As part of a continuing effort to show the different career paths open to paralegals, host Carl Morrison welcomes a fellow legal operations expert to share his backstory.
Tom Stephenson, legal operations manager at Teladoc Health, shares his career trajectory from paralegal in private practice, legal tech consultant to the head of legal operations.
Stephenson and Morrison discuss the increasing value of legal operations in helping legal teams run more efficiently and make better decisions.
Tom Stephenson is head of legal operations at Teladoc Health.
Special thanks to our sponsors, NALA, ServeNow, and CourtFiling.net.
Carl Morrison: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I’m Carl Morrison, Advanced Certified Paralegal and your host of the Paralegal Voice. Before we start today’s show, we would like to thank our sponsor NALA. NALA is a professional association for paralegals providing continuing education, voluntary certification and professional development programs. NALA has been a sponsor of the paralegal voice since our very first show and CourtFiling.net, e-file court documents with ease in California, Illinois, Indiana and Texas. To learn more, visit CourtFiling.net to take advantage of a free 30-day trial and ServeNow, a nationwide network of trusted pre-screen process servers. Work with the most professional process servers who have experience with high-volume serves who embrace technology and understand the litigation process. Visit ServeNow.com to learn more. Well, everyone, welcome to another episode of the Paralegal Voice.
Of recent, I’ve been thinking about different show ideas and a lot of times paralegal students and paralegals that have been working for a while, you know they have questions about what can I do besides being a paralegal, you know what I call different career pathways and my goal always with the show is to help educate and advocate for you paralegals out there and whether you’re up and coming or whether you’ve been doing it for many, many years. The whole goal is to educate, inform advocate for you the listener and today’s topic is what I call the alternative career or alternative paralegal career pathways and what you can do with the paralegal skills that you have whether it be from programs that you have graduated from or whether you’ve been doing it for many years and the talents that you’ve acquired.
And so, today’s show is all about one of those alternative career pathways for us paralegals. It’s known as legal operations and you’re probably going what the heck is legal operations girl, I’ve never heard this before and I have a wonderful guest with me today. His name is Tom Stephenson. He is a registered paralegal and he is head of legal operations for Teladoc Health in Dallas, Texas. Welcome tom.
Tom Stephenson: Hey Carl, how’s it going today?
Carl Morrison: Great, and Tom I could read your whole giant bio. We won’t do that. We’ll let the listeners go on the website and read more about you. So, I’m just going to jump right off into it and first I want to say thank you so much for spending time with me today to talk about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart which is called legal operations. And Tom and I have connected probably about, what, a year and a half ago and we’ve been following each other on social media and I got to noticing with Tom that it’s funny how his position and my position, we seem to be running very much parallel in our career trajectories and we’ve made that transition from private practice to corporate in-house and now ultimately we’re in considered legal operations professionals but I don’t want to get too far ahead of us you know. So, let’s reel it back first and let’s talk about the steps that it took to get to where we are today and specifically you tom. And so, how did you make that leap from working in a law office to working just in a corporate legal department? How did you do that? Did you find it difficult to make that transition?
Tom Stephenson: Yeah, you know we do have such similar backgrounds and for both of us, we’ve been working in the legal industry for well over a decade now and we’ve had the opportunity to kind of work for some amazing law firms in different capacities and positions. So for me, it didn’t take long to connect the dots when my career progressed from that paralegal to senior paralegal to managing a group of paralegals and legal administrative support staff. There’s a lot of particular core skill sets that are found as a paralegal and I found for me personally they were easily transferable to legal operations and administration.
So, when I shifted from assisting attorneys in the delivery of legal services to overseeing non-attorney staff to facilitate really what I think is efficient operations of a law firm, I quickly realized that I already was in that role transitioning from working in a law office to working in a corporate legal department but without the actual legal corporate department itself. In my position in various law firm administration positions, those duties of managing the day-to-day operations of a firm participating in the strategic planning process, identifying short and long-term organizational goals, working with HR, all of these are really part of what i think our legal operations processes and ultimately really define the functional areas that most in-house legal departments take in that administration and really do transcend pretty easily to working into a corporate legal department.
