An interview with Darren Guy from AIG and Maria Passemard from The John Lewis Partnership 28 August 2019

We brought together Darren Guy (head of global legal and regulatory operations at AIG) and Maria Passemard (head of legal operations at John Lewis Partnership) to discuss the evolution of legal operations, the power of purpose, and scaling operational thinking.

Maria: Darren, you started in legal operations even before it was defined as such. How did your career develop?

Darren: In the early 2000s, I was a finance director for Prudential. I worked in company expense analysis and planning, where I spent time enhancing relationships between shared corporate service areas and revenue-generating business groups. These groups kept calling legal and asking them detailed questions about the business of law, instead of the law. I was able to jump in wearing my finance hat to smooth things out, and help the business groups to understand the value that the legal department brings, besides being a cost allocation.

A few years later, I was asked to come into the legal department and take on more of an expanded business-of-law operations role. At the time, a lot of other financial services firms, especially in the New York City area, were adding this kind of role, because there was a recognition of a need for someone with business judgment to help lawyers with things other than practicing law.

Unlike me, you started out as an in-house lawyer. What prompted your decision to move into legal operations?

Maria: Legal operations varies across organizations. I joined John Lewis to lead the employment team in legal, covering maternity leave. We had a new general counsel, and he and I had many conversations about improving the legal function and modernizing our ways of working. The opportunity arose for me to stay on as head of legal projects; back then, it wasn’t even called legal operations.

In that role, I focused on projects to transform the legal department. Through various networks, I discovered a new world of legal operations people.

We eventually created the role of head of legal operations. Although I didn’t find this career path by design, I had a strong desire to improve the legal team’s processes through innovation and technology.

Darren: What have you found most rewarding?

Maria: Seeing the difference that change can make. Seeing the results. Compared to where we were four years ago, the department is unrecognizable. How about you?

Darren: My reward comes from being able to bring to life the mission, vision and strategy of the general counsel. I also enjoy the snapshot view of almost every issue that’s going on in the company, whether it’s trying to reduce risk, supporting deals to grow the company, or improving company efficiency and effectiveness. So I find it especially rewarding if our stock price goes up, our business performance goes up, or our operational performance improves – and I can see how the legal team has contributed to that success from a macro perspective.

Maria: A lot of our transformative change involves working with the general counsel to develop and implement the legal team’s strategy and vision.

On that note, is it important to have a vision for an operational journey before you start? With hindsight, I think we could have worked on that more before we began the transformation process.

Darren: I’ve had experiences working with general counsel where I may not have completely shared the same vision or the same way of doing things, but right now I have an amazing relationship with my GC, Lucy Fato. She has such a grasp on high-level strategic issues, and she’s also deeply interested in operational matters and business results. We’re completely aligned, which makes things so much easier. If you don’t have that support from the top, you will struggle in a large organization with many competing agendas.

Having a shared value system and a consistent philosophy with your GC is essential to getting things done.

Maria: When I started this role, it was a little ad hoc; I was doing whatever projects came up, whatever was most urgent. I felt we needed more top-down focus, strategy and purpose. So we spent time as a leadership team off-site to discuss all these, and what we were aiming to achieve.

Once we’d got that strategic focus in place, it made my job easier, because I could see where we were going. So I agree that having that shared vision of where you are trying to get to is important.

Darren: I have seen people fail in this role when they use positional authority – their relationship with the GC – to get things done. The more astute and successful legal operations professional will only sparingly use that capital, and instead manage through personal influence and by maintaining credibility in a supportive and collaborative role.

Maria: I couldn’t agree more. If you’re just telling people “the GC says you have to do this,” you’re not going to get anywhere. You have to use influencing skills, and that might be a challenge. But that skill is crucial to the role.

When it comes to operational excellence, are the key principles the same no matter what size your legal department?

Darren: I’ve been in organizations with fewer staff where the scope and ability to get things done internally from a culture perspective were more limited. But there are some things you want to do consistently no matter what.

