Episode 23: Leading Legal Operations - with Sean Houston of Heineken

Today, we take another dive into Legal Operations. This time, we explore and discuss with Heineken's Legal Operations Manager, Sean Houston. We'll get into the how and why of legal ops with Sean, who also shares his journey from tech to ultimately joining Heineken in The Netherlands.

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Stine: Welcome to another episode of Inspiring Legal. My name is Stine and I'm your host. It's not going to be me talking today because I have a guest on the podcast that knows so much more about legal operations than I do. 

Sean is joining us and you'll hear from him in a second. But before we get Sean's introduction, I can tell you already now, we're going to be talking about legal operations.

More specifically, covering the baseline of what is legal operations. And then Sean is going to help us get smarter on what type of backgroundand skills should you have when working with legal operations.

Welcome, Sean.

Sean: Hi, Stine. Thanks for having me.

Stine: Well, thank you for joining. We are super excited about you joining because, well, not only do you havea lot of experience within legal operations, you have also really built that work and that topic for companies that are, well, in many views, big and doing a lot of great things and great work. 

So, Sean, before we start talking about legal operations,could you maybe just tell people a little bit about who you are and your background and the company you work for and what you do?

Sean: Sure. So my name is Sean Houston.

I am legal operations manager here at Heineken. I'm a legal operations manager at Heineken.I'm a legal operations manager at Heineken. I am legal operations manager here at Heineken, based at our headquarters in Amsterdam.

I'm originally from the US, born and raised. I relocated to Ireland, was living in Ireland with my wife for about four years and then relocated here to the Netherlands for this position with Heineken back in the summer of 2021.

So coming up on two years as we record this today. It's been a very good experience so far. And yeah, this legal ops journey, so to speak, in this field of legal ops is one that I'm particularly very interested in and happy to talk about with you today. 

Stine: So maybe before we start talking more specifically,how did you get into legal operations and how did you end up in Europe?

Sean: Yeah, so I think that'll probably be something, you know, over the course of this conversation, we probably come back to quite often, but there is no like very clear defined path that someone must taketo wind up in legal ops or, you know, wind up in a position like the one that I'm in here with Heineken.

So for me personally, I didn't even know what legal ops was, you know, let's say five or six years ago. So my background, I actually went to university for broadcast journalism and particularly was interested in that for sports journalism. So I was a play-by-play broadcaster for a few different baseball teams in the US doing the play-by-play and commentating on the games as they took place.

And I did that for a little over, right around six years and then decided that I didn't necessarily want to do thatfor the rest of my life. I had enjoyed it a lot. It was a wonderful experience, but, you know, I guess I realized I preferred being a fan of sports more than anything else.

And when you work in something, you can't really also be a fan of it. It's difficult.So anyway, for various reasons, I moved away from the broadcast journalism side and I pivoted into working in software and technology. It was also something I'd always had an interest in and found very,you know, let's say fun and inspiring.

And I also saw, you know, a significant, let's say bright future in that industry because, you know, I don't think anything in terms of technology is going away. It's just going to continue to grow and grow and grow.So anyway, I pivoted into that and did that for several years.

First based in Austin, Texas, then with my wife, we moved to Ireland. I continued working for a few different companies there. And then most recently, before joining Heineken,I was in at a base at a company, an Irish startup named Bright Flag.

And Bright Flag is a legal tech startup. And so that was kind of my introduction into legal operations. So my role was in customer success for Bright Flag,working with our customers across the globe to ensure that they were, you know, getting value out of the Bright Flag platform, using it as well as they could and, you know, kind of streamlining and standardizing their operations as it pertained to vendor managementand e-billing as much as they possibly could.

So through that, I was working every single day with the legal operations teams and the legal departments at all of our customers, you know, very large global companies and also, you know, significantly smaller companies,but always, you know, companies of a decent size, let's say, with a decent amount of external legal spend that we could kind of help them with at Bright Flag.

