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Akshay Verma

Akshay Verma is a legal operations leader, formerly Director and Head of Legal Operations at Meta and Director of Legal Operations for Coinbase and now Chief Operating Officer of Spotdraft. He has also worked for Axiom Global where he spent over six years supporting Silicon Valley’s largest technology companies on legal department strategy and practiced environmental law before that.

How would you define legal operations?

That's a great question. I feel like my answer to that question changes at least annually. But if I was to step back (and before leaving Meta I had just gone through this exercise with my team) I’d say that Legal operations is a support function to a support function. Legal is a support function to the business, and legal operations is a support function to the legal department. In fact the tagline we used at Meta was “legal's enablement engine.” I'm really into alliteration, so I like that one. I’d also add that legal operations is a multidisciplinary approach to squeezing as much juice as you possibly can out of the legal department. If you want to get more granular than that, there are various aspects to doing it. There's the people aspect (who does what). There is the process aspect (how work is done). There is the technology aspect. At least those three things are the basic tools in the toolkit for legal ops professionals that help them enable and optimize the department.

Given your definition, how would you say that legal operations has evolved since you first got started in the space?

Legal operations certainly predates my time in the space. But I would say, particularly in the last ten years, it's become a recognized discipline. And there are several examples like this and other industries where a particular discipline, a particular role, a particular function, arrive on the scene. And I'd say legal ops arrived on the scene maybe five to seven years ago. And the reason I say that is not just because of the work that I've been doing both at Axiom, where I started in 2012, and certainly over the last three years at Meta. But also because if you look across the industry, the focus that legal departments, the focus that general counsel, chief legal officers have placed on building this function out in their legal departments is significant; to me it is a great data point for concluding that the discipline has arrived in the legal industry.

If you were just to do a quick search on LinkedIn for legal operations roles, you would see a huge number, all different levels, but particularly at the Director level. Legal leaders are seeing the value in investing early. So that's another important aspect of this as well is not only is the function now becoming a mainstay in legal departments, but there are also different stratifications in the function, right? There are senior leaders. There are analysts. There are managers. There are associates. So, you're seeing that corporate stratification, which is a really good connotation for a sophistication in how the function develops in the legal department and how it's starting to develop across the industry.

And you know, I teach at my alma mater, SCU Law. I teach a class, which in part talks about career pathing for law students, getting them thinking about being intentional on how they build out their business plans for themselves very early on in law school. And the thing that I can say now to these 1L's that I probably couldn't have said five or six years ago is just the variety and spectrum of opportunity that's available to them post-graduation. That's beyond just practicing law. Really cool, interesting stuff as you and I both know, right? I don't practice law. I keep my license. I don't know if you do or not. I keep my license because it's the one thing I hang onto from my JD and my Esq. I'm going to keep that. It's relatively easy to do it, so I do it.

But I haven't practiced a lick of law really... Well, I've done a few things for friends here and there. But other than that, nothing since 2012, when I left the law firm life. And I've had so much fun, and I continue to have so much fun. And that's an important message for law students to hear. You don't have to just get out and practice law. You don't have to go to a firm or you don't have to go straight in-house. You don't have to go to government. There are a bunch of other cool things that are going on in our industry that you should explore for yourselves. Legal Operations is just one of them.

What do you think is a persistent myth that exists about legal operations? And how do you break through it?

What a great question. I think lack of awareness in the broader legal industry. And I know we just came out of a bit of this conversation. Yes, it's arrived, but there's still a significant lack of understanding around the value that legal operations can add to a department. I fought this on a regular basis at Meta. It's a natural aspect, I think, of being in a field that is relatively new on the scene. I'm lucky that I'm also a teacher, so I have to educate a lot. And the next part of this answer has nothing to do with lawyers or the legal profession or anything like that and everything to do with human beings, which is that we have a predilection for habit, right? We are creatures of habit. So we're going to keep doing the same things unless it is in our self-interest to change.

And I don't care what anyone says about altruism and all those kinds of things... No one's really going to change unless they see the benefit of doing it for themselves. I think bridging the gap around this, I like your term mythology, around legal operations is for me an exercise in understanding those two things and then incorporating them into the effort that I'm undertaking. First, what do I need to educate this group, this person, this decision maker on with respect to the ins and outs of what we should be doing and why we need to be doing those things? And then second, combine that with, how much do I know this person? What have they told me? What has this group told me about they really care? What's really going to move the needle for them?

I'll give you an example, which to me, not terribly surprising, but somewhat eye-opening as well and also very validating. When I first got to at the time Facebook, one of my remits was to look at our outside counsel spend and understand what we should be doing differently to help control the spend? And I'm a big proponent of value-based pricing rather than hourly fees, irrespective of the work. Not everything's good and suited for value-based pricing, but I haven't seen much that isnt. So I tackled litigation first in the legal department. And that was a six-month odyssey of education, convincing, advocating, educating, convincing, advocating before we got the program set up. Why? the Lit team there, and they'd been doing the same thing for a long time, are really really good lawyers, and they got results for the company. So why would they change because it's risky? Change is risk. Why would they change?