So for me, personally, I don’t think that the transition was difficult but one thing I did notice is that I had to fine tune my duties to demonstrate those skills necessary to succeed. So, we kind of have both you and I the same skill sets and they may be called or performed differently depending upon whether we were in private practice or now we are in-house.
Carl Morrison: Exactly right and for those that may be new listeners that don’t know much about my background either, very similar to Tom here really looking at and honing in on the skills that I already had and fine tuning those respective skills. I also did not find it hard or didn’t have that difficult to make the transition. Now, there are other areas and I’m sure the same with you Tom that there’s other areas that you don’t have a lot of skill set to, but you look for resources to help improve, to help grow those respective skills. Wouldn’t you say?
Tom Stephenson: Oh, absolutely. I mean there are a lot of paralegal skills that I’ve kind of relied on in order for me to succeed in legal operations arena right now. So, not all paralegals assume the exact same duties, but there are a lot of common responsibilities that are at that core function within legal operations. So, for me, I was a Chapter 11 paralegal for a number of years and kind of was responsible for overseeing the preparation of our corporate clients’ monthly operating reports, liquidation analysis, pro rata distribution schedules so that we could ultimately confirm a Chapter 11 plan reorganization. So, when I’m looking to hire somebody in the legal operations arena or when I’m looking back on those skill sets, when I see those I think to myself okay here’s you know a paralegal with financial experience to lead the development and management of legal budgets, check, we’re good on that or another example was that you know when I led a selection procurement and execution of three new legal systems when I was working in private practice as a legal practice support manager, so this was from firm-wide design to understanding the implementation process and ultimately training for those users. So, once again, we have that core legal operations skill sets of business intelligence, vendor management, knowledge management while still maybe potentially having the title of paralegal or paralegal manager or legal support manager. So, those skill sets that I learned early in my career as a paralegal really have allowed me to succeed in the legal operations arena.
Carl Morrison: So what prompted you — I’m curious to know, what prompted you to make the transition from private practice to just a corporate legal department? I mean was there one thing that was like the catalyst that pushed you in that direction or did you just wake up one morning and go, “Hey, I think I’m gonna go into corporate in-house legal department?”
Tom Stephenson: I mean I wish. It would have been a lot easier if I just woke up one morning and said, “Man, I really like that legal operations and this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my career.” But, I’ve always been very tech savvy and kind of programmed to think outside of the box. So, when I first kind of discovered the intersection of law and technology while working as a legal technology consultant, I realized early on that technology does play a very important role within legal departments. It’s cost savings. It’s efficiency. It’s better and faster data analytics. It’s making clear decision makings. The list goes on and on. So, I think for me that catalyst to jump from private practice to corporate in-house really was predicated on trying to make sure that there was a path within legal operations for those that come from a long history of working as a paralegal in the legal industry or legal support staff.
So much like you, I’m very active within the paralegal profession and kind of believe that there are many opportunities within legal operations for those like us, and so I kind of wanted to make sure that I was at that forefront for that charge, So having the drive and the ambition to wanting to make the jump from private practice to in-house coupled with kind of those savvy technology skills that I have, I think that really has helped me make that transition and really was the catalyst in making that transition itself.
Carl Morrison: You know it’s funny because I didn’t choose per se to go into corporate in-house. I mean I was curious because I’ve been doing this for at the time and over 20 years and I was like is there more to my career than “just being a paralegal” and there’s nothing wrong with you know working in private practice.