And I became really interested in, you know, this legal operations field and kind of what it is and how all of the companiesthat I had an opportunity to work with, how their teams were structured and what impacts they were making on the organization and, you know, started to peel back the curtain a little bit and learn a little bit more about it. And I realized, you know, how new of a function this wasfor just about every company that, you know, I was talking to.

I'd say more often than not, the legal operations person I was working with was the very first person in that seat at their company. Same is true for me here at Heineken. And if it wasn't the first, it was maybe the second. You know, it's a new function with people who are getting a chance to create something kind of from the ground up.

And that was initially what was so very interesting to me. You know, I don't have a legal background.I didn't go to law school, but that's not a prerequisite or a requirement for this position, even though it's within legal affairs. And there was a lot of overlap between what I was doing in customer success to what, you know, a legal operations person will do at most companies.

Now, I do want to kind of not try and paint everything with, you know, one color brush here, right? Because I also totally recognize that what is legal operations here at Heineken, it does not necessarily mean that's exactly what that isat company A, B, C, on down the line.

It can change and it can vary quite a bit organization to organization. Now, I know, you know, you mentioned earlier what is legal operations. So I like to defer to the definition that CLOCK provides. And for those who aren't familiar what CLOCK is, it's a large organization that is solely for – based on legal operations.

So it's the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium. So they have a definition, which is legal ops describes a setof business processes, activities, and the professionals who enable legal departments to serve their clients more effectively. And it continues on, but I think that first part is, you know, a pretty good summary. But if you even look at what I just said there, that's pretty vague.Business processes, activities, and professionals who enable legal departments.

So I think that's why you can understand it varies quite drastically company to company. And it really also depends somewhat on what are the big,urgent, pressing needs that a company is facing today. So I am a team of one here in terms of full-time headcount within Heineken.

So it's obviously not possible for me at a company with ninety thousand employees globally and eighty-plus operating companies around the globe,a large, decentralized organization. I can't do everything. And so I have to be very strategic, which I think is also certainly a part of legal operations is strategic planning. And I have to be very strategic on what projects and initiativesI'm going to tackle that are going to, you know, end up providing the most value and giving the most benefit to the organization.

So it was a long-winded way of me answering your question, but hopefully that's helpful.

Stine: It's super helpful. And I'm just sitting there and thinking, oh, God, okay, I want to ask this. I want to ask this. So now I'm going to just ask you a few questions.

Sure. So firstly, how many people are there working in legal that you're kind of like building the foundation for?

Sean: Yeah, so I work at our global headquarters, what we call head office here in Amsterdam. And there's around forty five people in the legal department here in Amsterdam.Not all of those lawyers. There are a few other people in supporting roles or, you know, admin roles within the team.

But let's say forty five. And then globally, if you add up all of the people across the globebased locally at our operating companies, that number total is close to around three hundred. Because we have, as I mentioned, eighty plus opcos, what we call them opcos. And some of those have legal teams north of twenty people just there in that operating company, depending on the size and complexity and that sort of thing.

And we've had several operating companies who did not have an in-house lawyer previously, who have had someone start over the last couple of years as we've kind of expanded our footprint and really made a very concerted effort on the legalside to embedding legal affairs within the each and every opco.

So there have been some, you know, improvements and new people there, but the number's around three hundred globally. So you have a different background from the classic European way of thinking about legal operations. And when I'm saying classic, it's still very new, as you said.

And I think especially in Europe, I think from what I've learned so far, and from the conversations we've had and from my own previous experience, it really started in the US.And what I'm hearing is that the US applied a different mindset to legal operations. You didn't need to be legal.

It could actually be a strong skillset to be non-legal because you came in with a fresh pair of eyes. Whereas in Europe, we've more taken the classical route of taking somebody who was in the legalteam with a legal background and giving them the responsibility for trying to figure out new processes, ways of scaling, adding in tools and so forth.

