Transformation in the legal industry is accelerating. Legal teams are facing the choice to leave behind the tools and processes of the past and embrace modern ones built for the challenges of today’s digital-first world. The shift is exciting on one hand – enabling in-house professionals to work faster, more strategically, and with greater confidence. But change can also be painful, especially for teams that are maxed out with ever-increasing responsibilities.
Everlaw Director of Legal Ops & Strategy Catherine Choe knows that to successfully ease cross-functional teams into new, more productive habits, legal teams need to manage change intentionally. Before joining Everlaw, Catherine practiced law at a defense litigation firm, taught best practices to legal and compliance departments, and led global leadership workshops on soft skills for project managers. At Everlaw, she is responsible for streamlining operations within legal and between legal and all of its stakeholders.
We sat down with Catherine to discuss the importance of leading through persuasion, cultivating allies, handling the fallout when things don’t go as planned – and what’s next in the evolution of the legal ops profession.
You’re an attorney, you’ve worked as a business consultant, and now you’re leading the legal ops team at Everlaw. How has your career path informed your approach at Everlaw?
Practicing law for a little while helps me understand what our customers are looking for, and it helps me understand what my colleagues in the legal department are worried about. But it’s the years of consulting and teaching best practices in managing legal and compliance departments that had the biggest impact. I taught GCs and chief compliance officers how to run their departments as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Shana (Everlaw’s CLO) and I are constantly thinking about how we prioritize in the legal department, what the company needs, and how legal can improve the way we facilitate growth and mitigate risk at scale. What do we need to do in the legal department that will have maximum impact on those things?
Change management has been described as part project management and part social art. Does that resonate, and why?
It does. I really like the addition of the social art piece. My experience with change management is, “We’re going to change the way we do things” and on the outside, the people the changes affect say, “That sounds great.” But some percentage – and it’s always larger than you know or suspect – are thinking, “You’ll take the existing process out of my cold, dead hand. I’m going to continue to do things the same way.” The social art is getting to the root cause of why that may be. People aren’t going to tell you the truth unless they trust you. In my role, if I can find a way not to upset your apple cart and still get a result, that’s how I'll go. I love process but not for the sake of process. I want to understand what I may be missing, figure out what we can preserve, but still get to a better result.
At Everlaw, you’ve played an early role in establishing processes across the legal team and other departments that drive success for the company. What types of initiatives have you tackled and what do you believe contributed to success?
The issue with establishing processes is that it means you’re imposing change on people. A long time ago, I was on a conference call with a cross-functional group, and somebody said: “A new initiative is rolling out across the company. Change is good.” And somebody who forgot to mute said, “Yeah, change is good, you go first.” That was the realest moment ever. Change is hard and you only change when the alternative is less painful than what you’re experiencing now.
When I got here, there was no triage for getting legal to redline or negotiate contracts, so sales bombarded legal with requests, and legal played whack-a-mole. Nobody was happy, because sales had no idea when they’d get their contracts back, and legal felt like it was drowning. My third week at Everlaw, I told sales and legal that I was inserting myself into the process to triage. To counter the illusion of me being a bottleneck, legal promised that sales would have its contracts back in five business days. It worked out because while I imposed process on everyone, the lawyers got space to do their work, and sales got certainty.
The other thing I have working in my favor is that I genuinely love sales. They also drive me crazy, but I know how hard their job can be, and I never forget that this is the team that brings in revenue for the company. I don’t view them as the enemy, which some legal departments secretly or not-so-secretly do. Because of this, I think that sales trusts that I’m not doing things just to punish them, so when we implemented our contract lifecycle management tool, we didn’t have anybody going rogue. Also, when we launched the tool, I told them, “This isn’t going to be perfect because I can’t anticipate every scenario, but if you tell me what the problems are, I’ll fix them as fast as humanly possible,” and that gave me some credibility as well.
Allies are key. How do you go about building support for major change?
I describe the goal of the change or the business outcome that the change supports at a really high, strategic level. At more tactical levels, the details and the impacts are very personal. They’re different for every department, so the more you can point to the big picture and get to a goal that everyone can attach to – and say, “Oh right, this is the business outcome and the impact we’re looking for, and this is what we must do to get there,” – you get those allies in a more productive way. It’s the difference between telling sales, “We have a new tool for you to generate contracts” and “We have a tool that’s going to help you close deals and bring in revenue faster.” A new contract generation tool sounds like a lot of work for me to learn when the old way is working fine. A new tool that speeds deal closing sounds like something I’d like to use right away.