You want to be as efficient and effective as you can, using both internal staff and external spend levers. Sometimes that includes applying the softer personal skills that no one teaches you in school; knowing when to push harder, when to pull back, when to tell a timely joke, or when to simply offer encouragement. There are many technically competent people out there, but the best legal operations leaders unify teams through competence and emotional intelligence.

Maria: I agree. Ours is a much smaller operation, but a lot of the same issues arise. What successes are you most proud of in your operational role?

Darren: It’s satisfying when I see people who once reported to me move on to other companies and advance in their careers.

Another success, at Prudential, was how we pioneered data-visualization dashboard tools, before they became an industry norm. I think we were ten years ahead of our time. I was undertaking a masters in management information systems and doing a lot of work with data visualization. And I realized that lawyers tend to like seeing data visually.

So we implemented a legal-management dashboard that helped our lawyers understand what our top rates and matters rates were; how we were allocating our time; staffing and spending metrics; and the difference between partner and associate rates. That was around the same time that ebilling systems were really catching on. It was also right before the financial crisis, which made metrics and measurements on legal spend all the more timely and necessary.

Maria: In terms of challenges, I find bureaucracy the hardest. You need resilience and tenacity to keep going and to push things through.

Darren: The single greatest barrier to getting things done is corporate bureaucracy. Trying to be honest, trying to be ethical – they both help reduce the amount of bureaucracy you need to get through.

Maria: It comes back to the point about influencing. Let’s say you’re implementing an IT tool, and you need IT and procurement to be on board. It’s a huge benefit if you know who those people are and have good relationships with them.

Darren: We’ve mentioned influence and relationships a few times. How much do GCs need to think about the issues an operations specialist handles?

Maria: It depends on the GC. Some want to be very hands-on and know everything. Others will be hands-off. I’ve worked with both types.

Darren: A GC respects the need for operational efficiency and how it impacts business judgment – and has a macro view of how a good legal operations function drives success – can make the legal department a model for other parts of the business.

Maria: One discussion point in the operations space is whether it should be less dominated by lawyers. You’re not a lawyer – how do you find working with them?

Darren: Working with senior lawyers – including former bosses – has helped me be more detail-oriented. I approach issues from a completely different point of view than when I was in a finance organization. Now, I look at all possible angles, and consider all questions that someone could possibly ask me, because I know that a GC or senior lawyer is going to ask me those same questions eventually.

Has your background as a lawyer been helpful?

Maria: It has some advantages. If you walk into a room full of lawyers to implement change, being a lawyer may help your credibility. I’ve had this debate with a number of my legal operations peers: is it better to be a lawyer or not? Are lawyers better at certain things?

I don’t have a really strong view on it. Everyone has different skills to bring to the table. A lot of it is about personality, influencing - the things we’ve discussed already.

Finally, what would you say are the three qualities and skills that are most important in your operational roles?

Darren: The application of judgment; a calm demeanor; and an understanding of what’s important. These qualities ensure you’re not creating a five-alarm fire based on a request that really isn’t that important; and they help a GC, management team and lawyers navigate through what I call “company grey matter.”

Other good qualities are the ability to collaborate effectively and inquisitiveness.

A good network of people you can reach out to for support also helps. I can leverage my network now in such a way that I rarely need to use an industry consultant. And that’s only possible because I’ve been a good partner to other people when they’ve had questions.

Maintaining credibility within the legal team is important. You need to be good technically in many different areas. You need business experience, technology experience, project management experience, and strong internal and external communications skills. So all those things whipped together make pretty good ingredients for a successful legal operations professional.

Maria: Networks are great for sounding out your peers – getting their views on technology providers, different law firms or alternative service providers.

My top three qualities for legal operations specialists are resilience, tenacity and the ability to win hearts and minds. Add to that a sense of humor and a calm demeanor, and between us I think we’ve got a comprehensive list. 

Interview facilitated and written by Dr Catherine McGregor for DLA Piper WIN.

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