Stine: So with your background, which I think is super interesting, could you maybe just tell us a little bit about what are the pros and the cons?

Sean: Yeah. And I think this is a really interesting topic to me personally, because when I tell people, you know, what I do, I think that the first question always goes back to, are you a lawyer? And I have to say, no, I'm not a lawyer. I work on the operations side of the legal department.

So for me personally, you know, legal operations, there are a lot of skills that are important to have. I honestly don't think that being able to practice legal is even one of the topfive or 10 that I would list.

There are so many others I think are more important. So for me, you know, communication is crucial. So being able to effectively communicate why you are doing something, you know, why we are making a change within the organization,how this is going to impact people on down the line and convincing them to kind of go with you on this journey and make this change, these sorts of things. 

Communication is, you know, absolutely critical. I also think having a problem-solving mindset and being very creative is superimportant because a lot of times you are, you know, taking existing processes and having to totally turn them upside down and start from scratch as if there is no process and you have to be creative and trying to sketch things together.And solving problems is really important because you get a lot of problems and things thrown at you that people expect you to be able to answer.

And you are not always going to be able to answer every question and solve every problem, of course, but certainly being able to do that as much as possible isreally, really important. I think also, you know, having a good business background is really important as well because at the end of the day, you know, legal is a part of the business and it is a supporting function within the business.

So, you know, we have to support our sales teams and our marketing teams and every other team and department across the organization. Legal is there to support them. And so it's important that you never kind of forget that and you always think about things through that business lens.And having worked, you know, in sales and customer success at many different companies, you know, I totally understand that and how we can help them and speed things up and, you know, remove roadblocks. But to your point earlier around not coming from a legal background and having afresh set of eyes, I think is very, very true.

You know, if you, and I don't want to say this, that, you know, I know a lot of people who do come from a legal background who are very good legal operations people. So it's not as if to say that should be a disqualifier in any way.It's just meant to say that also not coming from a legal background shouldn't be a disqualifier in my opinion.

It totally comes down to the individual. And when you come at something not from a legal background, I'm much more likely, let's say, maybe than someone else wouldn't be to just simply ask, why are we doingit like this?

You know, just simply asking those very basic questions of why is that or what is the reason that this decision was made? 

And you would be stunned how often I hear, you know, not just here, but when I'm talking to people at other companies, well, why was that decided?And you'd be surprised how often people kind of take a step back like, I actually don't know. It's just simply how it was described to me when I started.

So that's what we did. Like, for instance, when I was working at BrightFlag, we had a customer I was working with and trying to set up the workflows for when an invoice came in, who needed to approve it and review it. And they had a list of, you know, seven or eight individuals for these invoices of a certain value.

And that seemed to be overkill to me. So I asked them, why do eight people need to review this one invoice that, youknow, to me was not even that high of a value? And she said, I don't know. That was the structure that was provided to me by finance when I started.

And I was like, might be worth just asking finance because anytime you need eight people to review a document, of course, that's going to take some time.She went back and asked finance, came back and said, actually, we only need three people to approve this.

So just like that, we removed five people from this process and sped that process up, you know, at least a fifty percent, more than fifty percent improvement. So just simply asking questions why can be very basic. So being inquisitive and again, trying to kind of be creative in how we're problem

solving these things, like not just taking an existing process and hammering it into a software or a tool or a technology, but really taking a step back and saying,OK, this is our process today. But what would be our dream scenario of this process if we were to start from scratch? How would we design it today?

And how could we use this tool or technology to help us with that? Those are, you know, I think to me, those types of capabilities, you know, I thinkare much more important than being coming from a legal background because I have yet to see a legal operations role where they're expecting that person to practice law. And if they are, I would question whether that is really a legal operations role orif they're hiring a lawyer and asking them to do a little bit of legal ops, which as we know, is kind of how this usually starts at companies.

