Episode 21: Opportunities for Legal with Sarah Ouis

How do you create user-centric legal operations? And actually, what does user-centric even mean in a legal context? Wonder no more, because today we're joined in the studio by Legal Design & Content superhero Sarah Ouis. Sarah will take us through her own journey from in-house counsel to out-of-house consultant and delve into the opportunities for scaling in-house Legal teams.

Welcome to Inspiring Legal, the podcast for inhouse legal.

Get insights, learn from peers, life lessons from some of the most influential GCs. If it's related to inhouse legal, we cover it. For more inspiration, go to openli.com/community.

Stine: So, we're back with another episode of Inspiring Legal. My name is Stine and I'm your host. Openli is all about the community. It's all about inspiring each other and us to become even better in-house privacy counsels, GCs, head of legal, and working with that every single day. 

Today, I'm joined by Sarah. Sarah Ouis is an amazing person, one to get inspired by. 

And today, she's going to be talking about her journey, having worked in-house as a legal counsel, moving up in the ranks, so to speak, heading up legal teams, and now working no longer in-house, but from the outside, taking that view on how can we, working in-house, improve. 

[: - :] What works? What doesn't work? With that maybe more objective view, because she's looking in from the outside. Welcome, Sarah. 

Sarah: Thank you so much, Stine, for having me. 

Stine: Sarah, so people might know you. They might not know you. You have a massive following based on LinkedIn, and we'll talk about that as well. 

But maybe for the ones that don't know you, could you maybe just tell a little bit about yourself and your journey and who you are? 

Sarah: Yeah, sure. So a little bit about myself. So I'm Sarah. I am a French qualified lawyer, but I've pretty much developed my career in the UK. That's after law school. That's pretty much where everything started for me. 

I worked as an in-house counsel in multiple industries, mostly in technology and pharmaceutical life sciences sectors. So these were really the sectors I knew the most. And I developed my career as an in-house counsel, first being part of a legal team, and then 

I joined a scale-up. I started off as a sole counsel, built the entire legal function and privacy function from scratch. So I've been for the weeds of what it takes to grow as an in-house team. And then in , I kind of felt that I couldn't see myself doing this again. And I just figured that I was more passionate about problem solving in-house as opposed to being an in-house counsel on a daily basis, which made me move to work part-time with Contrapod AI, which I have a CLM, and also found my own consultancy, Lobeth House. 

So it's all about I really help legal team design user-centric in-house legal departments for them to increase customer satisfaction, but ultimately also be more fulfilled in everything they do. So yeah, that's about me. 

Stine: You say that's about you. That's quite impressive. And I also think you've kind of like did that journey where you started your career, right? And then you just built on from there, building the teams, building yourself, and being on that journey where when you're a part of a startup or a scale-up, you have to keep up with the business, right? 

[: - :] You have to keep your team motivated, having massive workloads, having to improve yourself, motivate yourself, build out your own kind of career while doing this, and still trying to get that work-life balance to kind of, well, work, or at least just get some kind of normality into it. 

So Sarah, if you were to kind of like maybe put a few words on when you're now sitting at your consultancy and working with those legal teams, if you were to kind of like take a look at your own journey and think a little bit about what have I learned and what would I have done differently maybe, could you maybe just share some of those kind of thoughts?

Sarah: Yeah, sure. I think probably when looking back, one of the things that really hinders, hindered me as an in-house counsel, and I think it hinders a lot of in-house legal teams, is mindset. We are really, we lack the skills that it takes to really run an effective user-centric legal function that doesn't burn people out. 

Again, because the legal functions tend to be unfortunately cost-centered, that's just the reality of the way we are perceived. We obviously get buried in an amount of work, and we are pretty much helpless about it. We don't really know what to do. 

And I've been that, I've been there. I've been that in-house counsel that didn't have any budget, that had to fight for months if not years to get additional resources, et cetera. And in a way, it was a blessing in disguise because when you are, resources come with resourcefulness. So you really have to kind of find ways to build that foundation in order for the resources to come. 

So since I had no budget, I had to work with what I had, which was nothing. So I had to look inward and be like, okay, what is it that I can do better? What is it that I can, what area of the business can I start, build efficiencies into, et cetera? So it kind of made me think. And I think that a lot of where mindset comes a problem is that we tend to kind of think that we can't problem solve unless we have more budget, unless we have more bodies. So we lack this kind of resourcefulness and we don't take a step back and think, well, actually, let's look at what we have here. 

