It’s so easy for in-house legal teams to feel isolated from the larger company. Attorneys tend to be risk averse and compliance focused. Often perceived as a support function, they are brought into important initiatives only when an issue comes up. They speak their own language.
Enter the legal chief of staff. People-oriented and politically savvy, the legal chief of staff is the bridge between the legal department and the business.
Typically, the legal chief of staff acts as a trusted advisor to the general counsel, building relationships with leadership to advance the company vision and goals. Important responsibilities include strategic planning, managing operations and vendors, introducing process improvements and new technologies, and tracking key performance indicators.
We sat down with Brad Johnston, Chief of Staff and Director of Operations at renewable energy company SunPower, to learn more about his role and how it adds value to the business.
Before law school, Brad served in the U.S. Navy and managed a lumber yard. He’s practiced law as a law firm partner and served in-house, including as a director of ediscovery and chief legal officer. The prominent and strategic nature of the chief of staff role opens career doors, he says, and can position legal professionals for higher-level leadership within a company.
What’s been driving the need for a legal chief of staff in the last few years?
I think we’re beginning to see law departments wanting to be run more like a business unit than a law firm attached to the company. There’s been a disconnect between the legal ops group and the strategy of the company. The chief of staff connects the business to the law department and the law department to the business, and gets much more heavily involved in budgeting and staffing and other initiatives.
My staff and I manage the SMART goals for the law department. It calls for a strategic level of thinking to support the GC, who is required to provide a much higher level of business advice to the company.
The chief of staff connects the business to the law department and the law department to the business.
What was your path to the legal chief of staff position?
A friend made me aware of the role. I come from the ediscovery space. My goal was to become department head of ediscovery in-house. Attending the Cowen Cafe sessions, I began to hear about ediscovery professionals taking the skill set for project management, problem solving and consensus building, and applying them in the legal ops role. That role was growing in impact. I began to see really smart folks in the legal ops space wanting to have a larger mandate and a bigger footprint.
I started thinking, what does my skill set look like in another setting? With CLOC (the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) and legal ops, the need for functional-level networking is critical with these kinds of roles. The ediscovery space is similar, operations and legal ops is a very community-oriented organization. I’ve been able to call folks at competitors and vendors and ask, “What do you think about this, is this a crazy idea?” It’s a very collaborative environment, and that will be true for the chief of staff, too.
What are the most important competencies for those who have an eye on becoming a legal chief of staff?
Communication skills, emotional intelligence – and that means a bunch of different things to different people – the ability to gain the trust of the company leadership. You really need to be able to connect with people.
You’ve also talked about the importance of legal expertise, financial acumen, and technology savvy. Do you have to be an expert in all three to be successful?
It’s not set in stone at my organization. In the past, it's come out of an IT- or finance-centric role. I’m the first legal chief of staff at the company. I’m not an expert in finance or tech but I’ve forced myself out of the traditional role into learning those pieces so I can speak intelligently about them. But for the day-to-day administration of the function, you need someone who knows those areas really well.
It's important to have very strong lieutenants on the tech and financial side. In a small organization, you may want to have one person doing all three. But that puts a lot of pressure on one person, and it’s not a great quality-of-life situation. There should be folks who can backstop the person who’s responsible for the entire shebang.
What does your typical week look like?
A typical week will always involve examining what our projects look like. I’m a process-driven person. I get excited about making things more efficient, both within the legal ops team and the legal department generally. We identify areas we want to make improvements and how we prioritize what to focus on.
We’re experiencing lower staffing than we’d like, so the only other option is to spend more money on outside counsel, vendors or software – or find ways to improve processes. I like to ask people, “Where does your job suck and how can we make it not suck?”
It’s really about finding opportunities for people to engage fully in their work. I love my job, it gets me excited, and I want other people to feel the same way about their jobs.
You’ve said you’re training your lawyers to be more like business people. What does that look like?
I came to the practice of law a little differently. I served four years as an officer in the Navy and four years running a lumber yard, managing people at both. When I went to law school, I had some real-life experience. Then I spent some time practicing in big firms and was frustrated. It was no fault of the attorneys – a lot of them didn’t have a lot of practical business experience, they were substantive wizards of the law, but not understanding the practical necessities of what the business needs.
At our company, we have very business-savvy attorneys. With more junior attorneys, particularly those coming out of firms, it takes a while to get them out of the ivory-tower legal mentality. In part I have them shadow conversations with the business, to hear conversations that occur at the higher levels. I think those experiences are invaluable.
As the in-house legal department continues to evolve, the roles also seem to be fluid and ever changing. What challenges does that bring?
I think we’re going to see conversations begin around what we should NOT be taking on. Folks in legal ops think we should take on the world – we're problem solvers – but in those gray areas like information governance, data security and privacy, even compliance – to what extent should legal ops own those functions or be strong consultants to the business?
Everyone is talking about Gen AI. I’m worried about it, but what role should I play in introducing concerns to the company or do I find someone in the IT space, and say, here are the problems we see, how do we present it to the company? Are there other areas where I can partner with them to make sure our interests are represented?
Some have described the role as “developmental” – a position that sets you up for a higher level of leadership and strategy. What horizons does it open up in a legal career?
I used to think if you wait, you’ll probably see the director of legal ops become CLO. I don’t think that so much anymore. But I definitely see being a COO of the company or chief of staff to a CEO of a very large organization.
Fifteen years ago, nobody thought there would be a director of ediscovery of a pharma company and nobody would’ve thought legal ops would be an independent group. Five years ago, nobody would’ve thought the legal chief of staff would be a role.
The important piece is, as far as the future goes, every time there's a shift in mindset, the community has found new ways to solve what’s being asked of us.
What are some major strategic initiatives you’re tackling this year?
This is probably not surprising: contract lifecycle management, making sure that’s tuned up; matter and process management for the legal department; and outside counsel management. Those are the three big ones I'm working on right now for managing big projects.
And a whole host of other projects trying to take a law department from a law firm mentality to a business mentality. We’re constantly seeing how we’re addressing workflows and finding ways to improve them.
Looking 10 years out, what challenges and skill sets should in-house legal leaders be thinking about now to build a successful legal department of the future?
I don’t think technology will ever replace lawyers. Even with Gen AI, at the end of the day, human judgment is required to make some of these decisions. I think we’ll see law departments able to manage and understand massive amounts of data and provide sound legal advice with the help of technology.
Also something I think will come out of Gen AI is lawyers will be less focused on content creation and more on editing; less of the original drafting will be done by attorneys.
I think automation will be incredibly important, whether it’s contract lifecycle management or building in-house systems. We’ll see a lot more self-service models, where the business has access to legal work, whether access through chat bots or access to contract systems.
We'll find ways at the triage level to get a lot more organized to get the business answers a lot more quickly, leaving attorneys and staff more time for what’s really important for the company: working at the strategic level, focusing on risk mitigation and taking advantage of the opportunities being presented to the company.
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