I did you know insurance defense class action-type work, big giant cases and was in the courtroom all the time and I enjoyed it, but I thought is there more to this because as I am maturing, it’s like do I really want to work 80 hours a week getting ready for a trial or in the midst of trial at the age of 52. Well, no not necessarily so it’s like what else is there for me to do and actually I was absconded by my now current general counsel and he reached out to me for position and it was an opportunity for me to take the skills that I had already established and continue to grow and evolve and branch into other areas that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to necessarily work in for me I do with employment law issues. I deal with intellectual property stuff I would have never done before. So for me, I was kind of stolen but it was a good stolen. It was an opportunity for me to grow and I’m sure the listeners are the same way as that what else is there for me to do with the paralegal skills that i already have. This is for us and what we’re talking about an opportunity to an alternative career pathway for paralegals.
So, before we jump into the meat and potatoes of legal operations. I really want to you know discuss what that term actually means. So Tom, legal operations means different things to different people, but there is a core really — I’m not going to say definition but there’s a core way to explain what is. So what is the definition of legal operations? How would you define it?
Tom Stephenson: I think that legal operations at its core really is focused on making in-house legal teams run more efficiently and making better decisions and I really want to place the emphasis on the and because you can be efficient but maybe you’re not making great business decisions or you could be making great business decisions but not be tackling them the most efficient way possible. So, legal operations professionals are more than just the right hand of the general counsel. As paralegals, a lot of individuals both in the legal profession and maybe outside of the legal profession when we’re explaining what we do as paralegals to our friends and our family think that we’re just the right hand to an attorney, but really I think legal operations is ultimately focused on managing all the functions that take place within a legal department that are really separate from the true substantive delivery of legal advice.
So, for example, I’m focused on making sure that my team, our vendors, internal department colleagues finance, procurement, HR, that all the people that I work with are equipped with better processes, information, technology and data-driven insights so we can kind of harness that maximum value, kind of like Superman. And so, I think that legal operations at its core really is a strategic function that can be divided into two main categories were one, we’re taking on the tasks that don’t require a JD or a law degree and in doing so kind of give way so that our attorneys can focus only on legal work. So, we’re taking away you know those administrative, those business intelligence, those functions that are not truly substantive in legal work away from our in-house attorneys so that once we take on those tasks, we as legal operations professionals can focus on driving efficiency within our department by using metrics and data.
I know that you know CLOC. For those who are not familiar with CLOC, CLOC is the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium and they have 12 different functions that they think are critical in enabling you know organizations and in-house legal departments to think differently about the way that each legal department grows, where their priorities, where their objectives are, where their opportunities are and the core 12 I think is really important in helping define legal operations. And so for those that aren’t familiar, the 12 core are business intelligence, financial management, firm and vendor management, information governance, knowledge management, organization optimization and health, practice operations, project and program management, service delivery models, strategic planning, technology and then finally training and development. And I’m sure that you feel the same way but when describing all of those 12 core competencies, I feel as though that as you climb the private practice ladder from a paralegal to a senior paralegal to maybe legal support manager, you deal with these on a daily basis.
You hire people. You implement new technology. You help create budgets for new hires. You want to create training guides for your paralegals. You want to make sure that you’re using all of the tools in your toolbox as efficiently as possible. And so really what you’re doing is you’re taking the skills that you’ve accumulated and amassed over the years and you’re just moving it from private practice to in-house now with a larger emphasis you know and more of a reach.
Carl Morrison: It’s funny that you’re – I’m glad that you brought up CLOC and the 12 core skills of a legal operations professional because when I actually started to segue into legal operations and first was brought into it, looking at that 12, my first reaction was like, “O my gosh, how am I going to tackle all these different areas because I really don’t have these particular skills” but then when you really stop and think about all those respective areas, I mean the one area where I would say I’m not weak but I don’t have the strongest is financial management because I didn’t do that much in private practice. And so I have been expanding on that skill set but most of the rest, it’s like “Oh well, I’ve done this.” I can actually go back over the course of my career and point to respective periods, respective things that I’ve done that actually those are the skills and I’m like, “Oh, wait, I can do this job.” I’m not that green. I mean for you Tom, how did you even really get involved? I mean for me it was my general counsel kind of pointing me to CLOC and the concept of legal operations. We’re a small legal team and so we don’t have a giant — we’re not Google and have hundreds of employees working in the legal department. For you Tom, how did you even get involved in the legal operations role itself? Was there something that really guided you that way?
