What I learned at CLOC
Last week I attended the premier legal operations conference for the first time ever. Here's what I heard.
I’m back! What an experience it was to attend my first ever CLOC conference in Las Vegas. Even though I tried my hardest to be present and avoid social media, I did make this one Tik Tok about it. That aside, I tried really hard to learn what was happening in the world of legal tech/ops and took down as many notes as I could. Here are some insights on what I heard on the ground and what I pieced together from conversations with different people:
Legal operations is growing quickly. There were a huge number of first-timers, more than I expected. I met so many former paralegals and administrators who were asked by their General Counsels or Chief Legal Officers to attend. I always knew legal ops was growing but seeing so many first timers who were excited about the legal ops 101 session let me see firsthand how fast the segment is growing.
I believe this trend will continue. I recently noted on Twitter that some GCs are completely unaware of what legal ops even is. As demand for legal work grows, and budgets remain relatively small, the need to scale legal teams will only grow over time.
Legal ops is becoming more strategic. In the past, it was all about optimizing spend or streamlining inefficient processes. But legal ops’ next act is more proactive.It’s to drive how legal can better align with company top priorities—as opposed to reacting to work dumped on them. Mary O’Carroll, the former CLOC president, spoke about this and from my side conversations with advanced legal ops pros, this is the next frontier.
Relatedly, I had a fascinating conversation about data and metrics with one particular head of legal ops. She highlighted the need for *real* metrics that move the business forward, not vanity metrics like “number of contracts reviewed/redlined.” As sales and revenue grow, for example, we wouldn’t *want* the number of redline contracts to increase similarly right?
If “number of contracts reviewed” grows proportionally with sales, that just means legal continues to be a bottleneck. The metrics will look “good” and “productive” but legal is not really scaling with the business. Yet that’s the metric many are measuring. I mean, even the number of redlines is completely dependent on how many deals reach the negotiation stage—something that is dictated by sales, and completely outside the control of legal.
So there’s a need to find a meaningful metric that captures the valuable, strategic work legal departments do.
The contracts tech (CLM) space is getting really crowded. I wasn’t sure how many vendors were at the conference exactly, but I was told it was in the dozens. CLM’s presence wasn’t just felt in the exhibitor hall, but also throughout the conference sessions. This and all the fundraising announcements from CLMs probably led to snarky tweets like these:
I mean, on the one hand I can see this being true. On the other, I saw so many buyers who desperately need something to help with their contracting. And that’s been consistent with everything I’ve seen in the contracts space in the past few years. CLOC sessions discussing CLMs were oversubscribed and filled with buyers. Random people I’d sit with at networking lunches would talk about buying or implementing tech.
It should be interesting though, to see what happens as more CLM products come to market. I think it’ll become even more important (from the vendor perspective) to distinguish yourself from others, and focus on serving your customers well. The market demand is there, and the vendors who make their customers successful will reap the lion’s share of the rewards.
Old PR playbooks backfired. When I first got into legal tech I was told vendors like to make big announcements during the conference so it’ll create buzz, and everyone will talk about it. CLOC was no different—there were multiple announcements from CLMs, which significantly diluted the “wow” factor. It even seemed like some attendees got mixed up on who announced what. When everyone follows the same playbook, it stops working.
Relatedly, this is why I think Ironclad is truly ahead of the curve. We zigged while everyone else zagged. We decided to invest in community early, before it was cool. (Shout out to Vera Devera our senior events & content marketing manager, who ran the community function years before Mary and I joined) Which helped us receive a strong, welcome reception at CLOC—whether it was our booth or our party.
In the past few weeks (including at CLOC) I’ve had a few off the record conversations about other legal tech startups trying to build their own community functions. Which is great! Don’t get me wrong. But the ones who invested early into building a community function will capture the lion’s share of the rewards. And on this, Ironclad stands apart from the rest of the field.
Professional services providers vs. Law firms. I’m probably not using the right vocabulary here because this space is kind of unfamiliar to me. But I’m talking about Big4,providers that help with tech implementation, and staffing marketplaces. They all had a big presence at the conference. I’m not quite ready to speculate about what this means but I did find it interesting that their engagement with the legal ops community was dramatically different than the law firms—whose market share would be eroded by their success—that attended. There were a lot of law firm booths that sat unmanned and law firm lawyers who just sat and talked amongst themselves instead of meeting new people.
One particular conversation stood out to me. I sat at a networking lunch table every day, just to meet people and learn about them. One of the days I sat at a table next to a Biglaw partner. He looked like a stereotypical partner—well dressed, pocket square, gray hair, and just seemed so casual and relaxed. He talked at the table for 15 minutes without ever introducing himself, or asking anyone about themselves. He went on and on about how remote work doesn’t work, and how great working in the office was. Then he stood up and left.
