UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Stephanie Corey of UpLevel Ops

on Topics: Future Law | Influencer Q&A | Legal Tech

UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Stephanie Corey of UpLevel Ops

Stephanie Corey is a pioneer in the field of legal operations. Having helped shape the definition of legal operations, Stephanie founded the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) to bring legal operations to the forefront of corporations’ minds. Now, Stephanie co-founded and runs UpLevel Ops, helping take legal operations teams to the next level.

Speaking with Stephanie about her story and the future of legal operations was incredibly insightful – we hope you enjoy Stephanie’s insights and knowledge as much as we did!

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?

Stephanie Corey: The Legal Industry wasn’t even on my radar when I started my career. I completed an undergrad degree in Economics, earned an MBA, and then I interned at Merrill Lynch. I was heading down the path of becoming a trader, but not long after getting my brokerage license, I realized that wasn’t the life for me. Auspiciously, a friend of mine working at HP shared a job recommendation for this role called, “legal operations.” I had no idea what it was, and as it turns out, nobody else really did either! Initially, the role was focused on outside counsel management, spend and budgeting, and had a small technical component. Over the course of my tenure at HP, the role grew, and eventually I was managing Finance, Accounts Payable, Technology, Administration, Research and the Law Library, eDiscovery and Records Retention for the whole company.

HP was the first company in Silicon Valley to define this role as a formal function, and I’m grateful I was able to spend more than a decade there, learning what legal departments do and how to help them function better. While I was there, I founded the CLOC organization (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) with several other companies here in the Valley. I realized I was the only person performing my role at HP so I had to look outside the company to learn best practices and benchmarks. I started calling around to see if other companies had this role in place, and sure enough, there were about 15 of us. We started getting together regularly and this was the genesis of CLOC.

After HP, I briefly moved to VMWare, but my good friend and colleague Jon Hoak took the GC role at Flextronics and asked me to start that function from the ground up. So I went from managing a department that had grown to around 100 people at HP back to being a department of one at Flex. But we had a great team with great partnerships across the organization with Finance, IT and HR, and we were able to accomplish a surprising amount, and had plenty of fun doing it.

UC: What is UpLevel Ops? What motivated you to start it?

SC: UpLevel Ops, we lead the evolution of the legal operations practice.

We are trusted advisors providing practical guidance, mentorship, and coaching that goes beyond consulting. With our custom, high-end service – born of extensive corporate in-house experience – we partner with clients to craft actionable solutions. We create a roadmap to success that empowers teams with best practices, tools, and workflows tailored to their unique business objectives.

But the real difference is our people.

UpLevel Ops experts collaborate with clients to meet them where they are. We design a plan to position teams as core drivers of efficiency and innovation. We believe that transformation happens in small changes, and our goal is to activate that change and move our clients forward. And upward.

Among other services, UpLevel Ops provides:

  • Legal ops support and advice
  • Strategic planning and org design
  • Assessments and roadmaps
  • Technology selection and implementation
  • Process redesign
  • Workflow automation
  • Outside counsel management

We started UpLevel Ops six years ago when my friend and General Counsel, Jon Hoak, decided to leave his corporate role with aspirations of eventual retirement. It was the first year we held a CLOC conference, and, coming off of that very successful event, it hit home for me just how much this role has expanded and how many people were (and are) struggling to find better ways of delivering their legal services.

Rather than find another role in another company, I convinced Jon to start this business with me, and it’s been a complete, marvelous whirlwind ever since. We now have a small but immensely talented team across the US, with diverse and deep in-house experience, supporting UpLevel clients all over the world.

Our services range from helping very small legal departments build their legal ops infrastructure so they can scale, all the way up to managing legal ops programs for large legal departments.

UC: How has the role of legal operations evolved over the years? What are some of the most significant shifts you’ve seen in terms of how legal operations disciplines have become entrenched into legal departments? 

SC: When I started in this role, it was more reactive and highly operational. In other words, I was brought in to save money on outside counsel because spend was increasing, and I solved problems for the team as they were brought to my attention. Legal Operations was seen as “back office” support. As the entire industry has matured, so has the Ops function. Many of us in this role act as the Chief of Staff or senior advisor to the General Counsel or Chief Legal Officer. Rather than living in Excel, we now spend our time in strategic planning meetings with the rest of the executive staff, we analyze what work is happening within the department, what work should be done by the legal department, and help determine what work should be done by partners, by internal resources and by law firms. We are then responsible for figuring out the best way to actually successfully execute that work. The biggest shift I’ve seen in terms of how this discipline has changed is that we now more often have a seat at the table and are being treated like the other deputies to the General Counsel, as we should be.

UC: In a great panel session you participated in at the 2022 CLOC Global Institute titled “Beyond the Tech Roadmap: Driving Your Department Towards ‘Digital Fluency,’” you mentioned that legal operations teams need to fight for visibility. Why is fighting for visibility important for legal ops, and how can they do a better job at marketing their value internally to the legal department and business teams? 