Tom Stephenson: Yeah, I mean I’ve taken quite the journey. So when I first started in my career in legal, I kind of fell into a legal assistant paralegal job by not necessarily — by graduating college, not quite sure what I wanted to do and I thought, “Yeah, maybe let me try my hand in legal.” Maybe I want to be a lawyer one day and after quickly realizing nope, not going to be a lawyer, not for me. I kind of naturally steered in a direction with my dynamic and outgoing personality into wanting to really intersect the people operations of legal and being a paralegal with my day-to-day duties. And so, I started off you know making sure that I understood you know what being a paralegal was. I went back and I got you know my education. I got my certification as a paralegal. I really wanted to make sure that I did the homework and understood the meat and potatoes of what goes into being a paralegal and then after that, it was harnessing my personality and my skill sets to be able to teach and train and educate others. And so, moving from paralegal to senior paralegal and senior paralegal to managing a group of paralegals, I quickly realized that at times, there’s a little bit of a ceiling that you can hit in private practice at that level. I mean you can you can be a law firm admin, you can be managing a group of paralegals, but I was kind of looking for a little bit more and I always thought, “Man, it’d be really nice to work for one of those fun, cushy, in-house companies in legal operations.”
Quickly, I’m sure you found out the same not as cushy and not as easy as the dream that we think when looking on the outside in, but what ultimately gravitated me towards going in-house and with legal operations was having a recruiter reach out to me and be able to identify and see these skill sets that I had in private practice and quickly realized and pieced together that those really do transcend into legal operations. So, I actually kind of fell into it through a recruiter and understanding you know the tools that were in my toolbox and helping to harness those to make that career jump for me.
Carl Morrison: It’s so funny that you talk about quickly realizing it’s not all cushy and glamorous in corporate. It’s not if those that are thinking about it, but it’s not. It’s a good transition for those that may be thinking about. It’s a good opportunity to grow as a professional. So Tom and I are not meaning to scare you away if we’re saying that it’s not all roses because it’s not, but that’s with any job let’s be honest, but it is a great opportunity. So, let’s take a short commercial break. So don’t turn that dial.
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Carl Morrison: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. We’ve been talking with my guest, Tom Stephenson. He’s head of legal operations for Teladoc and we’re going to transition a little bit to talk about what specific skills Tom have you relied on in order for you to succeed in the legal operations? Are there like really certain two or three core skills that you’ve relied on?
Tom Stephenson: Yeah, I think that for me, it has been about taking and harnessing you know that strong attention to detail that we’re taught as paralegals and making sure that that attention to detail is applied throughout all of legal operations. So, as we talked about earlier with the core 12, you’ll have you know a financial management. So you want to make sure that the projections and the budgets and the forecasting that you are giving to different business units has that same strong attention to detail. We are taught as paralegals also to kind of closely proofread our emails as though that they will be read in court and so for me I think being able to take that precision to detail transcends and is easily transferable into legal operations roles.
Carl Morrison: You’re exactly right. I mean we’re really project managers and you don’t realize it when you’re doing it because you’re managing a case and you’re taking a case from inception to resolution to judgment and post judgment. You’re a project manager, you have those skills and for me one of the skills that I’ve relied on is the project management aspect of what I’ve done as a trial paralegal of managing a case and managing the trial team in the midst of a month-long trial. Those skill sets that I have used to efficiently get the case together, to getting all the witnesses lined up and so on and so forth, for me it’s been project management.
So, for the listeners, there are skill sets that you are going to rely on and use should you make that transition into the legal operations arena. So Tom, what’s been your biggest challenge transitioning from paralegal to legal operations?
