Mary O'Carroll: 'It's the folks with the mindset to challenge the status quo that go on to create real change'

Founder of Google's legal ops arm and Ironclad's first chief community officer on CLOC, the billable hour and digitising contracts

O'Carroll joined Ironclad earlier this month after 13 years at Google Image courtesy of Ironclad

As Ironclad’s first chief community officer, Mary O'Carroll is set to scale and lead the company’s community as part of making digital contracting the new standard for business contracting.  She is the former president of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and was most recently the founding legal operations director at Google. Ironclad is a digital contract lifecycle management platform for legal teams.  

You are passionate about transforming the business of law through legal operations, but you are not a lawyer. How did you develop this passion?  

My background is in business, finance and consulting. In all those roles, the job is to come in to a client company and ask questions to see where there is an opportunity to make things better. When I joined Orrick in 2003, I was new to the legal profession and I started to ask questions like, “why is compensation motivated by hours billed?”  For an outsider coming in, law firms looked completely antiquated in terms of their business model and how they forecasted financial performance.  From this experience, I felt a passion to fix the industry through efficiency, technology and similar tools.    

I’ve been a change agent throughout my career. When I led CLOC, it doubled the size of its membership, expanded its global presence and became known as the preeminent legal operations community.  When you think about change in the legal industry, it’s been driven by organisations like CLOC and in-house legal teams that are asking law firms to price differently, re-think their business models and do things differently. It's in-legal teams that are asking for technology and have created a market for it.  

Coming from the business world, what was the biggest surprise you found in the law firm environment? 

There’s a scene in Zoolander where Will Ferrell says, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”  That’s how I felt when I came up against the tradition-bound mindset in law firms. When I asked about compensation not being aligned with clients, people looked at me like I had alien eyes coming out of my head. The idea that you could try something differently with a new lens was preposterous.    

To your mind, what is that different way? 

It’s a combination of data, technology and right-sourcing, and putting structure into each engagement. Take workload allocation, for example. Putting your finger in the air and saying ‘We need headcount because I’m busy’ isn’t a data-driven way to make that decision.  So we have to ask, where people are spending their time in a department, what are the hot areas of work, what are the metrics we should use, is the work high or low complexity, what area of law does it relate to, what area of the company’s products does it relate to and so forth. When you start to gather information that doesn’t always provide the answer but it allows you to dig in and ask the questions that will lead to better business decisions.  

Do you think you’ll ever be able to change the billable hour as the standard in law firms? 

As a community, we’ve made great strides in letting law firms know that companies want to work differently. We are seeing more alternative fee and other structures. We are getting away from the billable hour but this is not something that is going to happen quickly. It’s an ingrained business model that many lawyers don’t believe is broken. It’s hard to take out.  

You are a frequent speaker to lawyers and at law schools. What advice do you give them? 

There isn’t just one thing but there is the opportunity to be the voice that changes the status quo. I tell young lawyers to ask why things are done the way they are and look for better ways to do them. I tell them that when they are confronted with “no” that’s often their opportunity to innovate, whether in their own workplace or by starting a new one. It’s the folks with the mindset to challenge the status quo that go on to create real change in our industry.  

Beyond legal operations, do you have hobbies or other passions? 

For better or worse, my hobby is legal operations. Right now, I am passionate about making digital contracting the new standard for business contracting. I feel lucky that I can build a global community at Ironclad from the ground up and help elevate contracting professionals across departments and industries. When contracting is optimised and digitised, and when the billable hour is dead, that’s when my work will be complete.  

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