Advice From the Other-side: The legal ops evolution, with Sun Life Financial Legal Operations Director Mimi Bowen

November 29, 2018 | BY SHANNON Q

Mimi Bowen is the legal operations officer at Sun Life Financial in Toronto. We caught up with her to discuss the challenge of bringing business skills to in-house legal departments and offer some advice on how law firms can adapt to serve their clients best.

Q: What exactly does the job of legal operations director entail?

A: Legal Ops is responsible for running the business activities of an in-house legal team. This typically involves looking after budgets, vendors, technologies, key initiatives, and processes. Add in strategic planning, communications, data analytics, and knowledge management. It’s fast-paced and no two days are the same. Right now we are more like a start-up, introducing the function, roles, and responsibilities. As the legal ops director, I continually work with leadership, management and our front lines to deliver our Sun Life purpose and achieve our objectives.

Q: And where’s the challenge for you?

A: Well, it’s a nascent field, so there’s no textbook for us to follow. It would be new to lawyers to work with one team that works with the whole of Legal. In our case, we provide a level of support to Compliance, Corporate Secretary, Government Relations, Regulatory Affairs and Sustainability as well. Because we are one of the few teams that work with the whole department, we are in a unique position to impact in-house legal culture. It’s our biggest challenge and opportunity to drive cultural change in how we operate and deliver legal services.

Q: How do you overcome resistance to change?

A: Senior leadership has been supportive. They have invested in the role and are supporting our building out the function and team. To overcome change, I’ve focused on relationship building, developing strategy and increasing frequency of communication. People have needed to time get to know me and the skills and experience I bring to the table. Defining what the future could look like has helped as we identify key initiatives and legal/digital strategies. Also important is spending time to include input from employee focus groups, business requirements working groups, technology demos, formal and informal town halls.

Q: Where does process fit in?

A: A great question, I’d love to say it fits in everywhere but we’ve a long way to go to begin to have a critical mass of process thinkers. Technology is not a panacea and we know we have to pay more attention to process design. The tension between having technology and getting the most out of the tech is often a lack of process understanding, design, and training. We are starting to pay more attention to the relationship between process, people and technology. I believe that kind of attention will lead to better outcomes.

Q: Where do you draw inspiration in developing this expertise in legal ops?

A: I reach out to my networks, like the ACC or the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) for example. I have found folks to be helpful and generous. I’ve spoken with people around the world, most recently in Australia & the UK. It’s an amazing ecosystem where law firms, consulting services, tech vendors and in-house peers somehow all give their time, support, and “how-to-dos” to help each other out. I’ve not seen anything like it and the level of collaboration and support is inspiring.  

Q: If you had one piece of advice for external counsel on how to deal with a modernizing legal department, what would it be?

A: No one’s in their comfort zone anymore. In-house counsel’s role is no longer only about legal issues and identifying risk. The role is evolving and changing into providing solutions to our business partners. In addition, legal practice or those tasks that lawyers should perform and legal delivery or the business of law is also a new dimension that is expanding as legal teams modernize. My advice for external counsel would be to appreciate the duality of the in-house role both as business partners and legal advisors and bring forward opportunities that improve problem-solving for all of legal delivery.

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