Stephanie talks with Director for the Center of Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association, Catherine Sanders Reach, about Legal Ops and how that can help put the right people in the right seats at your firm.
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- . What is legal ops?
- . How to get started
- . The technology
Welcome to The Lawyerist Podcast, a series of discussions with entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Lawyerist supports attorneys, building client-centered, and future-oriented small law firms through community, content, and coaching both online and through the Lawyerist Lab. And now from the team that brought you The Small Firm Roadmap and your podcast hosts
Zack Glaser (00:35):
Hi, I’m Zack.
Jennifer Whigham (00:36):
I’m Jennifer. And this is episode 444 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, Stephanie interviews Catherine Sanders reach about legal ops.
Zack Glaser (00:46):
Jennifer Whigham (00:55):
Zack Glaser, guess what.
Zack Glaser (00:56):
Jennifer Whigham (00:56):
Chiecken butt. No. Lab Con, which is our two and a half day conference that we put on for our Lawyerist lab coaching community is coming up. And by coming up, I mean it’s in August and this is airing in May, but we start our preparations now. And before I say anything else, I want to tell everybody that yes, this is a conference we put on for our coaching community and here’s my car salesperson voice. We have 10 special guest spots where we invite people who may not be in lab yet, but are kind of interested in what we do to come to Lab Con and get the full Lab Con experience. And you’ve been to Lab Con. What do you think?
Zack Glaser (01:40):
I have, I have a few times I think now. Yeah, I’ve been to Virtual Lab Con. I’ve been to Lab Con in person. We’ve been to Hybrid Lab Con.
Jennifer Whigham (01:48):
Zack Glaser (01:48):
All the different lab coms robots. Yeah, we had robots. That was a fun lab. I hope we can get the robots back.
Jennifer Whigham (01:55):
Oh gosh. That was an experiment gone awry. But it was good intentioned.
Zack Glaser (01:59):
Oh, okay. I’m going to push back on that. It wasn’t really gone awry. Okay, good. I thought that went pretty well. We talk about with Lawyerist to be experimenting with things and even if something doesn’t go as planned, you learn something from it. That’s true. And I think it went better than if we hadn’t done it as well.
Jennifer Whigham (02:20):
That’s true. And for anybody listening, what we did for one Lap Con is we had segues with iPads on them that ostensibly the user who was, I was going to say phoning in, but iPad in could control the robot with a control panel. And we learned some things.
Zack Glaser (02:39):
We did, we did.
Jennifer Whigham (02:41):
So Labon is a pretty amazing experience and we always describe it as an UN-conference because people aren’t, it’s not the usual people talking at the room. There’s not like a separate exhibit hall. We are getting together to do workshops, think of ideas, get some stuff done. It is of this warm fuzzy feeling of being in a group where everybody is innovative and encouraging and on the same page as you are. And so it’s something that we really look forward to every year and we encourage people who haven’t been before to check it out. Because if you are feeling, oh, a lot of small firm Lawyerist and so Lawyerist feel alone and they don’t feel like they have the support, you’ve ventured out on this big thing by yourself and you might not have a community of people that know what you’re doing are there to help you. And in lab and especially a lab, you get that feeling. So I want to invite you, if you are not yet in Lab, but are interested in Lab Con to check out the link in the show notes and register for Lab Con. I think you should come. It’s August 20th through 23rd. It will be in Atlanta, Georgia. And it’s a good time.
Zack Glaser (03:50):
It is. It is a good time. You’ve taken all the questions I had for our,
Jennifer Whigham (03:55):
You were going to prompt
Zack Glaser (03:56):
Me. It’s going to, when is it Jennifer? Where is it? Oh, shoot, shoot. The who, what, when, where?
Jennifer Whigham (04:02):
Yeah. And then I just said it cause I
Zack Glaser (04:04):
Jennifer Whigham (04:04):
Zack Glaser (04:05):
You. Just do your thing. But I think it’s, I important to note that when people go to Labon, they many, many, many times walk away with a actionable items and B, having actually done some of the things that they wanted to do. So if you are looking into lab and looking to go, come with a goal, come with a marketing goal or an ops goal or a project management goal or something like that because we really dig into those specific features and we have special guests that are there. Some of our partners are there to talk and help and do study group sort of things with everybody. Yeah. So it’s very,
Jennifer Whigham (04:53):
Yeah, we have a whole part of the conference we just call build a thing. So all those good ideas that you get during the conference, you get some time to build the thing with people that help you build it. So it’s not like you just walk away with all these ideas that you don’t execute. We really try to make sure you execute the ideas on the spot.
