This changes everything. That was the mantra back in 2008 when the financial markets collapsed, and the futurists in the legal field said that the relationship between clients and law firms was changed forever. No longer would general counsel pay exorbitant hourly fees to the big law firms. And the firms had better learn how to be more efficient, because a relatively new discipline, legal operations, had put down roots in corporate legal departments. These professionals, mostly lawyers with a way with numbers and procedures, figured out how to make firms break down their spending—this much for a partner, this for associates’ time, this much for car service on late nights. And they monitored the firms’ spending closely.
One of the gurus in “legal ops,” as the discipline is commonly called, is David Cambria. As the legal ops chief at insurer Aon and the food colossus Archer Daniel Midlands, he kept legal spend in check and terrified firms that didn’t play along. Okay, so “terrified” is too strong a word for the friendly and low-key Cambria, but that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover. He quickly became a sort of celebrity on the legal ops circuit, which by then even had a support group, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC). Then Cambria did something shocking. Last year, the law firm (remember, this is enemy number 1 when it comes to litigation spending) Baker & McKenzie hired him to head its own legal operations team. This year, he was promoted to chief of services at the firm. Curious about this seeming apostasy, we called him up to talk about his role, what that means for operations and, he’s convinced, the future of the practice of law.
This a big change for you. You’ve worked in-house for most of your career, then you went to Baker & McKenzie. What prompted the move?
I wasn’t looking. And then one day an opportunity came to talk about a role they were thinking about. It was brought up to me by a contact in the firm, saying it would be great to just talk to them. Over the course of eight months, we had conversations about how they want to re-envision delivering legal services. How did they want to find better ways to take the scope and the scale of the firm and connect it to where and how clients thought about the work?
I was dubious at first because, let’s be honest, we’ve heard that song and dance before. But over the eight months, I saw what they were doing. They elected a chairperson whose platform was based on better connecting with the clients. And he was elected by his peers to take that forward. In addition, the firm was undertaking a modernization project where they’re trying to take all of those types of professional functions global, to better deliver to our partners the things that they need at scale.
What drove me there was a global platform with a commitment to try to bring all the elements to their clients in a global way. That was interesting to me,
They must have been looking over their shoulder at the Axioms and United Lexes, that tech services with legal. Also, the Big Four accounting firms…
They had been looking over their shoulders for years. But I’ll also tell you that episodically, they’d been addressing those things. So, for example, there was a shared service center in Manilla for over 10 years. There’s been a service center in Belfast for five or six years. So they were trying to scale those things and had done so in a way that after many many dollars of Baker & McKenzie time, they realized that they had a scope and scale problem. I’m trying to make it a part of the DNA of the firm to better deliver its work, how this firm enables the work to be done in a more efficient and profitable way. But also in a more value-based way that really resonates with the client.
What drove me there was a global platform with a commitment to try to bring all the elements to their clients in a global way.”
With the larger departments with legal ops people, you’re a familiar face. I’m sure that helps.
It helps a ton. I’ve always talked about legal operations as not a job. It’s a set of disciplines that help you do this thing called legal. And the disciplines you use are really the same, whether you’re in the firm, or a client. But the beauty of it is, having done the client job for as long as I had, I have. When they say “this is painful, I hate doing this,” I can empathize and translate that into what the real problem set is.
So, say an ops-savvy company comes to you for specific work. How do you interface with their ops people, as well as their lawyers? What’s the dynamic?
First, as the lawyers go through the process of engaging with the client, a couple of things happen. One, based on the work they’re being asked to do, my whole team will engage that lawyer, and try to establish scope, establish what is value, what is a win? And what are the constraints? I have people on my team who are managing, what are the inputs, what are the intakes?
And then the constraints that the market imposes–if it’s a fixed fee, or price certainty or speed of execution, any number of things. Then the other parts of the team are thinking about what are the arrows in our quiver that allow me to meet that demand. What are the tools for lawyer enablement that I have?
As we progress in the relationship, the discussion with my team or with Baker is less about the legal capabilities and more about the capabilities we have to manage the work and give you those things you say you asked for.
When they say ‘this is painful, I hate doing this,’ I can empathize and translate that into what the real problem set is
What is interesting about my group is that we sit in the middle of our clients and the law firm, and we’re pushing back equally in terms of you’re saying you want X, client, yet you have to define it better or more meaningfully. At the same time, we push back on our lawyers and say you’ve made a commitment to do this for your client. And in order for you to do that, you have to think differently about how you do the work, or you’re never going to get there.
So basically you’re a very empowered translator.
Let’s talk organizational structure. Who do you report to?
I report to the COO of the firm, Jason Marty.
How many on your team?
About 690 right now.
I’m guessing that they’re not all lawyers…
No, no, no, they’re not, but a good number are. A couple of functions sit underneath me.
Pricing strategy—it’s about what are the thoughts we have about our pricing and our strategic pricing, our arrangements with our different practice groups.
I have a group called legal project management, which is what we were talking about.
I have a team called business managers. They’re really the COOs of the individual practice groups. They’re in charge of the planning and strategy for the practice groups. For maintaining and tracking the metrics.
I have alternative legal services, the things you think about around document review and translation, corporate entity support. We have robust solutions about global legal discovery and advisement, and also a group called GIPSC, where we manage trademarks for companies all over the world. We’re in 205 jurisdictions. And we have a group called service design. They take design thinking principles and they’re in charge of understanding what innovations we’re going to go after and testing them. I’m going to build up to 800 people; I have open positions around the globe.
We push back on our lawyers and say you’ve made a commitment to do this for your client. And in order for you to do that, you have to think differently about how you do the work, or you’re never going to get there.
You look for people who crunch numbers, with business expertise…
The whole bit.
Do the CLOCS people still talk to you?
Very much so. I’m still active in the legal ops community. They’re looking with interest about how does someone in ops bring value to the law firm. Everything didn’t change because I switched sides. Conversations are still fruitful. I’ve been empowered by the firm to go directly to clients when it makes sense to do so. And they haven’t put any restrictions on my ability to talk to or challenge clients. When I show up, it’s really about problem solving for them. They aren’t guarded or thinking I’m trying to sell something to them. It’s not part of my remit. Certainly I want the law firm to succeed because they’ll pay me. But that’s not what I’m being measured on. That makes it a good dynamic.