Tom Stephenson: I think that my the strongest skill set that I have is also my greatest weakness. And so once again, I’m talking about that attention to details. So, sometimes I have a tendency to turn that into perfectionism. So the way that I communicate by trying to get across a clear concise way sometimes I can fiddle with the layout of a presentation to ensure that it is perfect and the next thing you know, I’m presenting you know a 9 or 10-slide deck to our CFO and I’ve spent four or five hours on it. And so I’ve definitely learned to successfully budget my time and gauge which tasks required and really do actually benefit from that level of precision. So, where before as a paralegal, we’re taught that every I needs to be dotted, every T needs to be crossed. It’s the same is still applicable in legal operations but you just can’t spend your entire time working on that, that perfectionism and so for me that’s been the biggest challenge for me as I transitioned from paralegal to legal operations.
Carl Morrison: So what would you recommend to a paralegal who really wants to go into legal operations, managing a legal department, managing the processes, helping streamline things like that? How can I make that leap? How’s it done?
Tom Stephenson: Yeah, I mean I think that it’s about really harnessing the underground paralegal network to show that we are capable of transitioning from paralegal to legal operations. We may not come from a typical MBA educational standpoint that you’ll see in a lot of individuals who are in a generic operations role and we’re not attorneys as well either.
But as paralegals, we have historically been responsible for administrating important processes in law firms and legal departments and we’ve often at times leveraged technology to do so. Si I think that transition is the same way whether we were looking to advance our paralegal career and move up in that or if we’re looking to move from being a paralegal into legal operations. So I try and attend one to two legal operations conferences a year and now that I have been going to them and making that network and that connection, I’ve been trying to add a few speaking engagements as well. And then another thing is as I think as somebody who in legal operations, I’m constantly watching my outside counsel spend. I believe that that same networking with vendors can also lead to savings. And so I’m also at the same time listening to the podcast, joining your local paralegal association or attending NALA’s conference. I think that there are ways that you can harness that leap by really utilizing your network and making sure that you build it just as though you would for your paralegal career.
Carl Morrison: And for the listeners, understand that there are other career pathways this being legal operations and Tom and I are paralegals that’s our experience, that’s our background, that’s our education and so don’t think that you can’t make that leap and that transition because you can. You do have the skill sets. It’s a lot also and Tom would probably agree with me that it’s determining your self-worth and understanding that “Hey, I can’t do this job. I do have the skill sets in order to do it” and some paralegals actually that’s their second career they were in accounting or HR before they transitioned into becoming a paralegal. Heck, you really got a leg up because you’re very strong. Am I right?
Tom Stephenson: Yeah I mean as I shifted from that managing paralegals to now where I am at an operational level, I had to make sure that I didn’t lose sight of what I thought were my successful paralegal principles. So for me, now if I don’t know something or I need some more time to think about, you know in private practice I would at times rush to get the answer as quick as possible or run down to another attorney’s office and try and get it as quick as possible, but now I’m trying to let that simple, let me think about, turn into analyzing the details or objectives or what time and money would be committed to it before responding to it. So, I’m really trying to make sure that I never lose sight or lose track of those core paralegal competencies that have been built into us for so long, but really harness those and tap into those resources to make sure that I’m successful in legal operations.
Carl Morrison: Yeah. it’s just a matter of stepping back and looking at and understanding/ There’s all sorts of resources out there to help you succeed in legal ops. Tom, you can probably agree with me but the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, CLOC.org, is a great resource if you just want to get more information about legal operations as a whole, wouldn’t you agree?
Tom Stephenson: Oh absolutely. One of the things that I have utilized the most as a member of CLOC is they have a tools and resource section
Carl Morrison: Oh, yeah.