It made me wonder—why was Biglaw even there? Were they trying to engage with legal ops, and get to know them? Or were they “spreading their bets” and sponsoring one of many conferences? I really don’t know. I mentioned what I noticed on Twitter and received an insightful response from Ron Friedmann:
I don’t really understand why Biglaw seems so disengaged. But I’ll keep watching this because I feel like I might be on to something.
Demand for learning how to grow your personal brand. I was invited to speak about my experience growing my platform on LinkedIn and was surprised by how popular the session was.It wasn’t just me either. CLOC organized a “career center” with sessions on personal brand, networking, and offered headshots. All were well attended. A reporter from The American Lawyer even attended my session and interviewed me (and my friend Sameena Kluck who also presented) on this topic. I suspect this is all tied to The Great Resignation, and speaks to the career opportunities available in the legal innovation space.
One thing I didn’t include in my presentation, but I would like to moving forward is this: Strong personal brands don’t come from getting visibility for visibility’s sake. As a good friend of mine reminded me, if you’re doing all this for professional reasons, you don’t want to be famous like a Kardashian. All of the strongest personal brands that garner respect from everyone, they all have underlying substance and accomplishments. Social media clout is cool and exciting but having a real impact matters more. This is as much of a reminder to myself as it is for others.
Finally, it was really cool to move from social media in the real world. This one’s personal but I gotta say I loved meeting and talking with people in the real world. In fact, several Substack subscribers came by and introduced themselves to me, which was SUPER cool.Turns out my memes, jokes, and Tik Toks are shared among corporate legal departments, and not all of them engage on social media. It’s given me so many ideas for future content and about how I’d like to continue engaging with the legal innovation community.
Hope you enjoyed this writeup and let me know what you think in the comments!
This is so critical because legal wants to / needs to shed its reputation as a cost center. I’m paraphrasing Mary but essentially, if you want more internal clout, larger budgets, and respect, you absolutely have to align your work with top company priorities.
Who happens to also be the Chief Community Officer at Ironclad, and my current boss.
FYI: Risks avoided, penalties, sanctions, etc. avoided are not compelling metrics.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. CLMs that have a vibrant, engaging community of customers are sending a message to buyers that they’ve made people successful. Any vendor can overpromise and lie to get deals. These bad actors will find it very hard, if not impossible, to launch a similar customer community.
This also explains my own success on social media. I started posting on LinkedIn in 2016, and making Tik Toks in 2020, way before it was part of a playbook. It was hard to justify to other people at the time but the world shifted during the pandemic, and suddenly everyone wants to learn my “secrets.” Well, it’s this: Start early, and do it consistently, every day, for years. And then hope that you’re right lol.
Shout out to the E&Y folks who let me crash their party on the first day. They rolled in heavy, like 50 people deep. There were so many of them! It showed me that they are really invested into CLOC, especially as a diamond sponsor. The talent they have is really incredible. Maybe Biglaw is impenetrable but I was super impressed by the folks I met. Especially my new best friend Shourik who walked me around the party, introducing me to people after he saw that I came alone and didn’t know anyone.
This was the strangest part to me. Why would you pay for a super expensive booth and then not keep anyone there? I’ve seen some of the sponsorship rates, they’re really not cheap.
I was invited to speak on this topic (I’m always hesitant to talk about personal brand because it seems so fluffy and interest is usually in “how do I become famous?”) But, the CLOC organizers asked me to do it and gave me a free ticket in exchange, so why not?
I was the new kid on the block but was of course guided by the legendary Ari Kaplan. He went out of his way to give me great advice and offer help and I am so thankful for it.
Here’s the resulting article: https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2022/05/12/brand-building-101-how-in-house-counsel-can-authentically-be-seen/
Shout out to Sharon, Erin, and Gaurav! If there are others please let me know in the comments—I never know who’s out there reading.
I am supposed to go to a conference in my field in July. It will be my first time around a lot of people since 2020. How comfortable was it for you being around so many strangers, especially unmasked? Did you find people respected personal space and safety measures?
I really like your point about not wanting to be visible just for the sake of it. I go back and forth about how much visibility I really want to have on social media. I am on LinkedIn, but I don't post very much and honestly think it would freak me out to have a large following. Participating in community is one thing, but I'm not so sure I'd enjoy creating or leading one.
Thanks, Alex. Interesting, and great report. Why am I not surprised about the behavior of the Big Law firm guy?