‘legal ops is becoming a career path in its own right’ – Interview with eric o’donnell, head of legal operations, totalnergies


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 barrister in Ireland, but quickly moved in-house as I wanted to be close to where decisions are made. Or rather, I wanted to know why they were made because I thought I could give better advice if I knew what they were trying to do. Call it a legal design before its time, but it worked.

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

This approach has served me throughout my legal career, which has covered general commerce and numerous mergers and acquisitions. When I was legal manager for the Asia-Pacific, Middle East region for the Marketing and Services branch of TotalEnergies, it helped me to give practical advice in many different jurisdictions. While I was there, I started to take a closer look at improving efficiency and how we could improve our processes. When Aurélien Hamelle asked me to join his team to work with him on these 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 time to step back and try to change things. Managing projects such as selecting and implementing new tools is a full-time job. If it was just once, you could get away with it. However, when it comes to long-term change and value, the real work is identifying the why of this tool or project, where it will take you, and what choices you have.

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

How do you get management and team buy-in when it comes to new processes, outsourcing, or technology implementations?

That’s the million dollar question. My motto is to keep throwing stuff against the wall: some will stick. You need to understand their work, what motivates them and what frustrates them. Then communicate your ideas – and keep communicating! – test them and try others. You must also be prepared to fail, change tactics, be pushed back or ignored. Finally, 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 strategy. Going from a messy and confusing situation to a structured and streamlined process requires a multi-pronged strategy. This means numerous 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 users, not abstract high-level concepts.

You should also keep in mind that legal transactions are there to disrupt the status quo. This will not happen overnight; disruption takes time.

Legal ops is a relatively new addition to legal services. How fast do you think legal operations is growing as a discipline? Are there obstacles to its growth?

It’s definitely growing and I’ve seen a huge increase in awareness. Even some small businesses are realizing that they can use someone who is dedicated to legal operations. But some CAC40 companies are still not convinced. Or rather, they are already under pressure and prefer to hire lawyers who will bear part of the operational burden.

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

As mentioned earlier, some teams might be reluctant to change the status quo, especially with the arrival of an outsider. It’s a “who are you to tell us what to do” situation. Fortunately, this is happening less and less.

What kinds of skills and experience are required of people in charge of legal operations? Do the skills and experience exist today in the legal market or must they come from outside?

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

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

The goal is always to benefit the business, so we have to share. HR has always been ahead of digital: it has a lot of data to analyze and there is a wealth of literature on improving HR and work management. IT is of course innate for innovation and we have very good relations with IT at TotalEnergies. That said, I think a lot of these functions can learn from Legal now. We are really pushing the boat.

As legal operations are still evolving, do you think legal operations are becoming an essential career step for someone who wants to become general counsel?

It’s an interesting question. A legal operations job definitely puts you front and center in running a legal department. At TotalEnergies, the catalyst for creating the role was originally to allow the GC to focus on the legal side. Business management must feel they can rely on their GC to provide a secure environment in which the business can do business. This combination is rare.

Still, I’m not sure legal operations will become an essential step on the GC trail, perhaps a nicer one to have. I think legal operations are actually turning into a completely separate career, far from a rotation. Legal training is helpful but not crucial; as long as you have diverse skills and an appetite for learning, you can excel in legal operations.


About Author

Comments are closed.