Updated: Aug 2, 2022
Mary O’Carroll is a results-oriented, data driven executive passionate about creating and leading world class strategy and operations organizations with a proven track record of forming teams, establishing scalable processes while experiencing hypergrowth, and managing P&Ls in both small and large companies.
At Google, she has built and managed the operations of the legal department allowing the organization to scale from 200 to 1300+ people and has received numerous industry awards for her innovative approach. In addition, Mary established and leads the fastest growing and most influential member-based organization in the legal industry, CLOC, known for driving industry innovation and change.
Tell me a little about your background and how you ended up in the role that you have now.
I started my career in investment banking and strategy consulting and loved helping companies grow or solve their problems. I got to dive in deep with clients from different industries, learn what made them successful, consult them on what challenges they were facing and then help them come up with solutions. After that, I stumbled into the world of legal operations when I joined Orrick. There, I reported to the COO and focused on profitability analysis. This was everything from figuring out matter and practice group profitability to advising the partners on how to run the business side of things such as pricing and staffing matters. I loved it, and that is where my passion in transforming the business of law was born.
Next I got a call from Google, and I loved the idea of being able to change the industry from the inside. What I quickly learned was that unlike the firms, we had no access to that wealth of data and we faced completely different types of challenges to solve. So, I started building the legal department operations from scratch and it all kind of snowballed from there.
Nobody knew what legal operations was at that time, but I was lucky enough to meet a few people in Silicon Valley who had the same role. We started meeting regularly to exchange ideas and best practices on legal operations and that’s how CLOC was born. After a couple years, there were so many people who wanted to be involved that we realized it was time to turn our group into a real organization. In 2016, we incorporated and introduced CLOC to the world as a global movement.
Why is a legal operations function important?
“Legal operations” describes a set of business processes, activities, and the professionals who enable legal organizations to serve their clients more effectively by applying business and technical practices to the delivery of legal services. The Legal ops function includes things like strategic planning, financial management, project management, and technology expertise that enables legal professionals to focus on providing legal advice.
This is important because it allows the Legal Department to do three things well:
1. Execute at scale 2. Optimize resources and value through rightsourcing 3. Improve client experiences
Now that the value and impact of this function is so well recognized and clear, it is hard for me to imagine how a legal department can survive today without one. Legal Operations as a function is also important because it has been the main driver of transformation in our industry. Legal Ops professionals are laser focused on efficiency and effectiveness and as a result, created and are driving a demand in the industry for better pricing models, alternative legal services providers, legal technology, data analytics, project management, etc. That, in turn, has created new roles and job functions throughout the legal ecosystem. Of course this has already had an impact on legal education and training because the lawyers of tomorrow will be practicing law in different ways that require more collaboration, more technical skills, and more data analysis. Plus, those graduating from law school programs who once only had one path to follow, now have a plethora of options and directions to choose from.
How does one go about building out a legal operations function?
One of the questions I get the most is where to start, so I wrote an eBook for CLOC called “Guide to Your First 100 Days in Legal Ops” to address just that. In short, it really depends on your own department and what is most important to your General Counsel and your leadership team. Figure out where the gaps are between what is critical and where your department current is in that area. There is likely also quite a bit of low hanging fruit, so look for quick wins to prove the value and impact of your role.
As a GC who is looking to establish this role and function, the first step is clearly defining the role, ensuring a seat at the leadership table, and empowering that person to make change. You want someone with business acumen, creativity, influencing skills, project management expertise, and tech savvy. Some incorrectly believe that this role only exists in big companies, but legal ops is everywhere in small departments — we’ve even seen it be the first hire after the GC in many start ups. Essentially, this is the hire that can help your department operate at scale, to grow, to stay efficient, to do more without a lot of resources, etc. It doesn’t matter what size your department is, everyone can benefit from that kind of focus.
How do IT and knowledge management fit into the legal operations ecosystem?
It would be difficult to separate IT and knowledge management from the legal operations role and ecosystem. At the heart of everything we do is data because that is what should be informing leadership where the areas of opportunity are and driving decision making. I am a strong believer that both data and knowledge management should be considered “first class citizens” in any initiative, process improvement, technology implementation, etc.
How do you innovate within your role?
I’m fortunate to be working at a company like Google where innovation is core to our culture. We’ve been given a lot of autonomy to go out there and identify opportunities to make an impact in the department and have the green light to make things happen. That allows us to take risks, try new things, and simply experiment. Sometimes we find a small group of lawyers willing to let us try doing things a little different, and other times, we’re able to make large scale changes all at once. And you already know I’m going to say this, but most of the time, our innovative approaches have more to do with people and process than they do with technology.