But I also would question if that's the best use of all of those people's time and skills. Right. So I've rambled for a bit, but I'll pause there because I'm sure you have follow ups.

Stine: I do. Maybe one question as to the skill sets, project management. 

And running those types of projects, how important is that and how much should that be a skill set that you would be looking for when hiring your first legal operations person?

Sean: Yeah, I'm a bit embarrassed that I didn't mention that. But 100 percent without question, that's a crucial, crucial skill for anyone in legaloperations. 

Now, I'm not saying you have to be, you know, have every certification under the sun around project management and be the best project manager that's ever existed. But definitely having a background and understanding what goes into projectmanagement and being able to effectively manage projects is crucial. So, yeah, absolutely. That's near the top of the list if I were to be ranking them in order of importance. 

Stine: So next question would then be. How do you like, not you specifically, but let's say that you're a general counsel or you're a head of legal and you're sitting and you're thinking, OK, Sean said some pretty good things and I know what to look for in terms of hiring my first legal ops person. 

But how do you as a manager of that legal ops person build the best foundation for success? Because this is a new role, right?

You've never had this type of person before. And not to say I've been working in-house for many, many years and I absolutely love it. But innovation might not be what people are the most familiar with.So how do you then go about hiring that first person and getting that first person to be successful?

Sean: Yeah, so I would say. First, you need to really understand what it is you are expecting this person to do.So if you're the general counsel hiring for this role, you need to be clear.

So, of course, a clear job description and a clear description throughout the interview process of what this person is expected to do and to deliver on. Because when I was first looking to jump into legal ops from the legal tech vendor side,I saw a few different job descriptions that were very different from one another.

Some of them, I would argue, not really legal ops in any way, more of a let's say an admin type role. And then there were others like this one at Heineken that I thought were perfectfor my skill set, my interests and really fit the legal ops description as I described earlier, let's say from Clock.

So very, very clear understanding. And I think that goes back to the communication and the project management piece.Whenever I'm describing something to someone, I try to be as clear as I possibly can be.

And I try to explain to them what I am expecting and needing from them and what they can expect from me in return. So I think that's very clear.I would also say legal ops is not going to be a cure for all ills.

It's not going to be as if you hire someone in legal ops, you snap your fingers, a couple of weeks go by and all of a sudden everything's done and you're perfect. That is definitely not the case.So if you're a GC or someone hiring for legal ops, thinking about this today, you have to also be a bit realistic with this.

Some of these type of huge transformational changes take time. I would also say that having buy in from that GC or legal ops or legal leader or whoeveris involved in this hiring process is crucial.

Making sure that the ability to, if a roadblock is presented, being able to go and escalate that and have that taken care of and knowing that when I'm making a decision from a legalops lens, I have the backing of our GC because I meet with him regularly. We are aligned. I understand his priorities.

He understands mine. That's absolutely crucial. I have spoken to people in legal ops at other companies that unfortunately that wasn't alwaysthe case for them as it is here for me. So I'm very lucky in that regard. But that was something that was crucially important to me.

I had seen examples where that wasn't the case and why it wasn't the best setup. So I would say those are a few things you have to do internally.Also, a lot of the things that people want legal ops to work with does relate around technologies.

Now, not everything. There's a lot of things we do that are nothing to do with technology. But if it is important for you when you're hiring a legal ops person that they are goingto implement a legal tech stack for you and start to bring on new solutions.

Well, there has to be budget available for those types of projects. So also making sure that you're providing this person with what they need to do whatyou're expecting of them to do.

And then communicating this to the legal team, if it's a sizable one, making sure that everybody is clear what this role is and how it can help. That it goes well above and beyond just legal technology and what you as the leaderof the department, why you've made this move to bring this person on at this time.

And then for me, when I joined, it was a very good setup in that a lot of these meetings and first calls and things were already scheduled for me.So that when I started, I was able to just immediately start building relationships and understanding from people what the problems were and these sorts of things.