Does every contract, is every contract worth the same? Absolutely not. I always use the example of the office furniture agreement, like office furniture supply and low risk, zero value type of contracts. 

Why do we handle that as a legal function? So all of those kinds of questions, right? That we don't necessarily ask ourselves. So looking now from an outsider's perspective, it's obvious that the first change that we have to make is in our mindset. If we see ourselves as not having resources, we will never make the shift anyway, because there will always be enough budget. 

There will never be enough budget, enough time, enough resources to get things done. So it's all about shifting that belief and be like, you know what, I'm going to make this work with what I have. And we're going to work smarter, not harder. And that's where things start to be put into motion. 

Stine: But don't you think, Sarah, and I think they're very, very valid points that you're raising, but don't you think there's also something about legal know that there are costs, right? 

Sarah: So in these times, you also know that it's going to be difficult to get additional budget for buying tools or hiring more people. So legal is very mindful of those scenarios and therefore won't go to the CFO and push forward for that tool. 

Whereas if you're in marketing, you're going to go to the CFO and say, well, I know I'm bringing in this amount of leads, or I'm supposed to, but I'm sorry, I can't do that unless I get this tool. Yeah, but it's like, you know, budget restraints. 

And the marketing will say, totally up for it, get it. I'm totally buying to it, but just FYI, I won't hit those lead numbers that you asked me to hit because I don't have to support, I'm getting it. So they're pushing back where I think what I'm seeing often is that legal will say, I know that there isn't budget, we'll just work harder. 

And we'll just manage as we've always been managing, like we haven't had this contract management tool for four years, we will survive one more year. But what really then happens is that legal then works harder, not smarter, but works harder. 

They push that limit a little more. The business starts to get maybe a little more annoyed because contracts are delayed a little. And they don't have the same kind of like access to legal as they once did. So what ends up happening is that legal might be in some scenarios, and we shouldn't generalize because there are differences, right? 

[: - :] But pushing themselves up in a corner where they're more stretched for resources, they're more pressured, the business aren't as happy as they were before. And everything because legal didn't feel that they had the same ability to push forward what they needed, or maybe haven't been able to persuade the CFO. 

And all honesty, that's probably the biggest naysayer, right? To get that person to buy into why this is. Yeah. So in those scenarios, what should you do? So going back to this mindset issue, we are what we believe. If we believe we are cost center, that's all we'll ever be. 

[: - :] If we believe we cost money, we are going to act accordingly. So we are going to go to the CFO almost feeling sorry for ourselves because we are asking for more money. Because we are a cost center, so we keep dragging resources out of the business. So that's where shifting that belief is critical. And the way to do that is, I guess, by understanding better who is it that we are talking to. And understand that in order to get buy-in, people don't put big money into small things. 

So a CFO isn't going to allocate an additional resource unless it can make the company more money, unless it can save the company more money, or reduce the turnaround time of contract, or big outcomes. And that's what we have to push. Instead of saying, I need more resources, we really have to position and build our use case around what is in there for our CFO or our head of sales. 

So we have to kind of say, and that's where data becomes critical. And instead of trying to kind of beg and feel sorry for ourselves, we have to use data and logical arguments and be like, look, currently, this is how long it takes to turn around the MSA. 

Now, these are the reasons why. And if we had this total, this extra resources, et cetera, then the process would become this. And as a result of that, we would reduce the turnaround time by %. So although a head of sales won't be necessarily sensitive to how busy the legal team is, they will be very receptive to the turnaround time being reduced. And that's how we get them. 

So that's what I mean by really kind of shifting that narrative, understand what the people we serve resonate with and build a use case according to what is in there for them, their outcomes. So that's, and I think that's a much more powerful way to not only getting what we want and need, but also showcasing our value. We're here to turn around your contract faster. We're not here to hinder the business. 

Stine: So now, Sarah, that you're working, let's call it with legal, but from the outside, where do you see, so firstly, you talk very much about mentality and mindset.

So where do you see some of the biggest opportunities for, let's say, improvements or doing things smarter or in a different way? 

Sarah: This is a great question. I think there are just so many opportunities. But again, obviously not every opportunity is made equal. I think one of the biggest opportunities we can build is obviously building a much more user-centric and effective legal function. 