Very few people are in a place where they can mandate change, how do you lead by persuasion rather than command, and how do you reduce the roadblocks to change?
We think hard about how to make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing. If you give people the option to do it the old way with the same result as doing the new way, they will not change. But if we say we’ll prioritize the items you do the new way, and deprioritize the items you handle the old way, then it’s more advantageous to do things the new way. You have to make the roadblocks for the new way smaller than the roadblocks for the old way.
How do you determine success?
By not having people going rogue and doing things the old way. Ideally, you have people coming to you saying, “I’m so happy we’re doing things this new way.” Most importantly, we’re also accomplishing the business outcome that the change is supposed to support.
As you said earlier, you can’t anticipate every issue, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. What’s your approach to dealing with failure?
To learn from it as quickly as possible and to understand why it happened and then fix what needs to be fixed. You also have to set expectations really early. Explain that you’re aiming for x but it won't be perfect at the beginning. Sometimes change teams go in to generate excitement and enthusiasm for the change, and they inadvertently overpromise what the benefits are going to be and how easy it's going to be. But you have to be really realistic to maintain credibility so you can go back and say, “We knew something was going to go wrong, it happens to be this thing, let’s go back and fix it.”
Leaders in the legal profession are navigating a digital transformation on a scale that’s been compared to sales with the rollout of Salesforce or HR with Workday. In your experience working with legal teams in various industries, what do lawyers need to understand about change management?
In my experience, because lawyers are trained to be risk averse, sometimes that translates into being change averse. Lawyers would rather stick with the devil they know than the devil they don’t know. But we’re in a time when lawyers are going to have to adopt new technology or be left behind, which in turn means their clients are going to be left behind. And the clients are not going to care about the risk appetite of their lawyers. All they’re going to care about is the outcomes they’re achieving – or not achieving.
What are the top concerns in the legal ops community today?
The conversations I’ve been part of have been around headcount and budgets. Part of the reason we’re talking about it is I think the benchmarks out there are generic, and it’s hard to find ones that reflect your company’s priorities and risks and demographics (yes, I’m looking for a perfect benchmark). As a natural follow-on to this, we’re also talking about what tools are available to automate certain processes and the hard message of prioritization, which is that it’s likely some things won’t get done. We’ve also been talking about change management and what’s worked for others and how to apply it in our own departments.
How do you see the legal ops role evolving to help in the transition?
When I first started working with legal departments over a decade ago, they didn’t have legal ops, but sometimes a company with a large legal department would have a legal Department Business Manager, who was responsible for managing the budget, working with the GC on headcount, and pulling together reporting for management and the Board. You’d usually only see it at the Fortune 500. What’s happening now is companies recognize that every legal department benefits from having someone thinking about how legal fits into the company’s strategy and translating that into how legal should work with its stakeholders.
If the vision doesn’t come from top leadership but the legal teams still want to be innovative and enhance their value as a more strategic partner, how can they make their case?
You have to tie your initiative to whatever the company's strategic goals are. And then ask to run a pilot – pilots can be so powerful! It’s what Amy at Womble Bond did. She’s getting much wider adoption of her tool because of how much support she’s able to offer in accomplishing her firm’s strategic goals. If you can’t tie the things you’re working on to the company's strategic goals, it doesn't matter how well they work, you’re not going to get any support from anyone.
Generally speaking, no matter the industry or company size, what is the next big area of innovation in legal?
E-billing was one of the first because getting legal bills is a mess. Contract lifecycle management has also gotten a lot of attention and seen a lot of great innovation. I’m biased because I work for a cloud-native ediscovery platform, but I think the next frontier is ediscovery.
Companies will always have litigation, especially in the United States, and that litigation is going to come with a mountain of information attached. Statista predicts that the volume of data created and consumed worldwide will grow to more than 180 zettabytes by 2025 – that’s up from just 2 zettabytes in 2010.
If you’re not managing this with a purpose-built tool, then you’re not working as effectively as you should be for your clients. You’re not going to be able to do a Control-F on 180+ ZB of data.