Zack Glaser (05:10):
Well, speaking of building things and executing, here is Stephanie’s conversation with Catherine Sanders Reach, who is a legal ops expert out of North Carolina.
Catherine Sanders Reach (05:23):
Hi, this is Catherine Sanders Reach. I’m the Center for Practice Management Director at the North Carolina Bar Association and I’m joining Stephanie today.
Stephanie Everett (05:33):
I’m so happy to talk to you. Let’s see. We’re going to talk some legal ops, so maybe we should start with what is legal ops?
Catherine Sanders Reach (05:42):
So I think that’s a good question and I was really fortunate to co-present with Lucy Baley at ABA Tech Show this year. And when they asked me to co-present, I had a bit of a imposter syndrome moment because I thought, what do I know about legal apps? Turns out a l I knew a little bit more than I did, which is good for everybody listening because more than you think you do. It’s really as the way Lucy explained it. It’s the people processes in technology that keep things moving forward. And so when you think about it, it’s not something that’s super specific just to in-house council, which is how we tend to think about it. But really it’s methodology and processes and how we are leveraging people and technology to do things, whether you’re in-house or you’ve got a private practice or even in government, public sector, it doesn’t matter. It’s thinking about being strategic in using the tools and really paying attention to the back office operations.
Stephanie Everett (06:43):
Yeah, I like how you kind of frame it as the people process and technology because I think sometimes when we think about operations, our mind wants to go in one direction and this sort of reminds us to pull back. And so maybe you could kind of walk us through what does it mean if we think about the people first and what should we be looking at or asking ourselves or how do we dive into this?
Catherine Sanders Reach (07:06):
When I talk about process documentation and SOPs and stuff, we often forget about the people side of the equation. People are how things get done until we are replaced by the ai, who are the people doing the work. You can’t document a process if you can’t identify who does something. So first you figure out who is it that does what, and then are they doing the right thing and are they doing the things that they should be doing versus doing things that can be taken over with a tool. So really talking to people about do you like what you do? What do all day? It was interesting, I just looked at a process that I’m doing and recognized that out of probably 45 steps involved in doing a particular thing, probably 10 of those were really appropriate for my level and the rest of them needed to be either automated or outsourced.
And so that’s kind of where you have to think, is this a good use of this person’s time? What’s their skill set? So that’s the people part. And the other thing is, as a former law librarian, we would pick up the phone and call an expert before we did a search. You can get to the core of the matter so much more quickly by talking to somebody who knows what they’re talking about versus trying to do a search and figure it out yourself. So if you create some sort of knowledge base or I call it the internal LinkedIn so that you have a documentation and you can do this through teams and the Microsoft backend for the context, you can just put in what languages do they know, where did they work before you can gather all this sort of intelligence, what kind of matters do they work in if they’ve moved from one firm to another? Because some of this is going to be built into your conflicts check because if you pulled over a lateral, you’re going to have to know what conflicts may come up anyway. But also wouldn’t it be nice to know that this person did work on a similar type of merger or that this person has a skillset in a particular, this person is an XL wizard. That’s the kind of stuff where the people are huge part and almost where I would start versus looking at tools.
Stephanie Everett (09:24):
That is such great advice because I think we forget that our team comes to us with all this knowledge and experience that we need to know so we can tap into it or we forget, somebody just said that today on our team to one of our coaches. I didn’t know you were Cleo certified and I have a client struggling with a Cleo issue. And it’s like, yeah, that’s where you should be sending that. So I think one question I have is what kind of questions could we use to capture that experience and that knowledge base from our team? Because I feel like if I were to say to my team, write down all the things you’re great at and the experiences you have that they might just, they’re going to be like blank space, they’re not going to know or they’re going to short themselves on some things.
