How I got here

How I Got Here: Ashley Willoughby, Director of Legal Operations at Coherent Corp.

December 13, 2023
Melody Chen

Table of Contents

Ashley Willoughby is the Director of Legal Operations at Coherent Corp. (formerly II-VI Incorporated; NYSE: COHR), a manufacturer of optical materials and semiconductors. Ashley is an Advisory Board Member for Consero Legal Operations and was previously a Senior Legal Manager at Ness Digital Engineering. Learn more about the key ingredients to fast career growth, how to advocate for budget for legal tech tools, and how she partners effectively with the business.

Tell me about your journey to Director of Legal Operations. How did you decide to build your career in Legal Ops?

If I’m being honest, I don’t think I ever chose to build a career in legal operations. As my career evolved, legal operations was progressing in parallel, so the puzzle pieces fit and fell into place at the right time. I’m sure many legal operations leaders will agree with me in saying that legal operations is an industry that just kind of happened, given that the legal industry has evolved so much over the past 20 years. 

I always like to say I have worked in legal operations before it was known as legal operations. I’ve been working in the industry since 2007. I managed an in-house legal department at Ness Digital Engineering for eleven years before taking on the role of leading the legal operations function at II-VI (now Coherent Corp.). Towards the end of my duration with Ness, “legal operations” became a little bit more well-known, and many larger organizations were seeking out individuals with a background in business management and leadership, with extensive legal department experience, to lead in-house legal operations teams. Coherent Corp. reached out to me and expressed interest in having me build out their legal operations function, and I’ve been with them ever since. 

When I joined Coherent Corp., the role was focused on building out the legal operations function. Their in-house legal department was in its early stages of development. I was the fifth employee to join their legal and compliance department. The Chief Legal and Compliance Officer at the time had a phenomenal grasp on what legal operations was, where it was going in the future, and the importance of allocating spend to legal technology in the department budget. This was one of the key reasons why I accepted the position, because I knew I would have the necessary support and budgetary resources needed to effectively build out the function to what it is today.

What skill sets from your MBA have helped with running Legal Ops?

I passionately feel, and have said for years, that a legal operations function is only successful if the leader of legal operations is running the legal department like a business. In order to do this successfully, the leader has to have a strong business background, which is obtained from an MBA program. Given that I have my MBA and do not have my JD, my mind automatically thinks business first. I have not been educationally trained to think like a lawyer, which I think is an advantage in its own right. I focus on the advances our department needs to successfully run like a business, for the business, with legal knowledge in mind.  

I say with legal knowledge in mind because someone with just business experience doesn’t know or fully understand the legal landscape, the legal technology available in the industry, how to leverage specific legal needs when negotiating pricing to save additional costs, how legal budgets differ from traditional business budgetary expectations, and identifying key legal dashboards and reporting when designing metrics, KPI’s, etc. The legal knowledge and legal operational side of the house is something not taught in an MBA program. When it comes to the legal side, I’m very fortunate that early on in my career, the general counsel that I previously worked for taught me so much about the legal side of the world, which I use daily. 

At your current company, you moved up from a legal operations specialist role to the director of legal operations. Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue a similar career path?

My advice would be to make sure that you have first-hand experience managing a legal department before taking on a legal operations leadership role, no matter if it is in-house or at a law firm. I think the one reason why I’ve been promoted up the corporate ladder in the timeframe that I have is directly related to my vision and strategy and the approach with which I’ve led. I never wanted to waste the Chief Legal and Compliance Officer’s time with legal operations topics because truthfully, that’s why they hired me. I only wanted to involve him/her when I had a new idea, or needed directional approval or budgetary approval. 

Also, don’t focus on the title. My first title at Coherent was as a legal operations specialist, and my responsibility was to build out an entire legal operations function with very little direction. This responsibility is usually associated with a much higher title, but I didn’t let that discourage me. I joined and hit the ground running and was extremely proactive in my approach. I would also recommend partnering with all legal and compliance practice area leads and asking the question no one wants to answer, which is, “What isn’t working?” Then propose ways in which they can improve their inefficiencies to save time for them and their team. This will be your first step in relationship building and trust with the legal team. 

Invest time in getting to know your audience, including the legal team and business stakeholders. Meet one-on-one; get to know their personalities. This is key for you in determining who will be receptive to your new ideas and who will need a little more attention to buy into the change. Speak the words, “I know change is hard,” but quickly follow up with, “But I promise it will be worth it if you give it a chance.” 

