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While the term “legal ops” has buzzed around boardrooms for years, few leaders and lawyers know what it means. Even fewer know how to make such a team a reality. In 2020, the Association of Corporate Counsel found that 25 percent of legal departments have just one dedicated legal operations person. Nearly half of corporate legal teams lack a legal operations function altogether. Okta once fell into that category, but in 2018, Kimberly Woodward decided to do something about it. She approached her leaders, made the case for legal ops, and built her own high-performing team from the ground up.
It’s not a shock to anyone who knows Woodward well. The Bay Area native has a reputation for ambition she traces all the way back to her childhood. After John Grisham’s novels turned her on to the law, Woodward found her way to the University of California at Davis, where she double majored in English and political science with a minor in Latin. She then enrolled at Santa Clara University School of Law planning to become an entertainment lawyer, but changed course when she discovered a passion for licensing and intellectual property. Upon graduation, she landed in-house contractor gigs that helped her develop expertise in open-source software.
For Woodward, this era was instrumental. As she reviewed the open-source licenses that company engineers needed to comply with, she realized how legal could help tech companies thrive. “I started to understand how lawyers can really help the business,” she explains. “Engineers can’t always follow the complex legal rules on their own. They need legal to empower them to do what they need to do.”
Upon realizing the intersection of law and technology was an exciting place, Woodward moved to a boutique law firm to grow her skills in 2014. That’s when she encountered Okta, a company that develops single sign-on (SSO) and customer identity and access management (CIAM) tools. When they offered Woodward a job in 2015, she accepted.
It didn’t take long before Woodward realized just how busy she’d be in her new role. Okta was preparing for an IPO, and when the GC realized an open-source audit was on the checklist, he tapped his new open-source expert for the job. Woodward collaborated with underwriters, engineers, and the CTO to successfully complete the important task. With one win under her belt, she volunteered to implement a new contract management system (CMS). The process required Woodward to issue a request for proposals, fight for budget, select a vendor, negotiate the price, and hire her first direct report to run the system.
These two projects set the stage for the legal ops function. The CMS brought the contracts process into the modern era. For the first time, employees had access to a nimble database that allowed them to mine valuable information and track data in real time to make informed decisions. Woodward realized the need for someone to implement similar tools in other areas. There was a need for a legal ops team—and she was the right person to run it.
Woodward convinced key decision-makers to attend a short presentation on the value of legal ops. She talked about making attorneys more efficient. She promised to provide tools lawyers need to do their jobs well. She mentioned removing low-value work so high-dollar employees could focus on critical tasks. She pitched supporting a lean, effective, and meaningful powerhouse. That meeting eventually led to permission to create and run a legal operations team
In creating the function, Woodward was careful not to simply mimic what others have done. “Legal ops has to be unique to each organization because its structure depends on company needs, attorney skills, and how leaders want to customize their exact team,” she says. As an attorney, she has more flexibility than a non-attorney might. Thus, by embracing alternative delivery models of legal services, her team has expanded to include a contracts negotiator and a contracts strategy manager. These non-attorneys triage lower-level tasks that full-time attorneys often find unfulfilling.
Over the last four years, Woodward’s team has grown to include ten individuals who have operationalized everything from training and development to project management to information governance to legal vendor management. “It helps a company move forward faster when one dedicated team handles all of these time-consuming business activities,” Woodward says. “We can see the big picture, automate as much as possible, and get everything working together to create big improvements in real time.”
Part of legal ops’ mission is to make lawyers as effective as possible. But Woodward isn’t content with just keeping pace with her peers—she pushes her team to stay one step ahead. “If a lawyer comes to us with a problem we hadn’t already thought about, then we’ve failed. We’re supposed to discover and introduce new innovations to keep legal moving forward in a tech-driven business world,” she explains.
A robust legal operations team helps make waves in a competitive space. The company is now getting into larger acquisitions, and Woodward’s team is ready to help guide an important integration and discover more ways to add value.
“We have greatly enjoyed working with Kim on using AI and advanced analytics to help modernize contracting at Okta. Kim is a real forward thinker and thought leader. We fully support her as she helps drive legal toward a more modern, data-driven approach.”
–Derek Schueren, Chief Executive Officer