Legal Ops Careers: Understanding the Role of Legal Chiefs of Staff - Priori

Legal Ops Careers: Understanding the Role of Legal Chiefs of Staff

By Priori Legal

 24-05-03 Legal Chief of Staff Blog Post

Demystifying the often talked about role of Legal Chief of Staff

One of the exciting things about the legal operations industry is that it is still relatively new—nearly half (45%) of legal departments added their first legal operations professional between 2018 and 2022, according to a recent survey. This means that opportunities abound for people interested in a legal ops career, however, it also means that there aren’t as many well-worn career paths as you would find in the more traditional legal department professions. 

A role with particular mystery around it is that of Legal Chief of Staff. Seen as a “holy grail” by many legal ops practitioners, the role and how it’s situated within a legal department hasn’t always been well understood. We had the opportunity to dive into these questions with two legal industry leaders who are more than qualified to speak to the ins and outs of the role: Carol Hopperton, Legal Chief of Staff, Vonage, and Stacy Lettie, Chief of Staff to the General Counsel, Organon.

Hopperton and Lettie joined Priori VP of Client Development Matt Wheatley for a recent webinar, “The Legal Ops Career Journey: Understanding the Role of Legal Chiefs of Staff.” You can view the recording of that webinar here, and below are some key takeaways from the discussion. 

What Does a Legal Chief of Staff Do? 

This is probably the most common question legal operations professionals have about the role. Legal Chief of Staff sounds great as a title, but what does it really mean? 

From their personal experiences, Hopperton and Lettie explained that, in its purest form, the Legal Chief of Staff is the strategic director of legal department operations. We’ll get into what the day-to-day looks like below, but at a higher level this means: 

  • Ensuring the legal team is resourced correctly

  • Aligning the team’s goals with the business’s goals

  • Taking a holistic view of what’s going on in the legal department 

  • Understanding the department’s workload distribution

  • Managing legal spend 

  • Budgeting and forecasting spend against goals

  • Spearheading major projects (including technology and process improvements)

  • Planning and road-mapping financials, technology, etc.

Being a Legal Chief of Staff is like managing a “business within a business,” or being the CEO of a small company. Often, they’ll work with the General Counsel (GC) or Chief Legal Officer (CLO) to develop the strategic direction for the legal department. Then it’s the Legal Chief of Staff’s responsibility to support the GC or CLO in managing the legal department’s business to execute that strategy. 

How Does the Legal Chief of Staff Differ From the Head of Legal Ops?

As outlined above, the biggest difference between the Legal Chief of Staff and the Head of Legal Ops (or other legal ops roles) is the strategic nature of the role. Both Hopperton and Lettie noted that the Chief of Staff is a complementary role to the legal ops function. The Chief of Staff creates a strategic lens through which the department’s functions are viewed that informs decision-making. The legal ops team analyzes and interprets data to serve that view.

Building this strategic vision means understanding the legal department’s structure and its short- and long-term goals: How is the legal department resourced and staffed? What is the department’s budget? What does it look like right now and where do we want it to be a year from now? The Legal Chief of Staff needs to understand the answers to these questions and ensure that resources, processes, tools, etc. exist to achieve the department’s goals. 

What Does a Legal Chief of Staff Do Day-to-Day? 

Hopperton explained that Legal Chiefs of Staff generally wear many hats and the day-to-day work can encompass “almost anything and everything.” She emphasized the importance of organization because, with so many potential tasks on your plate, it can be easy to lose sight of the highest priorities. 

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Legal Chief of Staff that Hopperton and Lettie discussed include: 

  • Major projects: This includes internal initiatives as well as things like vendor management. Encouraging engagement across teams for projects that involve multiple units is an important part of what Legal Chiefs of Staff do. In legal departments, it’s common for practice area teams to get siloed. Bringing them together to work toward larger departmental initiatives often falls within the Chief of Staff’s purview.

  • Financials: Reviewing legal spending and analyzing it against budget forecasting is also an important task for the Legal Chief of Staff, as is ensuring the right people are involved in spending discussions (e.g., if spending is creeping ahead of expectations). 