Catherine Sanders Reach (10:09):
I would probably use their LinkedIn profile even if they haven’t filled out their LinkedIn profile effectively. You can go in and look at the field and kind of coach people to fill in those things because it asks about certifications and languages and pass experience and think about it in terms of giving the most complete LinkedIn profile available and putting skills that you may not even put there. So for instance, I mean my job doesn’t require that I know how to set up a WordPress site, but I do. So I would put that in there. I have some WordPress experience, I have some experience with MailChimp and Constant Contact, just anything and encourage them to do that. And then you can put it into a database or you can put it in the Microsoft, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s the Exchange server. You can earn Earth that stuff through teams.
Then you can just, they have this thing called the WHO bot, but you can actually go and look at a lot of information or I like Microsoft lists because it’s a very flexible tool or just encourage people to actually fill out the stuff on LinkedIn. And then if you have enough people in the firm, you basically have your own little firm profiles and you can search it that way. So a bunch of different ways or just search across a series of documents. There’s a bunch of different ways you can do it. I tend to Microsoft List because it’s a combination of a spreadsheet and a database. So you can put all the fields in search sort, do all the things you need to do, keep the thing updated.
Stephanie Everett (11:47):
Yeah, no, I think that makes a lot of sense. And it’s reminding me, and I think we’ve talked about it on the show before, we have a form that we have new hires fill out that asks them things like where do you like to shop? And all these personal things. And they’re like, do you have a favorite team? Because we’re obviously trying to get to know them and also generate potential gifts for one day when we want to give that personalized gift. And we had a, well Zach, who’s no longer a new hire, but when he first joined the team, it was his birthday and we got him all this nacho themed stuff and he was like, how did you guys know that I love nachos? And we were like, yeah, we asked you on the new hire form. And so we’re doing the fun stuff, but what you’re reminding us is no, we actually need to go back and update that and get all the important work experience and knowledge and tools so that we know who on the team can do what. So I’m definitely implementing this right away. Okay. The next thing we talk about then, after you cover the people and who’s doing what and why are they doing it? As I guess you nailed down on the process, is that right?
Catherine Sanders Reach (12:51):
Yeah, the process is something that I’m, I’ve been kind of obsessed about over the last year primarily because we’ve seen the great migration. We’ve seen a lot of movement out of the office. We’ve got remote work, we’ve got people retiring, moving on, going to travel the world, all sorts of bizarre things. But basically, and it’s been hard to replace the talent that firms had, not just because of what they knew, but because we’re just in a different world. People have different expectations. They’re looking for remote work. If your firm isn’t letting people work remotely, then it’s harder to hire. I’ve had to coach attorneys to start thinking about how am I writing a job description that promotes what a great place it is to work here versus here’s what I need you to do. It’s a total 180 from how we thought about recruitment. But at any rate, it’s really vitally important that firms are documenting processes for business continuity, for succession and planning, for onboarding and for process improvement.
And I think that’s why in the legal ops space, in in-house, they document processes primarily to see can we do better? There’s a lot of other reasons in a private practice I think and in in-house as well. But using some sort of tool, the good thing is there’s a lot out there that you can use to do these things. It kind of gets us into the tool side. It can be as simple as writing it down on a piece of paper and taking a picture of it if that’s the tolerance. But that’s of course, there’s products like Suite process, there’s Microsoft Stream, so you can video record all these things. And I’m telling firms not just processes, but say for instance, for onboarding purposes, if you go into a firm that has a real estate practice, a trust and estates practice, and I don’t know elder law, so some of the attorneys who have been doing this for a long time, record a 10 minute video on what you really need to know about getting started with a matter when you’re doing a tax audit for an elder law case or whatever.
Stephanie Everett (15:18):
All right. We’ll take a quick break, hear from our sponsors when we come back, we’ll chat a little bit more about how we can start documenting those processes.
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Stephanie Everett (18:22):
So I’m back here with Catherine and I think all of us know how important it is that we start writing our processes down, like you said, so that we have them if something happens so that people can do their job better, all the reasons we know, but gosh, does it seem overwhelming? And so I wonder if you have advice on how people can just get started if they haven’t done this before.