I think making our customers, internal customers happy with the delivery of our services and also ensuring that our legal folks have fulfilling day-to-day are, I think, two of the big outcomes that we, that in my view, GCs should really focus on. 

There are other things, but I think if you can provide a user-centric legal experience in-house and ensure that your members focus on the right things, the exciting projects, and also are being given the opportunity to upscale, to learn new ways of working, et cetera, I think this would be a great achievement already. 

Stine: So when you're saying user-centric, that can be, don't get me wrong when I'm saying this, but a little bit of fluff. Fluff, yeah. So what does it actually mean? And I'm not saying it is fluff, but it can be very difficult for a legal to kind of feel and take and then go out and push. 

Sarah: Yeah, no, no, absolutely.  

And I agree, it's very high level. So I can be more practical and really dive deep on that. So by user-centric, I really mean tailoring everything we do to the needs, outcomes, and objectives of the people we are serving. So if we look at contracts, for example, different business units will have different types of contracts. 

So the way things are currently delivered right now is that we kind of take a one size fits all type of approach. These are all of your contract templates. If you need an NDA, take this one. If you need a purchasing agreement, you take this one, irrespective of whether the person who's going to self-serve is a procurement person or a salesperson. Being user-centric is really understanding what is it for them, what is in there in this contract for that particular person. 

So a procurement person would typically potentially want to save cost with the supply chain. On the other hand, a procurement person isn't really bothered by turnaround time because they have the bargaining power, they're not in a rush, et cetera. On the flip side, the salespeople tend to be very time sensitive because they have targets, because they have to bring the money in. So the way to deliver that contracting experience will very much differ because with the procurement team, the delivery will be around how can we save the company money with supply chain. 

[: - :] So let's include rebates, let's include discounts, et cetera, like in the contract. And how are we going to track those things later down the line? So that's where the lifecycle comes into play. 

The sales guys, in terms of their contracting experience, it's delivering a user-centric experience for them is going to be, okay, what can we do to reduce the turnaround time? Well, let's make sure that our contracts are fair, reasonable, that are going to be accepted because they are industry standards. Let's not create  pages long NDA. 

I mean, that won't happen, but it's kind of to give examples, right? If the MSA is  pages long, maybe there's a problem there. Maybe how about we reduce this in half, if not more? Maybe we don't need to be that protective. Maybe it's a low-risk transaction. So what can we do to facilitate the signature? 

And what can we do in our process to make sure that the sales team have everything they need to sign those contracts faster, et cetera? So that's what I mean by user-centricity, really understanding the needs, the challenges, the objectives of each department we are serving and providing our services accordingly. 

Stine: So when you're coming in as now working as a consultant and then starting to work with those legal teams and starting to get them to buy into that user-centric mindset, which I think many legal people are actually very receptive to and something that they are trained to, like we're all trained to support and to serve and to understand the people that we're helping. 

So where do you start? Like, where do you see, let's call it where there's the biggest gap or where there's the biggest kind of win?

Sarah: One thing is often you start by saying, let's do a risk assessment. Let's take a look at the entire legal function and how they're catering. But I would guess that there's some kind of like things that you see more often. 

Stine: What would those be? 

Sarah: So for me, where I really have an impact is mindsets. Because until you believe that you can do things better, that you can do things in a much more user-centric way, and until you are equipped with the skills and the understanding of how to get there, nothing will get done. 

[: - :] So that's really where my value add is, and that's where I start. So I don't, in terms of the execution, that's where you would go if you want to build efficiencies, you would go to legal ops agencies for that. Where I really kind of, I'm kind of like a step before those service providers. 

I really sit with the legal team and I help them understand what is it to be user-centric. So I do a lot of, I raise awareness a lot and we kind of dive into that exercise of what is design thinking? How is, because that's pretty much the methodology I'm using. 

So what is design thinking? How is design thinking relevant for in-house? How can you start understanding your users? So you start doing some research and understand better, you know, who is it that you're serving? What are their needs, their challenges, their frustration, and how can you develop solutions that will be fit for them, not everyone else. 

And you do that in such a way that you will solve your problems as a legal functions, but in a way that serve your clients, in a way that resonate with them. And if you do that, whatever you end up implementing is more likely to succeed because by then you will have a very good understanding of your client base. 

So I really help them with giving them like tools, methodologies, techniques to open up their mind and ultimately practice. And I get pushbacks and that's where it gets interesting. 

