How I got here

How I Got Here: Jo Vong, Legal Operations Manager at Plaid

October 10, 2023
Melody Chen

Table of Contents

Jo Vong is a Legal Operations Manager at Plaid, a fintech company focused on democratizing financial services through technology by making it easy, safe, and reliable for people to connect their financial data to apps and services. Jo was previously the founding Legal Operations Manager at Branch, a mobile linking and measurement platform, and a Litigation Support Specialist at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP. Dive into our conversation with Jo as she shares her career path, insights into the world of Legal Ops, and why she believes AI is nothing to be scared about.

You went from working in litigation support at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, a traditional law firm that’s been around for half a century, to working for tech startups. What was that transition like? 

Going into a law firm, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking about law school, but I wanted first-hand experience of working at a law firm before making that decision. During the seven years at Munger, I learned so much!  I was curious and always asking questions about our processes. Why do we do things this way? Why don’t we try another approach? What tools and technology  are you using? Why did you structure your database that way?

I worked with an attorney who became the General Counsel/Head of Legal for Branch. When she decided to leave, I told her, “If there’s ever an opportunity to work together again, I’d love that. So let me know if you are building out a team, whatever it may be.”

One day, she reached out about a Legal Operations role and said it would be a good opportunity. And I’m thinking, “What does that even entail? Talk to me about what Legal Ops is.” We started to brainstorm and talk about tools that she wanted implemented right away. My first implementation after joining was Ironclad for contract management. I was at Branch for three years and learned how to make tools work smarter.

Fast forward three years later, I joined Plaid. It was a great opportunity to build and scale legal operations at a larger company. Legal Ops is about process refinement, standardization, and utilizing technology to make everything run smoother so that attorneys can go back to doing all of the attorney work. I have the opportunity to do what I love and explore new tools on a larger scale. 

You mentioned that you wanted to use the experience to figure out if you wanted to go to law school but decided not to go. Was there an ‘aha’ moment where you realized legal ops is actually what you wanted to do?

It’s so interesting because when I was younger, I had two options: be a doctor or a lawyer, and there was no in-between. My parents wanted me to go into the sciences my whole life. I was really good at math, and in fact, I got into UCSD as a math major. I knew I wanted to head in that direction, and when I got into undergrad, I thought science was my thing. I changed my major a couple of times, going from math to Pre-Med, Biochem, Chemistry, then to Pre-Med, Biochem, Biology. It wasn’t until a moment in Organic Chemistry when I came out of a final or midterm completely devastated. I went through this “Is this even the right career path for me?” moment. I ended up switching majors to Political Science with the intent of going to law school. 

Law school was such a huge investment, so I wondered, “Is this something that I really want to do? Do I really want to be an attorney?” I had no idea what the legal industry was like then, and I also didn’t have a lot of guidance. Many of my career counselors back then would always say, “Hey, you could be an attorney and just go to law school.” But nobody really talked about the legal support functions or operations.

Instead of jumping into law school, I joined Munger. It didn’t take me long to realize I never wanted to go to law school. My skills and what I truly enjoyed were building smart processes and leveraging technology to work more efficiently. That’s how my career really took off.

How would you describe Legal Ops to someone looking to transition from a law firm to in-house or a solo GC building out their team? What does Legal Ops do on a day-to-day basis?

I think my answer changes so often because the Legal Ops function really does evolve. But suppose I were to give the gist of what Legal Ops does in one sentence, it’s: “We make legal function in a much smoother way so that the attorneys can go back to doing attorney work.” 

For those who want to jump from law firm to in-house, I’ve been asked, “How would I do that? What skill sets are transferable?” If you’ve worked at a law firm, you are operationally minded and process-oriented. Every case is different, so you’ve had experience working with a variety of different tools and methods to accomplish a single goal. When you go in-house, you can do anything. 

I would focus on three things: process, standardization, and technology stack. Those are three things you’ve now done at a law firm in some way or form, even if it’s not called that. It’s just doing what you did at a law firm — dissecting how something works and then just making it better. And that’s what Legal Ops does. We make things better.

The Legal Ops community seems incredibly tight-knit. Which communities or groups have you found useful?

When I joined Branch, I had no idea what CLOC (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) was. That first year involved a lot of discovery. After going to CLOC for the first time, I was overwhelmed with information. I was shaking so many hands, meeting people, and learning a ton. It was exciting, and it still is. CLOC is super helpful, especially if you’ve never done legal operations before. That first year of CLOC is probably the most insightful because you learn the foundational basics. You can sit in any of the panels and get way more information than you actually need. And you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize that you can approach something like this.” 

Legal Operators and Ironclad have great communities. I’ve attended Ironclad community events and Streamline AI’s community events. There’s a wealth of valuable information that emerges from these small groups, like working sessions or even panel sessions that are topic-specific. 

There are other legal ops groups sprouting, like Because they’re smaller and you have industry leaders there, it’s an open communication channel. Even if you’re just sitting, you’re learning a lot. It doesn’t matter if you’re a startup because it’s so valuable to hear how an enterprise company may be experiencing the same pain points that you’re experiencing as a startup. Or you can hear about how an enterprise company matured from a foundational level to a well-oiled machine. 

