that the number of positions and number of companies embracing legal ops is exploding but now we need to double down and deliver. The volume of work impacting the legal department continues to grow substantially and department budget and headcount are not growing proportionately. If you can equate the ongoing increase in the Total Pages Published in the Code of Federal Regulations to legal work impacting in house legal departments, the volume increase is astonishing.
Legal ops leaders are tasked with finding non headcount creative ways to make departments more efficient. We are putting pressure on tech companies to deliver impactful AI that helps move the needle. We are outsourcing certain legal work to companies who can deliver legal work at scale at low cost and bringing other strategic work in house to help the broader company deliver against the corporate goals. This is our mandate and we will deliver by collaborating, sharing and engaging with colleagues through forums like the ACC Legal Ops Interest Groups.
What excites you most about the future of legal ops?
RA: Technology and data! I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. I am not narrowing legal ops to a tech function. A well-structured legal ops team is responsible for assisting with the development and execution of an overarching strategic plan which involves overseeing department spend (internal and external budget), people (what roles do we have, what roles do we need), technology, strategic initiatives, vendor management, and process. Within these core responsibilities I am most excited about what technology and data will do for the industry in the coming years. We have been talking about the impact of technology on legal for years. We are finally starting to see advances but it really isn’t moving the needle yet. AI is starting to show signs of success but it is not there yet. It feels like some tech companies are on the cusp of making AI work in new areas of law and those areas can be game changers if they succeed. The optimist in me wants to say “when they succeed”. I hope it is a matter of when not if.
Leveraging data will be impactful if we can get it right. We have obstacles to overcome to make data useful and a game changer. Data is most valuable to legal department leadership, not individuals entering and maintaining it. That gives those maintaining the data NO incentive to enter it correctly or timely. We also need to figure out how to leverage data across the industry, not just within our legal department, firm, vendor network.
We will leverage technology to make legal departments more efficient, cut cost and keep up with the pace at which legal work is increasing. The number of new tech options is increasing by the day. The opportunity and impact the systems can have has not been felt yet but it is coming.
What’s something you wish you had known going into your legal ops career?
RA: Slow and steady wins the race. Put a thoughtful plan in place and begin to execute against the plan. Be willing to pivot when the work, risk, and external pressures require it. Being confident enough to change course when necessary comes with experience but it is important to be open to it.
What’s one tip/strategy/life hack you’ve found that will instantly improve the life and/or work of a legal ops professional?
RA: Develop a trusted peer group of legal ops professionals at other companies and tap into that brain trust regularly. We are the only individuals at our companies that do what we do. We have unique challenges and comparing notes and lessons learned with our peers is instrumental in our individual success and the success of the industry as a whole. A great place to start is the ACC Legal Ops section and our host of virtual and in-person educational meetings throughout the year.
What’s one interesting thing most people don’t know about you?
RA: Although I have been in the legal ops field for 23 years, my degree is in environmental biology and my passion is endangered species and endangered ecosystems. I spend my free time helping to save rare and endangered species and supporting groups like The Turtle Conservancy on their mission to protect endangered species and their habitats worldwide.