Catherine Sanders Reach (18:46):
And that’s why I said, and I’m completely serious, a piece of paper and a pen. And when you start a process, just start writing down what you do or if that’s what’s a comfort level for you or start doing a screen record. You can do a screen record in PowerPoint. You can do a screening record in Microsoft Stream. So if you have Microsoft 365, you just go into office.com and look at all the apps you have and Stream is one, it’ll let you record. There are tools like Loom that you can use or you can take screenshots and annotate. But for a lot of people, I think the simplest thing is to start writing down what you do. So probably most people have some sort of legal notepad sitting on their desk somewhere when you start doing something and thinking about from every level of the office.
So if I’m the person who, once we’ve decided a client has signed the engagement agreement, how does intake start? So let’s write that process down. We’re going to put all the information into the system, but then you start kind of thinking big process. We probably have a pre intake and then we have an initial consultation and then we have the engagement agreement sent out and somebody has to craft that depending on the different matters. So all of a sudden what sounds simple new client becomes so many steps and so many different people possibly touching it and things that have to happen. And so sometimes you have to start with something that sounds simple and back it into discreet parts and then start documenting it. I’ve talked to firms that I say, who does the conflicts check or bookkeeper? Is that the right person to do the conflicts check?
Okay, so say it is then I said beyond that, is there an email that gets sent out to just double check to make sure that the bookkeeper doesn’t miss something? Yeah. Do you have a way to track that? Everybody responded to that email. Even if it’s three attorneys in the office, everybody’s busy. The bookkeeper sends out an email and says, we’re looking at bringing in this new client. I did the conflict check. It looks like it’s good. Do you know of anything? I don’t know. We need to make sure that there’s been a checkbox besides all three names that say, yes, I affirm I know of no conflicts because conflicts are a big deal. And so thinking about sitting down and brainstorming and you’re not going to get it in one go, you’re going to think of other things that you do, other people who are involved. But sorting to just again, take something as simple as intake or closing a matter and then looking at in between before you even tackle different processes for different practice areas and matters. It’s a little bit more complex and people go, well, litigation, that’s getting really tough. It’s like everything has a process,
Stephanie Everett (21:49):
You just start breaking it down.
Catherine Sanders Reach (21:51):
So start looking at some just common processes, breaking them down and documenting them as you do them, and don’t get frustrated that you can’t get it done all at once. This is not something you’re going to do all at once.
Stephanie Everett (22:05):
No, in fact, it probably, it’s never done, right? It takes No, I always tell people have a goal to get 10 done this quarter. We’re going to document 10 things and then over time you can start making it a percentage. We’re going to have it 25% complete 50. I mean, I’ll share with everyone. Even this past week, our team looked at one of our processes, something that we produce all the time, and we got everyone on the team who touches it and they got together on a call and said, okay, what are we currently doing? And just by doing that, they found four or five steps that was like, oh yeah, like you said, oh yeah, we don’t need to do that anymore. Or That doesn’t make sense, or why is this person doing it? This person can do it. And so we have to be really intentional and put those meetings on our calendar to make sure, okay, what are we going to retrospect this quarter to try to improve?
Catherine Sanders Reach (22:55):
And you can’t improve a process if you never document in the first place. So I know a firm here in North Carolina who their entire office is remote, they’re all over the place and they use suite process for their documentation and they literally keep it up all day every day. They follow the plan and then they review the plan and figure out where they need to change the plan. If somebody changes the way they do something, it is immediately documented. Now that’s pretty much dedication, but this firm focuses on a lot of kind of D I Y and self-help and flat fees, and they can’t afford not to be as process driven as possible. And you’ll note I say process driven knock technology.
Stephanie Everett (23:45):
So I love all of that and I guess we should just hit it. Then technology then becomes that third piece or third leg of the stool that we’re working on. And so what are we thinking about when it comes to the technology?
Catherine Sanders Reach (23:58):
I’ve talked to so many firms who have said, well, I’ve got this but it doesn’t work, or I need to be able to do this. And then I’ll say, well, what are you using right now? And they’ll tell me. I’ll say, well, that tool that you have does what you just said you want to do. I didn’t know. So let’s take an evaluation of your tech stack. What do you have? What are you using? Have you ever been trained? Are you using the most up-to-date version? Then ask questions about what do we want to be able to do? Text with clients? You may already have that tool, you just didn’t know it because they snuck it in because you didn’t have to make some big upgrade because it’s software as a surface. So you may have things that you don’t even know about because it’s my job to sit around paying attention to press releases and product updates, not yours.