I give a lot of kudos to the Legal Ops community because I’ve met some truly amazing individuals who have achieved remarkable things in the Legal Ops industry and are willing to share their knowledge. What I love about leaders in the Legal Ops space is their selflessness. They’re eager to share the knowledge they’ve learned through experience so that others can implement it in their companies and achieve success. I hadn’t experienced anything like it until I became a part of it. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to pay it forward!

Are there other courses, books, or other resources that have helped you really grow in your career that you would recommend?

I love the podcast “Masters of Scale” because you hear how big companies like Nike started. They did an episode with of the Black Eyed Peas, who is also a co-founder of Beats, where he talked about his venture into Beats audio devices and the thinking behind it. Although the podcast is not legal-specific, it gives deep insights into how someone’s mind works when they’re looking to grow something to scale. A key takeaway from the podcasts is that you need to keep going and keep trying until something sticks, or keep placing yourself in situations where you are learning more and more until you refine it to a point where it actually works and your company grows. For me, it translates into how networking is one of the most important things for your career. How did I transition from working in a law firm to leading a team in legal ops, having never done technology implementations? The answer is networking: learning from people who have done it, understanding their best practices, and how they approached challenging situations. The podcast reinforces this for me.

CLOC and Brightflag have podcasts that are really helpful and insightful. You hear directly from legal ops leaders about how they’re navigating through certain challenges, and they really resonate. I actually sat down with Jenn McCarron (Director of Legal Operations and Technology at Netflix) for a podcast episode. The book “Mindset” (by Carol S. Dweck) is also great for understanding why a growth mindset is critical for success. I received it at my first startup. There’s so much out there, but focusing on my career, community, and networking are pivotal. 

With the rise of AI, especially generative AI, there’s a lot of talk about robots taking jobs and software automating many tasks we do day to day. Do you see AI as a threat or something that can augment legal ops?

I don’t see AI as a threat at all — I think it’s an exciting step in technology. I’ve worked with many tools and seen how technology has transitioned over the years. I’ve dealt with tools that were so clunky we had to figure out how to get from point A to point B with what was in front of us. The client often dictates which tool to use in a law firm setting, so we didn't have a choice in many of those situations. I have worked with some really terrible eDiscovery solutions where I’ve thought, “If we can handle this, we can work with anything.” Some tools would have been a step up from that. I’ve also worked with tools where, upon first login, I thought, “Oh my God, this is so cool for the eDiscovery space. How amazing is this solution?” They had certain automatic functions I hadn’t seen before. I didn’t have to worry about some manual process on the back end.

When people think of AI — which isn’t unique to the legal industry, especially with attorneys—they wonder if it will truly change how they operate. They ask, ‘Will it take over contract negotiations? Will it eliminate certain steps? How many steps will it remove from our process? Is it in line with our operations?’ People often assume AI will do it all.  So, when AI is mentioned, they want to see its capabilities.

I’ve participated in numerous AI software demos because I’m always curious about what automation it offers. During a demo, my immediate thought is, ‘Show me what it can do.’ Then, we evaluate if it aligns with our internal processes. Often, we find it might be missing certain features. If someone can present their AI solution to me as if I knew nothing about AI, highlighting what makes it distinct, that’s the kind of demo I’m currently interested in. I always want to see what they truly mean by AI.

I believe AI is only going to make things easier and more efficient. In many ways, AI isn’t there yet. There’s still significant progress to be made before it’s in a position to replace human jobs. There’s still a level where you need a person to navigate the solution. AI doesn’t understand our processes automatically or know how to get from point A to point B on its own. However, there are intermediate tasks it can handle very well, which we no longer need to concern ourselves with. This only adds to efficiency and allows us to address more complex problems we encounter daily. 

Which meme encapsulates your life?

You know that meme where there’s a dog that’s sitting in the middle of the room with a cup of coffee in his hand? He’s sitting on a chair, but the room is on fire, and he says, “This is fine.” That meme goes around so often! When everything feels urgent, it’s nothing Legal Ops can’t handle. Stay calm and carry on.  

Legal Ops Meme: This is Fine

In an alternate universe, or if you won the lottery, what would you be doing as your career?

I would be a Michelin-starred chef. I would probably send myself to culinary and pastry school. I love food so much. Growing up, I’d be out to meals with my family, and my parents would say, “This is so easy to make. This is good, but I can make it better.” Next thing you know, they’ll be in the kitchen making the same thing over and over again until they’re like, “Jo, try this. Isn’t this better?” I learned this from my parents: you try, and you try and try and try again until it’s perfect, or better yet, it’s better than the original dish.

I love it when I can recreate my favorite dish from a restaurant and make it better at home. Being the Virgo that I am, if I became a chef, I would not serve a dish that didn’t taste amazing.  I say Michelin-starred chef because you have to aim big.

I’m obsessed with pastry. Pastry is surprisingly really difficult. I was watching Dominique Ansel’s Master Class on croissants and became so obsessed. I can’t tell you how many times I tried making the perfect croissant. It’s a days-long process that really is a labor of love and dedication. To me, it didn’t matter how long it took because doing it made me so happy.  


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