Also, make sure key business stakeholders have a strong understanding of what legal operations is. You won’t get the legal operations staff or budgetary funding to build and grow without it. Lead with confidence in these meetings, and be kind; after all, you are the face of the legal operations function. 

A big part of the legal ops role requires mastering change management. How have you successfully managed this?

When I’m interviewing potential legal operations candidates, two of the questions I ask are, “What is change management to you? How do you approach it? I ask this during the interview process because one of the keys to successful legal operations requires positive change management, especially when you’re dealing with lawyers.

Adoption to change is widely accepted in our department because our change management program includes the following: 

  1. Have personal conversations with practice area leads and key business stakeholders individually. Yes, this is time-consuming and takes additional time, but it’s so worth it in the end. We ensure that each team member understands, from a personal advantage, not just as a group benefit, how the change will directly make their lives easier. It’s crucial that the ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality is the main focus point during all conversations. They need to know how this new tool, process, or procedure will make their life easier in order to get their buy-in. 
  2. Managing personalities is a significant part of legal operations. It’s crucial to understand each individual’s personality to predict their reactions to future change. For example, one person might say, “Oh, yeah, this is wonderful. I’m really excited about this,” but they may not dedicate any time to training sessions to learning the new tool. In contrast, someone else might not express enthusiasm about the new tool but will dedicate as much time as needed to learn it. That’s why we really emphasize individual meetings with everyone in our department; it makes our lives easier in the long run.
  3. Be open and honest about past failures. Embrace the mistakes. Most people at Coherent know that they aren’t going to get a lot of fluff with me. I’m very honest. I’ll tell you where I’ve failed. I’ll tell you where I’ve succeeded. Coming across as a real person is very helpful when it comes to change management. 
  4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! Preparing individuals early on is key. No one should be surprised when it goes live. They should honestly be so sick of hearing about it once it’s live! Communicate early on that change is coming, advertise key dates, host training sessions before going live, and offer open office hours post-go live for 2-4 weeks. 

Having a strategy and change management program in place will help you anticipate any issues that you could potentially run into. In the six years I’ve been with Coherent, we have implemented over 22 technology solutions, which is very rare. Typically, it’s one to two solutions per year.  One of the reasons we’ve been able to accomplish this is because the team has trust in our legal operations function and is confident that we are collaborating with them to increase their efficiencies regarding their current struggles. 

When getting buy-in for tools or budget, what’s the secret sauce to convincing other business stakeholders like Finance and IT?

The key is to already have the relationships built with the key stakeholders who are going to make the decision. They need to know you, trust you, and have confidence that even though you’re asking to spend money now, you’ll save the company money in the long run. 

Another key factor is having really strong metrics and reporting. For example, if you’re implementing CLM, you cannot go to finance and say, “I need X amount of dollars to put a CLM in place.” It’s no secret that a true CLM tool is one of the most expensive legal tools anyone will implement. So, be prepared for the business stakeholders to ask you why. 

You have to take data with you to the table. You must take very concrete data, not just industry benchmarks, as they don’t reflect true ROI. A true ROI presentation will detail our current SLA and other timing, what the company has set as targets, and how frequently we currently meet them. Current SLAs say we’ll turn around a contract in a day or two, but what’s our actual turnaround time? Is it ten days? Thirty days? This information helps convincingly demonstrate the cost-benefit. With data supporting that spending now will lead to future internal and external savings, having both business acumen and legal knowledge is advantageous. It’s about understanding the data’s implications for the business. 

The business just wants its contracts reviewed quickly. The benefits of the CLM tool are that we’re going to be able to track everything in a more robust fashion, and it’s going to get reviewed faster. We’re also going to have 150+ metadata fields that we can run reporting on, and we’ll be able to say that the business unit is no longer going to mistakenly forget to renew a contract because now they’ll receive reminders to take action. So, we are working for the business now. We’re making the business’s life easier. We are getting data to the business in an effective way. Plus, now, the legal team member that used to do contracts work manually will no longer have to do those tasks, which will save on external and internal spend, and they can now focus their time on other more impactful legal matters, which will help another business group.  CLM is just one example; there are many others. 

All in all, it’s really about applying the concepts and function responsibilities within Legal and demonstrating how they can be done faster and more effectively. All this is based on our internal metrics. 

Legal is historically thought of as a back-office function, there to serve the business, but is evolving to a more strategic role. How do you work with business stakeholders and showcase impact?