Tom Stephenson: Not only breaks down each of the 12 core overviews but also it’s a community resource and so people are all the time asking for “Hey, I need a budget template for next year or hey, does anybody have a project plan in implementing X, Y or X.” And so much like you and I have connected outside and used both our profession and our personalities to kind of bounce ideas off of each other, the same goes for having that connection with CLOC and so I think it truly is one of the essential starters that if you are looking to make that transition from paralegal to legal operations, definitely look at CLOC and I think it’s well worth the investment.
Carl Morrison: Okay. So, like I said, we can keep going all day long.
Tom Stephenson: All day right.
Carl Morrison: So, before we sign off, I always have my fun question. So, I was Internet stalking you.
Tom Stephenson: Oh boy.
Carl Morrison: Because I didn’t realize this until I discovered this, so by the way Tom and I are going to be at a conference in — is that in September right September, right?
Tom Stephenson: September, October yeah.
Carl Morrison: Yeah. The Consero, it’s a legal operations group and so I’m going to really grill you on this one when I see you, but for this show, I got to know. So, I understand you’re a college sports fanatic and a craft beer aficionado so —
Tom Stephenson: I am.
Carl Morrison: I got to know what’s your favorite college sports team and when you’re watching your favorite, what craft beer are you drinking?
Tom Stephenson: So, I’m originally from Ohio and so I’m sure that you know people who live Ohio love Ohio and love everything about Ohio. So, I’m from Dayton originally. So I grew up watching the Dayton Flyers and have always been very heavily into college basketball. I also think weirdly not to like go back to legal operations, but that data and everything that you use that’s just naturally who I am. So I like to look at metrics of college basketball and follow KenPom and things like that. So college sports is definitely Dayton Flyers or Ohio State and as far as craft beer is concerned, actually one of my best friends that I’ve known for years and years, his family actually owns a brewery outside of Chicago called Pollyanna and they actually have a wonderful sour beer collection and I’m very much into sour beers and so they have a blackberry sour beer, they have a cherry lime sour beer and so a mango, and so I’m really into drinking sour beers.
Carl Morrison: Interesting. I didn’t even know that there’s sour beers. I’m not a beer drinker but I am a college sports fan. I’m college football. I’m from the south. So I’m a Florida Gators fan, go Gators. Your Ohio State stole my Urban Meyer, but he left so yeah. Anyway, Tom, thank you so much for being a guest on the show. If anyone wants to reach out to you, how can they contact you?
Tom Stephenson: My email address is [email protected] as well as finding me on LinkedIn, Tom Stephenson, head of legal operations at Teladoc. I’m more than happy to reach out or answer any questions or just have a general discussion about legal operations.
Carl Morrison: Tom, thank you so much. We really appreciate you being on the show.
Tom Stephenson: Thank you so much Carl.
Carl Morrison: Hang tight everyone. We’re going to be right back after a break for the station identification.
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Carl Morrison: Well, don’t forget everyone NALA’s annual convention is July 22nd through the 24th which is coming up. There are over 1,200 paralegals that are going to be attending this year. Again, it’s virtually. I will be there in attendance as well so you still have time to register. You’re not missed the deadline so definitely don’t wait. And that’s all the time we have today for the Paralegal Voice. If you have questions about today’s show, of course always feel free to email me at [email protected]. Always, I’d love to hear from the listeners. So feel free, shout out, give me info about what’s going on in your respective associations, your job. I’d love to hear from you guys. So that’s it for today and stay tuned for more information in upcoming podcasts for exciting paralegal trends, news and engaging and fun interviews from leading paralegals and other leading legal professionals. Thank you for listening to the Paralegal Voice produced by broadcast professionals at Legal Talk Network. If you’d like more information about today’s show, please visit legaltalknetwork.com. Find Legal Talk Network on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or download Legal Talk Network’s free app in Google Play and iTunes. And reminding you that I’m here to enhance your passion and dedication to the paralegal profession and make your paralegal voice heard.
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Podcast transcription by Tech-Synergy.com