Why Legal Ops Have Been Largely Unscathed By COVID-19

By Michele Gorman
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Law360 (December 16, 2020, 10:44 PM EST) -- Most legal operations professionals who responded to a newly released survey said the coronavirus pandemic has had a minimal impact on their roles, although a vast majority also said they're craving more innovation from the law firms they work with.

Some in-house legal departments, like their law firm peers across the world, furloughed employees and cut salaries earlier this year to help reduce their economic burden. But the pandemic has had a "relatively restrained impact" on legal operations, according to the Blickstein Group's 13th annual Law Department Operations Survey, released Wednesday.

The goal of legal ops professionals is to bring the law department in line with the expectations of other business units at a company, Blickstein Group principal Brad Blickstein told Law360. Not every in-house team has a legal ops function.

"The legal ops function is designed to improve the professionalization of the law department — so running more like a business — and more importantly, being run like a business unit of the corporation like other business units are being run," Blickstein said.

The survey, conducted with 108 participants in October and November, found that the effects of COVID-19 weren't at the top of the list of concerns for legal department operations professionals, or LDOs. When asked about their main challenges, only 11% of the LDOs surveyed considered COVID-19-related budget cuts among their top three hurdles — and just 10% identified working from home or returning to work.

Instead, about 60% of LDOs said managing the budget was their No. 1 concern, followed by about 56% who said business process improvements, and about 38% who said departmental resources such as technology and retention, according to the data.

"When asked to rank how much the legal operations function has changed due to or since COVID-19, most reported that there had been little impact," the survey said.

The survey pointed out that LDOs' ability to adapt and transition their departments and companies into the "new normal has been on full display."

More than three-quarters of the respondents handle legal ops as their only role, the Blickstein Group said, while the rest deal with legal ops in addition to another law department role.

"It's becoming quite infrequent where it's a part-time job for someone in the law department," Blickstein said. "It's becoming a much more distinct, mature function."

Since Blickstein conducted the survey in the fall, he wondered whether the participants' responses would've been different had he asked in the summer or spring. But at the same time, he credited the LDOs' answers on the purpose of their jobs.

"They figure out how to build process, they figure out what technology to use, and they apply that at the law department," Blickstein said. "If there's a group of people that are well positioned to help their departments through something like COVID, these are them."

The survey also explored how LDOs are seeking better ways to deliver legal services to their businesses. While more than half of respondents said their firms were leveraging technology to deliver services more effectively, nine out of 10 said they "would appreciate law firms approaching them more frequently with new legal service delivery models," according to the survey.

"While it seems that LDO professionals believe that their law firms are becoming more innovative, they do not necessarily feel that those innovations are executed or offered to them in any systematic way," the survey said.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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