Interestingly, one of the linchpins that really got the project across the finish line was I was like, "How much time do you spend reviewing your hourly invoices on a monthly basis?" And it was a massive number, because these are huge invoices as you can imagine. And as anyone who's ever reviewed invoices, it's 30, 40 or more pages of entries. Are you really going to dig in and try and cut time down where you think a lawyer on the outside has spent too much time on something? You're not going to do that. Now imagine value-based pricing where you've pre-negotiated the pricing, and you're matching numbers on a page. It is a minuscule percentage of review time. That was a big deal to them. That really mattered. Now it wasn't the crux of what I was offering, but I found that one little piece of self-interest for these lawyers that really made a difference for them.

And I leaned on that, and I was like, "Look, this is icing on the cake, but here's what it's going to look like." And then obviously we had to deliver. That obviously had to be the case, and that's part of the program, and that was the easy part. But I think those two things really go hand in hand, particularly. And I don't think this is unique to legal operations, but it's certainly something that I employ because of the nature of legal operations in the legal industry right now. Maybe in 10 years, we're not having this conversation. Maybe it's a different conversation.

What types of things can young lawyers or law students be doing that can help prepare them for potentially a career in legal ops?

This one's a little bit tougher than you might imagine, and so I'll try and answer it in a few different ways. I think one of the things, if you're that junior and you're thinking about it, and I'm having a conversation with a law student, I think the answer's very different from let's say someone that I'm talking to who's maybe practiced for a few years or is on the business side of things and hasn't really thought about legal operations. Not too long ago at Mera I had a couple of roles open on my team. One person on LinkedIn reached out who has a lot of good business operations experience, no legal industry experience whatsoever. But I thought her experience was fantastic, and I encouraged her to apply. So I use that as one example. Legal Operations is such a multidisciplinary approach that there are multiple entry pathways into this discipline.

Now, If you're coming at it from the law student side, it could be a slightly different path. But realize that I'm the only lawyer on my team, and I fell into this. I didn't target it as a particular profession or discipline to go after in a career path. I fell into it, but realized I enjoyed it so much, so that's why I am where I am. Still, I think there are a few things that I really look for in the junior folks on my team. One, do you know how to make data driven decisions? Do you understand the importance of data? That is not taught in law school. I don't even think the word data was used in the three years that I was in law school. But it’s critical because operational excellence is about measurement, right? How do you know that what you are going to undertake is working? You must measure it. Do you know what to measure? Do you know how to measure it? Do you understand what KPIs are?

So, I think understanding the importance of data and how to make data driven decisions is a really good one because I don't think you need a ton of coursework to understand how to do that. I think naturally, human beings can do that. They need to understand the importance of it, and the rest of it is a few reps here and there on some things that you can do. And we've all taken high school chemistry. We've all taken physics. We've taken those science courses, which everyone takes, particularly in this country. And if you have an economics background, or you have a statistics background, or you have a science background, you're going to have exposure to the concept around data-driven decisions. I think leveraging that, even coming out of the legal field, I think is really critical.

As you get a little bit more senior, what I think are the building blocks for this next one, go to your playground days. This is how far back you start developing this skill, which is just the ability to influence decisions. What does that take? Do you understand how important it is to build relationships, to be able to lean on those relationships, to ask for trust in any given endeavor? "Hey, I need you to just trust me. This is going to work. And if it doesn't, we'll work our way through it." That takes a lot, and that especially takes a lot for lawyers to do. Understanding how to get there and whether it's with a senior stakeholder, whether it's with a group of people, and to advocate for a course of action and make sure that you are giving them what they need. So having that ability to influence, I think is critical, particularly as you get more senior, particularly as the stakes get higher, particularly as the dollar amounts get bigger. It becomes more and more important to be able to do that.

And then the last piece I'll add is execution, right? And I think that goes... It's, again, not unique to legal operations but probably a little bit more of a magnifying glass in operations around this, which is you must execute well.

The class that I teach, one of the first sessions of that class goes into a huge survey that was done probably five years ago. It's been re-upped since then. And in this survey, they surveyed I think somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 clients and employers. And they asked these folks, "What are the top competencies that you look for in your lawyers and, or employees?" So, if you're a corporate law department, what do you look for in the lawyers that you hire? If you're a client, what do you look for in your outside counsel?

Seven of the top ten, Colin, have nothing to do with the practice of law, seven of the top ten. Just think about that for a minute. The industry that pays the bills is screaming that being a lawyer is just table stakes, research, oral advocacy, writing, table stakes. Do you know the importance of relationships? Are you really bought into the mission and values of the client that you are serving? Those kinds of things matter a lot more. And so that kind of education does not happen in law school. You get it on the playground, to some extent. You get it when you work. So, I think more of that needs to take place in the industry as well.



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