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A Goldilocks approach to legal operations

Too hot, too cold, just right. The Goldilocks concept is a simple porridge-like recipe of two ingredients, a vision statement and a roadmap. When applied to legal ops it can result in an output that’s neither too onerous nor too complex but just right for the needs of your organization.

The key to good legal ops is having a plan, says Stephanie Stevenson, Director of Legal Operations at TripleLift. “A team without a plan is reactive. Being in-house, we are often reactive. Having to react to what the business wants. We're providing a service and we need to be flexible.”

The two competing needs of a legal function, having a plan and the flexibility to match the speed of other business functions, led Stevenson to a piece of work by English poet Robert Southey. First published in 1837, 'The Story of the Three Bears' is today known as 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' and it where Stevenson found her inspiration.

"It brings us the Goldilocks concept," she says. "On the one hand, there’s no point going through a grand multi-year, 50-page document plan because it’s never going to stand the test of time. But equally, you need more than nothing, which leaves you at the smallest bear if we’re going to the '80s version of the story. We’re looking for sufficient yet achievable.”

Much like making porridge, a sound and effective legal ops strategy requires only two key ingredients, a vision statement and a roadmap.

It is Stevenson's opinion that a vision statement is a brush broad enough to stand the test of time and rise above corporate and macroeconomic changes that occur, while the roadmap is the practical reality of how that vision can be achieved.

“You have to start at the end. It’s on all of us to try to drive this concept of vision and roadmap, or however you want to articulate your strategy forward, because we’re all trotting off in one direction, hopefully the same one, but often with no idea where we’re going."

Starting with the end goal in mind makes it easier to ideate a process to reach that end point rather than floundering around, wondering in which direction you are aiming.

Thankfully, for both our porridge and implementation, we can rely on the work of our forebears in much the same way. Stevenson believes that utilizing ready-made or pre-packaged vision statements or roadmaps is the best way to ensure your team makes that first step towards building out these plans.

“We might think of ourselves as wordsmiths, but probably not in the context of visionary aspirations for our team. Once you’ve got something down on paper, and remember it doesn't have to be original, you have to socialize it.”

Pragmatism always trumps perfectionism at this early stage; it is always better to have something rather than nothing. “I would say this isn't meant to be perfect. Anyone that's trying to come up with a perfect vision is going to fail immediately,” warns Stevenson.

There are a few rules to guide this imperfection. You wouldn’t mix steak and chocolate in porridge (well, most people wouldn't), so it makes sense that both the vision statement and roadmap are informed by logical congruity. For instance, there is little point in melding your corporate objective and vision statement unnecessarily.

“The corporate objective is normally something along the lines of make money and be a successful business, which the legal team can only contribute to indirectly. We want a vision statement the legal team can connect to and feel like they can contribute to,” says Stevenson.

Having crafted a not-quite-perfect but just-right legal ops integration strategy, it is now time to generate buy-in. According to Stevenson, the best method to aid the socialization of your strategy is the addition of data to ground and inform some of the more abstract elements.

“Don't forget about data. It's been my experience that data is really helpful, an objective lever to push for change. Everyone can spin a story, right? But if you can back it up with data that makes it much easier."

Once again, that pragmatic porridge approach wins out - not too much data or too little, just the right amount - and it must be matched with a story.

“Data alone is not compelling, no one has been persuaded by an endless list of charts. The two must go hand in hand, the story backed up by data," says Stevenson. "The data in the story is what's motivational and what inspires people to do things differently. Data is just numbers in a place that is kind of measurable, that gives you some insight.”

The perfect legal ops implementation strategy doesn’t exist, but one which is just right is readily achievable using the right process. Keep iterating and implementing and soon you’ll find an approach that is not too barebones or too onerous, not too hot or too cold.

And if you’re in need of guidance, take note of what Stevenson says. “You don't need a three-day offsite, a 50-page document or an MBA to produce a strategy for the legal team. Equally, having no plan is a missed opportunity and a sure-fire way to just sit in that reactive state.”

Having a plan is always better than no plan. Or as Goldilocks would say, "This is just right."

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