In-house teams turn to legal ops amid workplace transformation and stagnating budgets

Rise of remote working and an expected uptick in workload but not headcount brings the value of legal ops into spotlight, report claims

Nearly a third of company legal departments are considering adding legal operations manager roles to help them cope with increasing workloads and frozen budgets, according to a new report by Ashurst in association with OMC Partners. 

The report, Legal Operations - The Shape of Things to Come, found that nearly two thirds (64%) of respondents expect workloads to increase by up to 30%, with regulatory, data protection, employment and ESG-related work driving this demand.  

Yet three quarters expect no growth in headcount and more than 40% also plan to reduce spend by up to a third.

Reflecting the growing prominence of legal ops, around 30% of respondents said they were considering adding legal operations manager roles over the next 12 to 18 months. Augmenting team skill sets was also high on the agenda, with half of law department leaders looking to enhance their teams' skill sets and legal tech and spend management capabilities the key focus areas for 2021.

The report was based on a mix of anonymised survey data and more than 50 one-to-one conversations with law department leaders across eight sectors including TMT, financial and pharma. It examined the approaches they intend to implement over the next 12 to 18 months as they emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.  

It found that most respondents (61%) have adapted their legal operating model in response to changes made by their companies, reflecting the rise of remote working and digitisation and increased demand for transparency.  

Given this dynamic, law department leaders are honing in on technology and data to drive value for the business. Helga Butcher, Ashurst's head of legal project management and legal process improvement, commented that Covid-19 has “provided a unique opportunity for legal operations teams to really demonstrate their value as a result of the need to be more agile and streamlined.”

But with budgets for technology investment remaining limited, teams are looking within to see how they might better use the tech they already have. Butcher added: “Our research has shown that law department leaders are developing a blend of cost reduction, efficiency and productivity approaches to their transformation programmes. Building on the adaptive mindset we have seen throughout the pandemic and embracing alternatives to the status quo will be key to meeting increasing demand for new ways of working."

Matt Peacock managing partner at OMC Partners, said: "With intense pressure to reduce spend, headcounts remaining static and the rapid growth in specialist areas such as ESG investing, law department leaders are clearly faced with a challenge as teams look to pivot existing resources to meet this shifting demand. Key to this will be adopting a more balanced blend of resources, whilst retooling their existing teams and developing a broader legal operations skills mix to keep up with growing demands for proven technologies, data driven decision-making and project management."

The research also identified a shifting attitude towards office space, with 75% of respondents planning to review their teams' real estate needs. Of those, around 70% intended to remodel office space to enhance collaboration and short-term social distancing, while half were looking to streamline their office footprints.

Chris Georgiou, global head of Ashurst Advance, added: “This report highlights the opportunities for law departments as they seek to emerge from the pandemic streamlined, match fit and delivering value to their stakeholders. There are lots of possibilities. It is now vital that we embrace and adopt all the lessons and positive changes which have come out of our new ways of working.”

Another recent report by the Association for Corporate Counsel found that in-house legal departments that employ at least one legal ops professional are more advanced than those with no dedicated legal ops function

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