Discussion with Eric O’Donnell, Head of Legal Ops, TotalEnergies

The Legal Ops function is growing at a fast pace across small businesses and large corporations. We talked with Eric O’Donnell, Head of Legal Operations at TotalEnergies, about the rise of legal ops, opportunities and challenges ahead.

Tell us about your background and how you became Head of Legal Operations at TotalEnergies

Like many legal operations professionals, I have a legal background: I qualified as a solicitor in Ireland but quickly moved in-house as I wanted to be close to where the decisions are made. Or rather, I wanted to know why they were made because I thought that I could give better advice if I knew what they were trying to do. Call it legal design before its time, but it worked.

Very early, some of the best praise I got from my colleagues was that I explained things “unlike a lawyer”, meaning I could translate legal speak into plain language and make legal issues accessible to colleagues outside of the legal department.

That approach served me throughout my legal career, which spanned general commercial and lots of M&A. When I was head of legal for the Asia-Pacific, Middle-East region for TotalEnergies’ Marketing and Services branch, it helped me give practical advice in many different jurisdictions. While I was there, I started to look more closely at driving efficiency and looking at how we could improve our processes. When Aurélien Hamelle asked me to join his team to work with him on those subjects, I jumped at the chance.

What do you see as the benefits of a legal operations function within a corporate legal department?

Lawyers are busy creating value and they really don’t have the time to take a step back and try to change things. Managing projects such as the selection and implementation of new tools is a full-time job. If it was just a once-off, you might get away with it. When it comes to long-term change and value however, the real work is in identifying the why this tool or project, where it will lead you and what choices you have.

With the right environment, lawyers can come up with some excellent ideas to improve or digitalise their work, but legal operations goes deeper and that takes time. It also requires specific skillsets. Our legal operations team includes an IT business analyst, and IT administrator and a project management and change order specialist, and their expertise is essential. We can also build relationships with other functions in the company, to share knowledge, strategy and even tools. This obviously includes IT but also HR or Finance.

How do you get buy-in from leadership and from teams when it comes to new processes, outsourcing or tech implementation?

That’s the million euro question. My motto is to keep throwing stuff at the wall: some of it will stick. You have to understand their work, what makes them tick, and what frustrates them. Then communicate your ideas – and keep communicating! – test them and try others. You also have to be prepared to fail, change tack, get pushed back or ignored. Eventually, some ideas work and sometimes they are so good that they come back from others…

Let’s look at a simple example like a document management policy. Shifting away from a messy and confusing situation to a structured and streamlined process requires a multipronged strategy. This means lots of communications to explain and present the new policy and process, regular reminders and clear messages. You want to focus on what’s in it for the users, not high-level abstract concepts.

You also need to keep in mind that legal ops is here to disrupt the status quo. It won’t happen overnight; disruption takes time.

Legal ops is a fairly new addition to legal departments. How fast do you think legal operations is growing as a discipline?  Are there any blockers to its growth?

It is certainly growing and I have seen a huge increase in awareness. Even some smaller companies realise that they can use someone who is dedicated to legal operations. But some CAC40 companies are still unconvinced. Or rather, they are already under pressure and prefer to hire lawyers that will carry part of the operational burden.

They may also have difficulty in convincing management of the return on investment that legal operations might have, particularly where lawyers themselves are not seen as an integral part of the business structure. Finally, some of them prefer to hire consultants as necessary, and that’s fine too.

As mentioned earlier, some teams might be reluctant to change the status quo, especially with an outsider coming in. That’s a “who are you to be telling us what to do” situation. Thankfully, this is happening less and less.

What types of skills and experience are required from legal operations people? Do the skills and experience exist within the legal market today or do they need to come from outside?

For the moment, most legal operations specialists come from a legal background, but not all of them (and it is certainly not an exclusive preserve of lawyers). Given the number of very good people, the skills must be there: project management, strategic thinking, understanding digital, design thinking, plain language, and finance. However, they tend to be either learned on the job (especially project management) or learned through personal interest. They don’t teach that in law school yet. Other skills people might not think about right away include IT, communications or change management.

Are there specific aspects the legal function can learn from other back-office functions (i.e. HR, Finance, IT) in relation to transformation?

The objective is always to benefit the company, so we need to share. HR has always been ahead in digital: they have a lot of data to crunch and there is a lot of literature on improving HR and work management. IT of course has innovation in-bred and we have a very good relationship with IT in TotalEnergies. That said, I think that a lot of these functions can learn from Legal now. We’re really pushing the boat out.

While legal operations is still evolving, do you see legal ops becoming an essential career step for someone hoping to be General Counsel?

That’s an interesting question. A legal ops job certainly gives you a front-row seat on managing a legal department. In TotalEnergies, the catalyst for creating the role originally was to allow the GC to focus on the legal side. Corporate leadership needs to feel that it can rely on its GC to provide a secure environment for the company to do business in. That combination is rare.

Still, I’m not sure legal ops will become an essential step on the GC track, maybe more of nice-to-have. I think that legal operations is actually developing into a separate career altogether, away from a rotation. A legal background is useful but not crucial; as long as you have a diverse skillset and an appetite for learning, you can excel in legal ops.

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