In an exclusive interview, Mary Shen O’Carroll, director of legal operations, technology and strategy at Google, talks to Frankie Wang about the emerging field of legal operations, trends in legal technology and the future of in-house legal teams
China Business Law Journal: Tell us about yourself and Google’s legal operations team?
Mary Shen O’Carroll: So, I joined Google about 12 years ago, and before that I was at a law firm called Orrick, an international law firm. I have been at Google for about 12 years. Our team has grown quite significantly since then. I was the very first legal operations hire. At the time, there wasn’t very much of a job description, and over time our team has grown quite a bit.
We are over 50 professionals now, in legal operations as a function. We describe our mission to be focused on multiplying legal’s impact by driving innovation, operational excellence and focused execution. What that means practically, and what we do – I like to think of us as operating essentially under five kind of broad umbrellas of expertise.
The first one is programme management, and that’s a broad term, but it includes things like strategic planning, process improvements. We have a bunch of ex-consultants who look at the way we do things and think about, is there a better way? And then, also project management, rolling out projects or initiatives either across the department or even sometimes across the company.
The second area of expertise we call data analytics, which is essentially business intelligence, dashboards, analytics and data management. The third pillar is education and knowledge management – that includes things like all the development training material that we do for our lawyers, certification processes, on-boarding of new hires. But it also includes the knowledge management piece, so the development of help centres, ways that we can allow our clients to self-serve, documentation of policies, play books, templates, processes.
The fourth area of expertise we call tech enablement. It’s essentially systems and tools, so the way we evaluate and deliver technology solutions that help the entire department scale with the business. And then, finally, one of the most classic pieces of legal operations is outside counsel and vendor management, so that includes engagement of outside counsel as well as other vendors. Right sourcing, figuring out what the right supplier is for the type of work, and then spend management, managing the budgets, the actual money that we spend outside of the company.
CBLJ: What are the functions that your legal ops team supports?
O’Carroll: Essentially the primary customer for the legal operations team is the legal department, but because of what the lawyers are doing, what the department does, it is so interconnected with the rest of the business. We have partnerships in finance and IT, real estate, and support all the products that Google has as well. The work that we do often has a tie that goes beyond just the department, because it’s the way we interact with the departments, clients, or other parts of the company. So again, while our direct client, who we are working with and problem solving for, is the lawyers, we are always looking out for what’s best for the company.
The legal operations field is still very new, right? We’re still creating what the standard operating procedure is, and oftentimes, if you go to three different companies that have legal operations functions, they’re going to look quite different. They’re going to have different titles, whether it’s a law firm or in-house.
The organization that I am the president of, the CLOC [Corporate Legal Operations Consortium], one of the things that we try to do is create the definition, in a common language and common terminology, across the industry, of what functions are included in the umbrella of legal ops.
If you look at what we call the CLOC core 12, it’s very broad. It includes all those things that we’ve talked about. In terms of standard titles and terminology, I think it’s just going to take time before everyone figures out how to [label] all these things. And I think, even within our own legal department, we have project managers, programme managers, product managers, and it’s not always the same role. As time matures, our space and our function, I think we will get more clarity and alignment across the industry. But right now, I think it is a little bit of each company defining it on their own.
For example, right now technology in the legal industry is still just ramping up and growing. We’re nowhere near the maturity level of the finance department, or the marketing team. So there’s a lot of focus on figuring out what the right technology stack is, how to use it, what to automate, which vendors to go for, and therefore that is a big part of a legal operations job. Eventually, let’s say in many years’ time, when there becomes the one enterprise platform – like the Oracle, the SAP for finance, when there’s that for legal department – then that becomes something that just is part of the job and maybe is not like a major focus area anymore.
I think absolutely tech is a good example of something that’s really a big core of our jobs right now, but maybe down the road it becomes just part of business.
CBLJ: What are the trends you observe in terms of the changing role of legal ops, especially post-covid-19?
O’Carroll: It’s an interesting time, because at least if you think back to when legal ops really exploded in the US, it was 2008 – the great recession, a challenging time in the US for companies and legal departments, and a lot of pressure from the CFO – and so it is in times of constraint that I feel that GCs really are feeling that pressure, and look internally to wonder is there a better way to do things [than] the way we do them right now, and the operations teams, that’s the focus. We try to help deliver business value with quality efficiency and really focus on scaling the legal department into the future.
It’s an investment that’s always needed and that we always think is very valuable. But the urgency is really heightened in times where you feel pressure to do more with your limited resources. I know every legal department that I talk to right now, in the era of covid, is so focused on this ruthless prioritization, investment in technology. How can you stretch your dollar? How can you stretch your resources in your department to do more? We all have these budget constraints and headcount constraints.
But now, until I don’t know when the end of that will be, a lot of folks are turning to legal operations to say: ‘Let’s get creative. Let’s be innovative about how we can still operate and deliver that same quality of service to the company and the clients that we’re used to – but maybe a different way because we can’t do it the way they used to.’