But that’s the occasional question that you have to ask and do sign up to get someone to pay attention to when these products get new features and functions to test out. But between most practice management applications, especially the SAS based ones and Microsoft 365, you’ve got so many tools that you can take advantage of. So before you go buy something, look at what you’ve got. Look at the text that I also know a lot of firms have, and I think this has got to cause confusion when you’ve got Microsoft OneDrive because you’re using 365 and you’ve got Dropbox and you’ve got Citrix share file. And I was just thinking, where are people storing things? Because the benefit of having a single repository for all your documents and why document management systems have been successful is because they’re all in one place and you can search across them. So storing documents, Heather Feather and a bunch of different places because this product lets you share it with clients and this product is what you’re used to and this one comes with the tool that you already bought and all that kind of stuff. That’s when you need to step back and make strategic decisions about which tools you’re going to use. Try to have a tight lean tech stack that gets you as far as you can and then go, okay, we really need some good document assembly now let’s go out and find that tool.
Stephanie Everett (26:21):
Makes perfect sense. I think people do get a little too tool happy at times and don’t learn what they have. And I love the idea of somebody in the office being in charge of keeping up with those product updates and good news. Hint, hint, Lawyerist. Part of our weekly email that we send out is just that. So part of what we’re doing is trying to keep up with those features for you, make sure you’re checking that out if it’s helpful and that ongoing training, because a lot of times when you get a new tool, it’s like you can only absorb so much and you have to kind of use it for a while. And then I think we forget that we need to go back and learn what the advanced features are.
Catherine Sanders Reach (26:58):
I have seen some real botched training. A lot of times, especially with a big product implementation, they’ll want to get people trained before the product’s rolled out, which basically means you’ve got a bunch of people who were shown a product that they’ve never used, that they’re not going to go back to their desk and use, and everybody’s surprised when nobody knows how to use it. Well, you thought you’d get the training out of the way first. It’s not the order. So I have been through a number of unfortunate major system rollouts where we were trained, and also they’re training us for stuff we’re never going to do. Yeah, I got trained on how to use the association management system and how to use the website tools when I was never going to build webpages, stuff like that. So it’s really important to think about the order of operations in which you are going to get people up to speed on new tech, but then kind of constantly, for instance, I don’t know, Stephanie, have you tried the new Outlook?
Are y’all Microsoft 365 users? Yeah, that’s going to be a big change. The interface is completely different, and I don’t mind change, but I’m normal. So my immediate reaction was, I hate it and I want my old one back, but I decided I’m going to write a list of pros and cons and I’m going to try to find the things that have improved and some of the things that have changed and what can I live with and what can I live without? And somebody’s may have to help other people in the firm embrace that mindset.
Stephanie Everett (28:44):
Yeah. Well, that was kind of what I was going to ask you next is, I mean, I feel like change management as a component, we’re kind of talking about it and dancing around it, but there are a lot of people in our firms, us included sometimes that resist change. And when we hear there’s going to be a new process, we’re going to change how we do things. We’re going to use a new tool, whatever it is, they just inevitably resist that. So do you have any tips on how we can think about it a little differently so that’s smoother?
Catherine Sanders Reach (29:13):
I really, really feel like change is not going to be embraced across the firm if it’s not embraced from the top down. I hear a lot of times the partners are basically like, everybody’s going to use this except us. I’ve even had associates who’ve been assigned to create security policies, but they didn’t want to call ’em policies because the partner said, let’s call them guidelines because I don’t be beholden to certain things. And I was thinking, wow, let’s just roll out some toothless stuff here. But yeah, there’s always going to be your detractors. There’s going to be the people who derail the process and you know can read a gazillion articles on change management and always tell you to create, find that group of people. Here are the early adopters and get them on board with it. But honestly, if the people at the top are not following along and they’re telling everybody else what to do, but they’re not doing it, I think it’s really hard to, from a cultural perspective, assume that everybody’s going to appreciate change. Because a lot of times the paralegals are the ones the most affected by new technology. So the partners are like, yeah, well, I’m not even going to use it. I’m going to do what I always did, but we want you to do it. And that’s just not go over well.