At Coherent, we strive to align with the business. Far too many departments within companies view legal as a department to avoid. We try to take a proactive approach to partnering with the business. We often ask what their pain points are when working with legal, how we can improve to help them work more effectively, and take action to change what we’re doing to better align with the business. One way in which our current CLCO improved the quality or service we provide the business was to set up segment GCs. This change improved the direct communication line between the business and legal. The segment leads and GMs now have a single source of contact within legal to collaborate with on past, current, and future needs.  This also allows for the segment GC to really get to know the business segment they represent to better provide quality legal services tailored to that specific segment’s business needs. 

One thing that has worked well for us to showcase impact is through our quarterly business reviews (QBRs). We have our overall QBR, which covers the entire department. But we go a bit further and have QBRs completed by each practice group within our department, such as M&A, IP, litigation, compliance, etc., so we can have a clear and honest picture of what they’re doing, what they’re not doing, where they’re struggling, and their plans for the future. The QBRs have proven to be very useful when we need to advocate for something. For example, the struggles outlined on the legal operations QBR helped to show the use case scenario for why we needed Streamline’s services.  

What is your leadership philosophy when it comes to handling successes and failures within your legal operations team?

Overall, the way in which I lead my team when it comes to successes and failures is pretty simple. Our successes are the wins of my team. They get the credit. Our failures, our mistakes, fall on me.  I take the blame. I encourage my team to make mistakes. If they aren’t making mistakes, they aren’t growing. So it’s only fair that if they make a mistake, I take the blame. Obviously, I will have a conversation with them to discuss their mistake so they don’t repeat it and learn from it. 

In order to make mistakes, they must believe in themselves and be willing to try new things. Trying new things — getting out of their comfort zone— is the first step in career growth. I always say they have to be comfortable being uncomfortable if they want to grow within their career.

What resources would you recommend for those learning the ropes of Legal Ops?

Consero Legal Operations events are the best. I serve on their advisory board and I’ve gotten involved because I truly believe in their process of doing things. Every event has valuable takeaways no matter your level —you’re bound to learn something. ACC also has a legal operations group. They offer an ACC Legal Operations Maturity Model, which is phenomenal. I use it to measure our maturity every two years, and it’s been incredibly beneficial. CLOC can be transformational for the newer legal operations industry members. Their group forum is what I’ve found to be the most impactful out of their offerings.

Now let’s move on to some of the less serious questions. What’s a fun fact about yourself?

I decorate cakes for close friends and family members’ birthdays and special events. When I was getting my undergraduate degree, I worked as a cake decorator at Sam’s Club. I interviewed with them to be a cashier, and they told me I was too small to lift items, so they asked, “Do you want to work in the bakery as a cake decorator?” I agreed, saying, “Sure. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll learn.” I’ve decorated Toby Keith’s birthday cake, and several cakes for Ozzy Osbourne during his Ozzfest tour. Since then, I’ve continued the skill in my spare time and created some pretty cool cakes. My son is seven now, and he always says, “Mom makes me awesome birthday cakes!”

Editor’s note: Interestingly, Ashley is the second legal operations professional we’ve interviewed who has a passion for pastries (Jo Vong is the first). We theorize that this might be due to legal ops individuals enjoying the process of learning and building things from scratch. To the legal operations community: How many of you share a love for baking or creating pastries?

What books or other media are you reading or listening to right now?

As for books, I just finished The Greatness Mindset: Unlock the Power of Your Mind and Live Your Best Life Today by Lewis Howes. Prior to that one, I read The Power of One More: The Ultimate Guide to Happiness and Success by Ed Mylett. Right now, my house is filled with Christmas music given that we are in the holiday season. My son loves Christmas music all year, but now it’s really on in full force. 

In an alternate universe — just say you won the lottery — what would you do as a career if you weren’t doing legal ops?

I would choose to run a dog and a horse rescue with my mom. There’s a man, Lee Asher, who runs the Asher House. He used to work in Finance, quit his job in corporate America, and started the Asher House. I follow him on social media. His rescue has grown exponentially since he started. He now lives on around 600 acres and owns a huge house that he calls “The Sanctuary” with many, many rescue animals. He posts his rescue missions daily; what he does for the rescue community nationwide is just remarkable. I grew up with a lot of dogs, and my mom raised Arabian horses when I was young, so that’s very special to me. So, if I could, I would run a dog and horse rescue, similar to what he does, and manage it with my mom, except I would want it to be in a warm climate near the beach. That’s what I’d love to do! 


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