If I would share an important message right now that I think is very timely, it is right now this is the time that everyone is basically looking to cut resources and investments. But the one thing that I would encourage folks not to cut, and instead really think about putting more resources and investment in, it is into legal ops.
I know that sounds really self-serving because that’s what I focus on, but it pays for itself so many times over, and you need to try it to see to believe what the impact is. And for the GCs out there who are thinking about it, just find another GC who has this role in their department and talk to him or her, and I am sure that they will tell how critically impactful this role is, and why it really matters in times like this.
CBLJ: Do you think innovation and technology in the legal industry will be led by in-house teams?
O’Carroll: I think it has been, and it will continue to be. I actually came from a law firm, so I know for many, many years at least – let’s not talk of the law firms of today – but the law firms of yesterday didn’t have any motivation to adopt technology. The billable hour does not encourage you to do things faster. Ironically, it actually is better off, from the revenue side, if you do things slower. The idea of having technology help speed up the process was not something that was a driving factor for law firms. When legal ops started exploding around in-house departments, our job was to look at how to do things more efficiently and effectively.
I’m constantly looking at whether we can pull the levers of people, process and technology. And I remember early on talking to a lot of technology providers and telling them our needs, and we need you to do this, and we need to do that, and there isn’t some tech provider that does this right now. And we were often told, ‘that’s interesting. No one else has asked that before’.
The beauty of a group like CLOC is that now there’s all these legal ops people around the world who have come together. We have this common voice, and we’re sharing ideas and best practices, and kind of agreeing – yes, we would love a tech solution for this. Or we would like to have this as a use case. This has started to have so much momentum and demand in the industry for driving demand for tech that never existed before. It’s definitely coming out of the legal departments, and I think CLOC is making that go faster.
CBLJ: Are law firms adapting to technology and using it well? Are there things they could improve to better serve clients?
O’Carroll: I think they are, and they would be wise to, because it helps. It helps them compete. It helps them do their work better, faster. And it’s a selling point to corporate legal departments, clients.
[As for improvement] It’s a spectrum, right? So certainly, there are those [firms] that are really invested, that really believe that technology can make them do their job better.
But to be frank, that is probably a smaller portion of the firms. There’re also firms that think that they should do something because everyone’s talking about technology, and they’re feeling that pressure from their clients. They want to demonstrate it. So you find a lot of places that have like these titles of chief innovation officer and chief technical adviser, and they’ve got all this AI and blockchain and those kinds of fancy, shiny tools.
But it’s not really focused on how the technology is going to help lawyers do their jobs better and deliver more value to their clients. That’s the piece that I think law firms need to focus on. It’s not selling fancy new tools to your clients, but really showcasing how are you leveraging technology to ensure a better experience for your clients, to deliver better value and to deliver better work product.
CBLJ: What will be the impact of legal tech on the industry?
O’Carroll: There’re so many places that we can go, it’s very, very much untapped. In some ways, we look at the short term. Our expectations for what we want to use for right now are very high. But at the same time, I think our expectations for the long term are on the lower side. We say ‘it would be so crazy to have robot lawyers. It’s never going to happen. AI, machine learning is so far away’.
I sort of disagree with that and agree with that at the same time. I don’t think we’re ever going to not have lawyers. We are going to need lawyers, but we’re going to have different roles and different job functions because the way that legal services are delivered, and the way that the lawyers are going to do their jobs, is going to be very different in the future. And a lot of that is driven by technology.
Tech that exists today can already replace so much of the mundane, routine repeat work that junior attorneys are working on. It’s a good thing. I want to remind everyone this is a good thing. It makes your job more interesting. This is why you became a lawyer. You didn’t become a lawyer to comb through documents and search for terms, right? Or to edit mass documents. So the way that we can use it I think right now is automating, is helping search for stuff, is on the more lower-level of the work.
Long term, we’ve got robots driving cars and flying planes. We have robots performing surgery on human eyes. To think that you’re not going to have a machine be able to help you draft a contract and file a patent – to me that doesn’t seem that crazy that you could have that very soon.
CBLJ: You are attending Tech Law Festival 2020, so what do you hope to experience at the event?
O’Carroll: I’m excited to be a part of it. I think the Tech Law Fest is just another great platform for professionals and legal operations and lawyers to come together and discuss everything about law and technology. And we know it’s a big draw for professionals all throughout Asia, so we definitely wanted to come and educate, and share our learnings and practices with those in the region. I think this will be the biggest Tech Law Fest ever, more opportunities to connect with people, and more people from all over the globe probably this time than ever.
At the event I’m sharing my experiences in legal operations, educating the folks around the world about what it means, why it really matters. And the importance of events like this is that we really bring people together to discover fresh ideas and perspectives, and innovative ways to bring the industry forward.
We know that the industry of tomorrow that we’re trying to shape is going to look very different than it does today, and therefore the lawyers and legal professionals who are going to be successful in their roles have to be very different than they are today.
This means we need to think about those skills, right? What the training looks like, definitely what the first few years of associate life might look like. And then, all that has implications on what that means for law schools and other higher education folks who are entering this field.