Stephanie Everett (30:38):
Right. No, I agree. Never a good idea for so many reasons. Well, as we wrap up, I think this has been super helpful. There’s so many good tips you’ve given us and great reminders of how we, especially starting with the people, I think we forget that so much when we think about our systems and processes. But one thing I wanted to ask you, which is a little bit a different direction, one of our core values here at Lawyerist is around the idea of continuously learning and trying to improve ourselves, whether that be personally or professionally or both. So I always like to ask people, what are you learning right now? What are you digging into or trying that might be a little new or a stretch?
Catherine Sanders Reach (31:20):
Well, I think I’m not all that unusual in that I am playing around with everything that rolls out through the Microsoft 365 Suite because it’s something I live in anyway. And then of course, playing with artificial intelligence tools, not just Chat G P T, but I played with Joseph Q, which I think has so much potential. I got Tom Martin to do a law droid co-pilot demo for me. So I’ve been going and getting demos and doing tests and pilots and whatever I can get for free just to see how this stuff works. For instance, this Joseph q I took the parental leave policies from the Bar Association, uploaded them, did a few training questions and am now able to ask it all sorts of questions. So I’ve been getting my colleagues at the bar to test it out and ask questions and see if it answers it correctly. And it, it’s amazing. And so while I know that Lawyerist are kind of freaked out about being replaced in all this, think if you were a corporate attorney or you worked with a municipality and you were able to upload policies and procedures into something and have them ask it questions instead of trying to wade through 155 page manual.
Stephanie Everett (32:41):
Yeah, no, I love that. And it’s like I have to remind myself, because I’m pretty much using chat daily, but I think people are still like, well, what does that mean? How are you using it? And so I’m doing a keynote for a bar association and they were like, can you send us the description of your talk? Right. Everybody wants that for their marketing materials. And I started to write it and I was like, wait a minute. What am I doing now? Over to chat. Said, can you write a description of a talk called a keynote that does this? And you know what? It was ama. I was like, oh, this is pretty good. I made a few tweaks and I’m like, it’s a great first draft for a lot of stuff that we’re doing, especially on the marketing side. So yeah,
Catherine Sanders Reach (33:18):
I mean, blog posts, letters of recommendation, description, descriptions of programs, all sorts of, I was helping my sister write a letter to fire a consulting client. It’s not the same as when a lawyer fires the client. There’s a lot more to it, but just thinking about how can I get this to generate content, search for content, synthesize, condense, summarize. I used a plugin called Tactic. It’s T A C T I Q, and it basically creates a transcript like auto AI does for a teams or WebEx or Zoom meeting, and then it uses artificial intelligence to summarize and come up with the action items and next steps. And it did an amazing job.
Stephanie Everett (34:09):
Yeah, we’re using something similar. We, it’s called Fathom and yeah, and I love it. And you can even pull clips from the transcript out, and there’s so many things you can do, and I know, I appreciate that you’re going heavy into the office environment. We are too, because we’re anticipating copilot coming out and really changing our lives. So stay tuned if you’re listening, because I, I’ve been telling all my lobsters, I’m like, we’re on top of it. We’re going to learn everything we can so we can digest it all down for you. But I’m pretty excited about some of these tools that are just going to make our lives easier. I see ’em as opportunities, not threats, so hopefully everybody will start to learn how to embrace them when they become more real to us.
Catherine Sanders Reach (34:51):
Stephanie Everett (34:53):
Thank you so much for being with me today. I’ve loved this conversation. I’ve learned so much. I was going to say, I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll be at a conference together, but you’re going to be virtual, so I guess I’ll just see you virtually tomorrow.
Catherine Sanders Reach (35:05):
Thank you, Stephanie.
The Lawyerist Podcast is edited by Britany Felix. Are you ready to implement the ideas we discuss here into your practice? Wondering what to do next? Here are your first two steps. First. If you haven’t read The Small Firm Roadmap yet, grab the first chapter for free at Lawyerist.com/book. Looking for help beyond the book? Let’s chat about whether our coaching communities, are right for you. Head to Lawyerist.com/community/lab to schedule a 10-minute call with our team to learn more. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.
Streamlining Legal Operations for Success, with Catherine Sanders Reach
Last updated May 11th, 2023