Smooth Legal Operations

Arbor Law was joined recently by seasoned Legal Operations expert Neil Smith. Neil is a former Magic Circle litigator with a broad background spanning Legal Operations, Commercial Operations, Sales and Marketing, Knowledge Management and Learning and Development. He brings over twenty years’ experience when it comes to transforming legal teams and functions to maximise and enhance productivity, reduce costs and streamline processes.

We spent some time chatting to Neil for his take on everything you need to know when it comes to Legal Operations. 


What, put simply, is Legal Operations?  

People have lots of different views and definitions of what Legal Operations is. My view is that it is the application of common business processes and technical practises to legal teams and departments to enable them to better serve the legal needs of the business.  This is a wide remit and might cover anything from end to end life cycle process mapping, risk management and reduction, to contract management, automation, metrics and legal team training and development. The list is only limited by the client’s needs and competing priorities. 

What’s the starting point for a Legal Operations project? 

The starting point is to identify the requirements of the legal team and the business and to start! 

Be curious and ask questions. What are the issues in your in-house legal team? Where are your pain points? What can we do to make them better? 

I start all my assignments by asking the legal teams I work with three simple questions: 

  • Where are you now? 
  • Where do you want to be? 
  • How are we going to get there? 

Whilst “legal ops” is no new thing in today’s legal industry,  many General Counsel and in-house lawyers are not sure where to start. In which case a short-term initial health check is a good starting point. 

As Legal Operations is about helping legal teams to work more efficiently and smarter, there’s always going to be more you can do whatever the size of your organisation and wherever you are in your transformation journey. 

How big a part of Legal Operations is legal technology? 

Technology is a big part of Legal Operations, but it’s not the silver bullet. All too often I see in-house legal teams who have invested in brilliant legal technology, but they don’t know how best to optimise it for their team or for the business.  

You need to start off by asking what problem you are trying to solve. Maybe technology is the answer. But it might not be. The better solution right now might simply be to engage in ‘old-school’ end-to-end process mapping or investigate alternative ways of working.  It may even be just using what you’ve already got a lot better.  All of which starts with asking the questions: where are you now, where do you want to be, how are we going to get there? 

What’s the biggest challenge for legal teams when it comes to Legal Operations? 

The biggest challenge for in-house legal teams when it comes to Legal Operations is time.  

I’ve yet to see an underworked legal team. In-house lawyers are super busy. In-house legal teams are juggling a tremendous amount. So the idea of starting a major Legal Operations project can sound daunting.  

But it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Start off with the plan, find your pain points and ask where you want to be and how are we going to get there? Then you can prioritize and you can start small or start chipping away. 

How do you run a successful Legal Operations project? 

It’s a good idea to work out what the rest of the business thinks of the in-house legal team. That can often be a painful question, and people are concerned what it might unearth. There will always be good and bad in the feedback but that’s fine. It’s about being brave and curious and seeking those real insights that will help you to create a legal team that works better for its stakeholders.  

The real stakeholders are your internal clients – ie the rest of the business – and it is vital to bring them with you.  Any  project needs to be meaningful for them, so the messaging and the communication to the business is paramount. We often run monthly updates on projects that show key stakeholders exactly where money and time is being spent. It shows why an initiative is relevant and impactful, and it keeps them on board. The change management piece is huge but often not prioritised. 

Let’s look at a good example of identifying a need, getting started and getting buy-in.

NDAs can be painful to draft, but it’s often the starting point to a big commercial transaction with the business. So, NDAs need to be turned around quickly.  That is often the first point of attack in a document automation initiative: they tend to be massive crowd pleasers!  It’s a win for the legal team because they are saving time dealing with NDAs.  It’s a win for the business because you can see how much quicker money is coming in as a direct result of an expedited contract process. So….. 

…..communicate this to the business! Help them to understand how operationalising legal will benefit them.  

It’s never too late to get started when it comes to Legal Operations 

As I’ve mentioned above, lifecycle mapping is a good starting point for a Legal Operations project – mapping a matter from the moment it enters the in-house legal team to the moment it ‘leaves’.  Who does what?  When does or should external counsel come into play? How does work leave the legal team? Is or should technology be involved? What you see is that some of those steps are repeated, redundant or overlap with other steps (or indeed other tech!) taken by other departments. From this, your plan is often born. Are there people doing things they shouldn’t be doing?  Can we find a better solution? Is that solution a person, a process or technology? 

In-house legal teams are sometimes criticized for being risk averse, so you could also take risk as a starting point. Map it out and look at the risk assessment tools that you use. Look at how claims and dispute reporting is handled. Take a holistic view on risk and being more balanced about risk. A good example of this is a traffic light policy. If a matter hits (or is below) certain thresholds – maybe it doesn’t include any IP or is below, say, £5k in value – then that contract might not need to be reviewed by the legal team. There will still be some inherent risk, but it might be a risk worth taking to free the time of the legal team, empower the business and speed up the end-to-end contracting process. 

What skillset does it take to work in Legal Operations? 

Legal Operations is a huge umbrella term which covers so many different disciplines. There are qualified lawyers, legal technologists, process-mapping experts and coaches for in-house lawyers who are all Legal Operations professionals. I do find my qualified legal background especially useful because I’ve got a rounded view of the complete jigsaw, the pressures that lawyers face and how things can be improved. With my legal ops lens on top of it, I feel like I am well placed to advise on the best solution. More important than technical skills is the mindset you need. Be curious. Be a problem-solver. Be inventive. Do not be afraid to challenge. And… innovative! 

If you are a legal team looking for support when it comes to Legal Operations projects, contact Neil on

We will be returning with some more of Neil’s thought as we continue with our Smooth Legal Operations series in 2023. Stay tuned for next month when we will be discussing all things Service Delivery