Stine: So when you are then going in and then you're working with those mindsets and then kind of like looking a little forward, where do you see the legal teams? 

Do you seem like, I think what I'm also asking for is that we're seeing right now AI, chat GBT, it's just coming and it's coming fast. And I think a lot of us are sitting and looking at the development and thinking, okay, so how is this going to impact me? How is this going to impact my mindset? So when you're sitting in the capacity that you have, what are you seeing? 

Sarah: I mean, things are definitely moving fast and roles will change. And again, if you perceive yourself as someone who fills out paper all day, fill up templates, then again you have a problem. 

Your true value as an in-house lawyer isn't to provide contract templates, because again, I mean, we are seeing that with technology, you can pretty much ask this chat GBT or even any tools now to pull any templates and they will do that in a matter of seconds. So you've already lost that battle. So you really need to kind of think hard in terms of what is it that you do that is highly valuable for your clients? 

And that's where the legal advice, the nuance, the bespoke support, being able to problem solve quickly in a given situation, in given parameters, that's really where a legal team's value proposition is. 

So one of the things I always tell them is whatever I teach you are tools and technology is no different. They are not an end. They are a means to an outcome. They help you problem solve better, faster, and help you focus on what you should be doing that is highly valuable. 

So you shouldn't fear AI. You shouldn't fear CLMs or technology or you shouldn't fear that your role is going to change because it will change for the better. 

Stine: So talking about change for the better, for the listeners out there, if you had one piece of let's say advice in addition to mindset changes, what would that be? 

Sarah: It definitely would be let go of your perfectionism hat. Stop trying to be perfect. Stop trying to people please. And embrace being approximate, embrace being wrong, embrace being iterative and test things out because at the end of the day, transformation doesn't come overnight. It's a succession of small steps that you implement every single day of your life and ultimately after a while it starts, the big results start showing. 

So it would definitely be that. I know that is something that many, like you're, that's what you're taught, to be perfect, not to be wrong, not to be approximate. You have to be spot on. If you're not spot on, you have to have all your carve outs and saying under these circumstances, A, B, and C. So talk about changing up the way you're thinking. It can be a little terrifying. Oh yeah. Yeah. It is. It is. And again, it is a process, but it feels so liberating. 

You know, it's just so liberating when you kind of, and even as a GC to kind of empower your people to think that way, to be like, you know what? I mean, when I say being approximate, just to clarify, I don't mean, you know, rush your legal advice. Right. 

[: - :] But it's more in the way you deliver your legal services, you know, like the, any processes that be experimental, try things. And if you are a GC, empower your people to come up with initiatives, to try to be wrong, to fail. It's, you know, that's how ultimately you learn and that's how you also prepare them for change. 

Stine: So Sarah, you have more than , followers on LinkedIn. So I think it's fair to say that you're most likely inspiring a lot of people. You definitely inspired us here today and I'm super grateful that you joined us for this conversation, but maybe just out of curiosity, where do you get your inspiration from? 

Who inspires you? So I get a lot of inspiration from the marketing and the design world. 

Sarah: So for marketing, Gary Vee, he's the one that really inspired me to show up on LinkedIn and share my thoughts. And I started when I was in-house and visualization of legal information is how I started. And these are the things I teach and I train legal teams on today. Because again, it's not necessarily about the visualization, it's about the mindset behind it. 

I'm embracing a new medium, embracing, removing information as opposed to piling information and so on. 

So he's the one that inspired me to share about those things, which led to where I am today. In the design space, Chris Do, he's a really famous designer, but he shares a lot about entrepreneurship. And now that I run my own business, obviously I'm more into kind of, how can I move away from the employee hat and become an entrepreneur. 

And that in itself requires a lot of change. And then there's a guy who does productivity and his name is Rich Webster, and he shares a lot about working less. And I try to follow his wisdom on working less. So these are my inspirations. 

Stine: Thank you so much. For the ones that are interested in following you on LinkedIn, well, go to Sarah Ouis, O-U-I-S, and you can definitely find her. 

And for the ones that just want to get inspired every single week, like I do, well, follow the podcast. That is what it's all about. So thank you so much, Sarah. It was an absolute pleasure. 

Sarah: Thank you so much, Stine. Thank you for having me.

Thank you so much for listening to Inspiring Legal. Remember to subscribe and if you want more information, you can always go to openli.com/community.