And those are all things that anyone can do, everything I just listed. But yeah, it's a hard role to hire for because it's not as if you just say, okay, we're lookingfor a resume that contains these seven things and that's it.

The right candidate can come from a very different background than you've ever would have thought of. So we talked a little bit about skills and we've talked a little bit about background.So if you were to kind of give your best advice as to maybe the more, let's call it soft skills. You said communication is super important, but is there other types of maybe soft skillsthat is something that should be on that checklist of let's call it people skills? Yeah. I think relationship building is really, really importantand stakeholder management is critical in this area. So legal operations does not operate in a silo.

It is, I think by definition, a very cross-functional type of role. So being able to effectively work with people across the organization from financeand from IT and from sales and marketing and any function or department you can think of is crucial.

And understanding what makes each of those people tick and what is important to them and bringing them along and having them involved when and where they need to be is crucial.So having that kind of stakeholder management skill, which is one that I know I've seen a lot of buzzwords about it recently, but I really do think that is a key one. And relationship building, again, this is something you're going to need a lot of other people's involvementand support and help with.

So having an understanding on that and the skill to build these relationships is important. Yeah, I think from a soft skills perspective, definitely communication and I'd say stakeholder management,effective communication and stakeholder management, probably near the top of the list.

And my gut feel will also be adaptability maybe and being agile in the mindset maybe. For sure. Yeah. Within Heineken, that's a key one for us is agile mindset, not just for legal,but for the entire organization. I think that's very, very accurate.

And we also mentioned it a little bit earlier, but being able to think creatively and think critically is really, really important because you are going to be tasked with coming up with solutions to problems. And a lot of times it might not even be a problem that someone is very clearly describing to you.

You might see a symptom of what the problem is and have to understand what is the actual root cause or the actual problem here that we need to solve for.And being able to do that and not just rush to put a bandaid on something sometimes, easier said than done. But that's also, I would say, really important for anyone in legal ops. 

So we now at least have a good understanding of the skills, both the soft skills,but also maybe the more specific skills that you should have when hiring your first legal ops person or not you as the hiring person, but when you're hiring that legal ops person. And maybe also that you can have various backgrounds and be very successful,which I think you are the persona of having a very interesting background and transforming the legal way of working at Heineken. 

Stine: So, Sean, where do you get your inspiration from?

Sean: Yeah, I will say my direct manager and also our GC here at Heineken are two really impressive people that I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to work closely with over the last almost two years now. So maybe on a more personal day-to-day basis, that would be two examples I could provide.

This is going to sound silly maybe, but there's a person I've always been a really big fan of his work and his comedy over the last few years. I've fallen in love with his podcast and can't wait for every week when the new episodes come out.But Conan O'Brien, who used to be a TV host in the US, he has a really interesting podcast,

I think, where he has people join him. He does one celebrity one a week and one fan episode a week. And I find them both really fascinating. And just the way that his brain works, and he's a type of person that he's getting a little bit older.He was on TV for 30 years or so, but he's super quick-witted.

He's really, really interested in history and constantly learning and it would be very easy for him to just kind of coast, I guess is what I'm trying to say.But he doesn't want to do that. He wants to keep challenging himself and move into a new area and do these new things where some people would just maybe get very comfortable and bring in the paychecks, but he's the opposite. 

And it's a really interesting guy, very, I think, fresh way that he kind of looks at things and at life.And I would like to say I aspire to be that way as my career progresses over the next few decades.

So hopefully I'll be able to do that. So nothing to do with legal ops at all, but just in general, I find him to be not only very, very funny.I think his comedy is, to me, very funny, but he's also quite an inspirational and, you know, I would say unique in that area of being a famous celebrity, but also not just coasting, if that makes sense. Well, I just want to say thank you.

Stine: Sean, it was an absolute pleasure to have you. And I want to thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts.

Sean: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And yeah, look forward to hopefully hearing how people think the episode was once they have a chance to listen.

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