CLOC: New president Mary O’Carroll talks strategy and politics

It wasn’t until I met CLOC’s new president, Mary O’Carroll, at the London CLOC conference in January that I realised I had a lot of preconceptions that turned out mostly to be wrong.
Highly personable, O’Carroll, while utterly dedicated to CLOC and its success, is less evangelical than I’d imagined, and being a cynical Brit, I say that as a compliment.  While we talk about early ambitions, she is notably keen not to make promises that she can’t deliver on.
We met, to give it its proper title, at CLOC’s second European Institute in the Landmark Hotel in London.  While people who have attended CLOC’s Las Vegas flagship conference tell me that the London event is nothing to write home about by comparison, at around 400 delegates it is radically bigger than last year: a great achievement in only the second year.
O’Carroll, who is director of legal operations, technology and strategy for Google, is meeting me to discuss what 2019 looks like for CLOC.  She has only been in the role a matter of days, having been elected to take over from Connie Brenton, who unexpectedly resigned at the start of the year.  Besides Brenton, O’Carroll has long been the face of CLOC and, while there was a proper board vote and a “process” to elect her, it’s difficult to see who else it would have been.
CLOC is at an interesting stage in its development.  The organisation that famously started out as a book club has enjoyed dramatic global growth, and vendors are realising that, through CLOC, they can access not only legal operations teams but the law firms that want to be in the same vicinity – two bites of the cherry instead of one.
But vendors don’t like uncertainty, and the recent fallout – alongside Brenton, board member Jeff Franke also left – has made them nervous that the still fledgling organisation is at risk of pulling in different directions.
O’Carroll isn’t keen to dwell on what’s happened, but says: “There is nothing to worry about.  This stuff happens within all growing organisations and it’s okay.  Change can sometimes be good; we respect and are grateful for everything that Connie has done.”
She adds: “There’s no ‘politics’ now and we haven’t slowed down one bit.  We’re really excited about the future and are feeling more aligned and passionate than ever.”
So, what is the strategy for 2019?
“At its core, the strategy is to grow the community and focus on members’ needs,” says O’Carroll.  “We’ve talked a lot about the ecosystem and haven’t delivered on engaging law firms, vendors and everyone else and certainly that’s a priority.  Generally, though, we’re going back to our roots.
“As a new board we will have the chance to think strategically about our priorities for this year.  We’re being bombarded by so many great ideas that are all hugely impactful.  But I’d rather do a few things really well than be distracted by 20 different things that we talk about but don’t deliver on.”
One thing CLOC won’t want to do is dilute the value of the exclusive legal ops community it has built up and, if anything, it looks likely that CLOC would create a separate membership for law firms – right now law firms have no engagement at all apart from attending the institutes.  O’Carroll, who has had several meetings with law firms to thrash out this topic, says: “There is no question that we want to engage more with law firms, but the question is, what does that look like?  What does it entail?  We have to work that out, so that we ensure we deliver something meaningful to the firms and to our existing community.”  There are lots of ideas in the offing: engagement could mean a forum, a piece of software, or a new platform.
For existing members, the priority and the challenge is to deliver excellent content globally.  O’Carroll says: “This is our second year here in London and in Sydney, so it’s got to the stage where we can take a step back and take some focus away from the Institutes.  We want to look at what our members need, what they need to know, and how we can help them in their jobs.  We’re also listening to the voices of the firms and the vendors.  People have different needs in different industries, department sizes, experience levels, etc.  Some content isn’t helpful if you’re working for a small company or, similarly, a large one and some is too complicated for some and too basic for others.”
I raise the point that providing knowledge and content is where law firms come into their own, and O’Carroll says: “We realise that providers and law firms have great knowledge – it’s how do we engage.”
The legal operations market has grown exponentially in the US and at last tally accounted for 78% of director roles.  The figure below is from research conducted in 2018 by CLOC and LawGeex.

In the UK that figure pales into insignificance but is growing rapidly nonetheless.
Where the UK differs whether by virtue of culture or otherwise is that many legal ops heads are put off by the tub-thumping approach that CLOC has sometimes adopted.  I sat at a conference of highly intelligent people two years ago where we got lectured by a CLOC-ite with a mic about how it was legal ops’ way, or the highway and we’d better get with the programme.  “Oh, do shut up”, I thought.
O’Carroll seems genuinely surprised by these observations and says: “We’re not trying to take any position.  Our main purpose is to connect people and help them do their jobs, so they are not recreating the wheel.  We’re very much getting back to our roots, which is about making things easier for people.  It’s about sharing and working collaboratively.  And it’s not about competing with other organisations.”
CLOC is starting to mature, and I get the impression that it is going to be an easier organisation to work with going forward.  It should note that the vendors it relies on for funding sometimes feel like an inconvenience – ILTA is learning after many years that vendors need to be managed but, having paid a shed load of cash, also need to feel appreciated.
My final question for O’Carroll arises from talking to a US-based vendor who is thinking about paying CLOC a shed load of cash.  He has a few reservations, one of which, as he observed to me over a beer or two, is that the organisation at board level still gives the impression of being a Silicon Valley tech outfit – all of the board are from big tech companies.  If they are really becoming global, and really embracing all sectors, where is, for example, the financial institutions representation?
“We’re going to be making some board announcements shortly and we are looking at what the right composition is,” O’Carroll tells me.  “We’re looking at who we need to bring on board to achieve geographic diversity and the right skill sets.  Yes, the Board may appear tech-centric but that’s simply due to how CLOC got started – there were a bunch of us in Silicon Valley who initially got together.  We’ve become global now and every industry is represented in CLOC because we have different interest groups and leaders around the world.  CLOC includes every industry imaginable and every geography and every diverse group.  The board isn’t CLOC, the entire community and our regional group leaders make up CLOC.  We have a whole group called Financial Services.  But I can tell you that we are focused on new Board additions having an amazing slate.”
For financial services organisations to truly embrace the CLOC culture they will have to turn the mirror on themselves and overcome the culture of secrecy that makes it difficult for them to exchange information in the way the tech sector has.
CLOC has come an awfully long way in a very short time and, following the change of management, now is not the time to throw the baby out with the bath water.  O’Carroll is aware of that.  And she wouldn’t have the time to do it even if she had the inclination.
What is needed over the next year is stability.  Some good listening.  And less of that “my way or the highway” stuff.  The signs, I’d say, are good.