SC: Because legal ops professionals are constantly justifying the programs they are implementing and the spend for their departments, they’re naturally reticent to ask for the resources they need. But you would never take on a huge project like a home remodel, for instance, without the proper resources. You need your loan from the bank, you need to find the right builder, you need to get the permits, and you need to hire a designer and architect to help you design your project. So why are we willing to take on professional projects that are under-resourced and under-funded? That’s a recipe for disaster.

Many legal ops managers we work with are new to their roles, and we spend a lot of time mentoring and coaching them. We encourage them to be clear about the value their programs bring to the department and company, and then we strongly encourage them to ask for the proper resourcing to implement them. In order for them to do any of this effectively, they need a seat at the table. They need to be on the GC’s staff, sitting in on meetings and having a voice, just like the other Deputies. After all, what they’re doing is no less relevant or important. Without this visibility, there is no feasible way for them to see what’s happening in the department and to connect the dots when they’re problem-solving.

UpLevel not only helps empower these managers to find their voice, we provide tools and resources that back them up such as scorecards and other methodologies. This gives them the support of real data and can make the difference when trying to ‘sell up’ legal ops initiatives.

We are often asked the question of whether or not this role really does need to report to the GC, and the answer is yes, it really should. If this role reports to one of the Deputies, it will be seen as supporting only that function, and it becomes siloed and less effective.

UC: As one of the original co-founders of CLOC, what role do you think CLOC has played in promoting progress in the legal industry, and how do you see CLOC continuing to shape the legal industry in the future?

SC: It’s been tremendously important in bringing visibility to this role. Before we “unionized” as an organization, many of us in the role were treated as a back-office, behind the scenes, “lesser-than” function. With the help of the forward-thinking GCs who we supported, this role has been leveled up, especially over the last couple of years. Savvy GCs now see that this is how the legal work gets done. The lawyers are the “what,” and the legal ops team is the “how.” In addition, legal ops is how you tell the story of the value the Legal Department is bringing to the businesses. With the help of the systems and processes they implement, legal ops teams are able to collect data and metrics to tell the story of Legal.

As for the future, I think CLOC will continue to play a role in educating legal ops professionals, especially new ones. That said, there’s more room for thought leadership, especially from and for senior legal ops professionals, which is why Andrew Dick and I started LINK, the Legal Innovators Network. This is a community for experienced legal ops professionals to share their ideas through our message boards, library and through monthly virtual and in-person events, and we partner with the best legal tech and service providers in our industry to offer this free to our members. Just as I reached out to find support, LINK members are strengthening their networks through the site and monthly, topic-led LINK-Up events.

UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? What are some real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?

SC: Culture eats strategy for lunch every time, but execution eats them both. The older I get, the more I realize how important company culture is to the employee experience. At UpLevel Ops, we have a small team and we’ve been able to build and maintain the culture we always wanted when we were in-house. As the Buddhists say, what you practice is what you have, so it’s important for companies to be very deliberate in identifying what they want their culture to be, and creating practices that exemplify and reward that culture, and hire people who embody those characteristics. As leaders, we need to embody those characteristics.

The other saying we use all the time is that transformation happens in small increments, and we see this with our clients on a daily basis. Getting people to do things differently is hard, and we find that using the building block approach to give people time to move with the tide is most effective. We are big fans of meeting our clients where they are, and we have many clients who start down the path of modernizing their operations one step at a time. After a few years, they’re able to look back and recognize that their departments have transformed.

UC: What are your goals for 2022? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and legal innovation space we should know about?

SC: Yes! I started a professional organization with my friend and fellow entrepreneur Andrew Dick called the Legal Innovators Network, or LINK. LINK is a growing community of mid- to senior-level legal operations professionals who get together each month to discuss relevant topics. Along with these monthly LINK-Ups, the LINK website has a private message board for members, as well as a resource library, and we’re starting to plan in-person get-togethers across the country. We also partner with some of the most progressive tech and service providers in the industry, and thanks to them, we’re able to offer these resources to the community at no cost. In-house professionals can visit LINK for Legal to apply. It’s such a thrill to see the community come together to address real-world legal ops problems and access this network of deep talent.

I’m also excited about the article Casey Flaherty and I recently wrote for the ACC (Association of Corporate Counsel) titled, “Savings is Not a Strategy.” As I mentioned, the role of the General Counsel has evolved, and with this article we hope to encourage them to think beyond cost savings when they’re telling the “story of Legal.” While efficiency is important, that alone won’t further the perception of Legal as a strategic function within the company. GCs need to demonstrate and quantify how they’re facilitating business and bringing revenue in the door more quickly, in an ethical and legal manner. In other words, they need to clearly communicate the value they bring to the table.

UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

SC: Please visit our newly redesigned site at uplevelops.com! And for anyone who wants to get a little taste of what UpLevel Ops is like to work with, we offer a complimentary 30-minute assessment at uplevelops.com/assessment.

Shaping Legal Operations of the Future

Stephanie has reshaped the way the corporate world views legal operations. UpLevel Ops gives legal operations teams the confidence, resources, tools, and knowledge to cement their seat at the corporate table. We can’t wait to see what Stephanie does next!