  • Communications: The Legal Chief of Staff is likely the person with the most line-of-sight into what the different units within legal are doing. Because of this, they’re often responsible for determining what needs to be discussed at important all-hands or leadership meetings and ensuring the right people are informed about what’s happening in the department.

  • Data analysis: From a high level, the Legal Chief of Staff needs to understand and help guide the department’s data strategy: What data is being collected, what data is needed, what’s being done with the data after it’s collected and how that data helps tell the story of the legal department’s operations.

  • Corporate initiatives: Beyond the legal function, the Legal Chief of Staff is often involved in cross-functional projects with leaders from other departments, helping drive change at the enterprise level. This makes the Legal Chief of Staff a particularly interesting role for people interested in broader-level work (and similarly means it may not be the best role for people who want to stick to the legal function).

Do You Need a Law Degree to Be a Legal Chief of Staff?

The short answer is no. 

Lettie, who has a law degree and worked as in-house counsel for a significant portion of her career, explained that it certainly doesn’t hurt. Attorneys understand what in-house counsel and law firms are doing on a day-to-day basis and you can “speak the same language” because of that shared experience. 

However, both Hopperton and Lettie agreed it’s not a necessity and Hopperton explained that as a Legal Chief of Staff without a law degree, she was able to learn how to effectively work with attorneys through the variety of operations and legal department experience she’s had throughout her career.

I'm Interested in Being a Legal Chief of Staff, What Should I Know?

The biggest piece of advice Hopperton and Lettie had for legal operations professionals, in-house counsel and others interested in the Legal Chief of Staff role is to get as much experience across the legal department as you can. As you can probably tell from learning about what Legal Chiefs of Staff do, there is a lot to it. Some of the skills they recommend getting experience with include: 

  • Strategic planning and project management

  • Legal processes and technology (and how they interact)

  • Financial analysis (reading, understanding and translating them) 

  • Best practices for efficiency

  • Understanding how data drives decision-making

  • Communicating with leadership and the C-suite

Much of this experience can be learned within legal operations or other in-house legal roles, however, networking can also provide opportunities and open you up to new roles that help you gain more varied experience. Industry organizations like ACC, CLOC, Consero, Legal Operators,, Legal Ops Uncensored or UpLevel Ops are great places to start, particularly the local and regional groups and chapters.  

Additionally, Hopperton and Lettie suggested staying abreast of trends in the legal services market and legal industry innovation. Understanding how cutting-edge legal departments approach resourcing, technology and creating efficiencies is something that Legal Chiefs of Staff need to be able to bring to the table in their own organizations. They’re constantly evaluating the work their legal departments are performing and how they can do more with the resources they currently have. 

What Should I Look for in a Legal Chief of Staff Role? 

Hopperton and Lettie also shared some advice for evaluating a Legal Chief of Staff opportunity. A few of the elements they suggested looking out for include: 

  • The reporting structure – The Legal Chief of Staff should report to the GC or CLO, otherwise, it may be a red flag that it’s more of an executive or administrative assistant role than a true Chief of Staff. 

  • Whether the Legal Chief of Staff has a seat at the leadership table – To be effective, the Legal Chief of Staff must be involved in high-level legal department decision-making.

  • What the team looks like – You’ll want to know whether there is a legal operations team already in place and where the Legal Chief of Staff sits in relation to that team (i.e., is it integrated or separate?). 

  • Company and departmental goals – Make sure that your goals and vision for the role are aligned with the GC or CLO because that is who you’ll be working with most closely. If you don’t have alignment, it might not be a great fit.

While the Legal Chief of Staff role is one that many legal operations and in-house professionals are curious about, it’s far from the only option for expanding your legal department careers. If you’d like to learn more about what we discussed in this article, please check out our webinar featuring Carol Hopperton and Stacy Lettie

And if you’re interested in other career opportunities in the legal operations industry, join us for another webinar in this series on May 16: “Your Next Move: Alternative Career Perspectives For Legal Operations Pros,” featuring Alexandra Guajardo, Global Director of Commercial Strategy, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, Susan Packal, Head of Global Legal Operations, Atlassian, and Akshay Verma, COO, Spotdraft. They’ll share advice for legal ops pros interested in making a career change, including how to evaluate your options, networking opportunities and resources and more.

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