Legal operations, once merely an administrative legal function, has now evolved to be an essential part of legal teams at healthcare and life sciences companies. Legal ops professionals drive decisions with data, and their input is crucial for managing overall risk to the organization. Through a series of interviews with practitioners, MedCity News and Above the Law dive deep into this sector.
Stephanie Corey is the CEO & Co-Founder at UpLevel Ops. Headquartered in Redwood City, CA, the consulting firm provides a complete range of legal operations support, including strategic planning and org design, assessments and roadmaps, technology selection and implementation, process redesign, workflow automation, best practices and metrics, and outside counsel management. Stephanie is also the Co-Founder of LINK, the Legal Innovators Network, a professional organization for experienced legal ops professionals.
Read about how Stephanie’s legal ops career grew from her role at Hewlett Packard to becoming an industry expert who’s learned to ask the hard questions, such as: “Does a lawyer really need to look at this?”
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did you get into legal operations?
The majority of my career I was in-house. I came from the finance world and was going to be a stockbroker. I have an undergraduate degree in economics and an MBA and when I started out doing legal operations at Hewlett Packard I thought it would last for two years as an entryway into a business role. I never imagined spending my whole career with a legal team and lawyers. When I started out, I was mostly helping lawyers figure out how to reduce spend. Then the role evolved and I started seeing if there were better ways to do things. I had an operations background, and I tried to see what was happening in the legal department, tie everything together, then tell the story of what legal was working on, so lawyers could focus on the substantive legal work. I stayed at HP for over a decade and was eventually promoted to chief of staff.
I learned to ask the hard questions, including, “Does a lawyer need to look at this?” Often the answer is no. Then you can have lawyers focus on higher value things than spending time on negotiating NDAs, for example.
I realized my role was unique within HP and there was no one I could really benchmark with. That’s when I started the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium to create a community for support.
I co-founded UpLevel Ops six years ago with my friend and General Counsel, Jon Hoak, and it was a great decision and an exciting time to be in this space. We have an immensely talented team across the US, with deep in-house experience, supporting UpLevel clients all over the world.
What are the challenges of working in legal operations?
Being resourced properly and being taken seriously. Often you’ll hear the term “non-lawyer.” It’s always derogatory even if it’s subconsciously mentioned. We have to change this so the attitude is that the legal professionals encourage scaling up. By automating, outsourcing, and by bringing a business mindset to the practice of law it will ultimately help change how law is practiced. The only way you’ll be able to meet the increasing demands of the business is through legal operations because you don’t have unlimited headcount.
After meeting other legal operations professionals through CLOC, I saw that we were all struggling with getting resources and solving for the same problems, for example the expense of outside counsel, reporting, navigating what was going on with our contracts, and working with repositories with tons of data.
UpLevel Ops wants to change the perception that legal is a cost center and “the department of no,” where lawyers shut down anything innovative. If we can rewrite that story, legal can be properly resourced and get what they need to automate. We want to work with lawyers so we can say “help us do this legally and ethically,” for example, or enter a new market, create new products, or get revenue faster.
It’s why networking is so important. This is why I helped start LINK, the Legal Innovators Network, with my partner, Andrew Dick. Our new community is 6 months old, but we’ve got more than 400 members. We have monthly, legal ops topic-driven events called LINK-Ups and coming soon we’re starting to host in-person happy hours for networking in various cities across the country.
What do you think legal departments should be doing now?
Back in the day you saw work done in-house and work outsourced to law firms. In-house lawyers did day-to-day mundane work, and law firms did the high-end, strategic work. It was very expensive and not ideal for in-house when all of the fun work was outsourced.
General counsels need to think bigger picture and think strategically like their peers and ask themselves, “What value can I add to the business?” For example, if a CEO says, “We want to increase revenue by X,” legal needs to think about how they can support that. Then the operations team needs to figure out how to get that done.
Legal departments need to look at the work they’re doing in-house and make a strategic decision on what they want to keep in-house and what they want to outsource. For example, instead of hiring five contract attorneys, bring in a partner who does just that and they focus on the hiring, management, and scaling. It’s not an easy fix, but once you have that partnership running, it is gold. Then you free up time on the in-house attorneys plates and they can pull strategic work from law firms.
I also recommend sending high-volume, low-risk work to a partner, and only using law firms when you really need them, which is also a less expensive total cost for the legal department and results in a happier legal department with keeping that knowledge in-house.
Lastly, I recommend doing an evaluation of the work done in the department. Make sure the right people are doing the work, in-house or out-of-house. Look at the processes, and then evaluate the technology. Make sure the technology is there to support the people and the processes. Companies don’t need that many bells and whistles, especially if you’re going to outsource. Then you can leverage the outside company’s technology and you don’t even need a tool.
What do you predict for the future of legal operations?
A renewed focus on the work being done and the proper use of partners. I think that’s critical. We’re seeing more chief legal officers and general counsels pay attention to that.
We’ll see a move away from hourly and technology can support that with e-billing systems. We’ll also see automated workflows and self-help tools for clients to shield lawyers from not doing work that’s not worth their time. That’s something automation technology and bots will get people to the right resource more quickly to help lawyers from answering repetitive questions, such as point clients to a template, or top ten FAQs.
How have you seen legal operations change the last 5 years?
A lot of legal teams are shocked at the salaries legal operations professionals are making and they’ll say, “That’s what I pay my lawyers.” I’ll tell them, “Yes, exactly because that’s the role that will help you scale.”
The roles are very in demand. I feel very optimistic, especially when I think about how busy UpLevel Ops has been the past two or three years. The pandemic accelerated this growth because general counsels realized if they try to delay automation they can’t put it off for very long, and they’re recognizing that they need other resources.
What are the challenges in legal operations at a healthcare system?
The majority of our clients at UpLevel are in healthcare. Surprisingly, we don’t come across one particular challenge that’s specific to healthcare.
Data privacy is always an issue and protecting private health information. If the healthcare company has any rules around keeping things onshore and not sending them out of the country, then there are considerations that vary by industry and by company.
Healthcare companies do have a lot of high-volume contracts and making sure they’re meeting their privacy obligations, but that’s similar across the board. The only difference is there’s more of a focus on regulatory and we take that into consideration when working with partners.