Sean Houston

How legal operations enables legal at Heineken

Scaling legal
January 25, 2022

Hi 👋 Who are you?

My name’s Sean Houston. I’m the legal operations manager at Heineken. I was the first hire at Heineken to be dedicated to legal operations.

What does your role at Heineken involve? 

I work very closely with lawyers at both head office and our dozens of operating companies. At head office, I have around 45 full-time colleagues in the legal team - the majority of them are lawyers. And at the operating companies, globally, it's close to 300 legal professionals. The legal ops function consists of just me, so there’s always plenty of work to do.

I spent the first few months absorbing as much as I could from the company, and building a solid understanding of exactly how things are going

What’s the biggest challenge when working with such a large legal team?

It can be quite difficult to push a project or roll out a solution that's going to work for such a huge number of people. Add into that the many use cases and jurisdictions I have to work with, as well as the size and complexity of the business, and it becomes an obstacle I have to try and overcome. 

We're the second largest brewer in the world, and quite a decentralized organization, so it's difficult to get things across the finish line sometimes. The legal ops role is relatively new to the business, so we definitely have to walk before we can run.


So where do you get started? What do you prioritise?

I spent the first few months absorbing as much as I could from the company, and building a solid understanding of exactly how things are going. I also tried to meet as many of my colleagues as I could to get their thoughts on what was working - and what wasn't working. 

One of the big projects that I was working on in 2021 was a legal tech roadmap, so everyone was aligned on legal ops projects over the next year. We’ve finally published that this month. This roadmap was helpful - it meant I could start to add timelines and budgets to different projects, and build out my plan for the upcoming year. 

It also meant I wasn’t making those decisions in a silo - putting a roadmap in place allowed me to get feedback from legal on what was going to be the most impactful to them.

What other projects are currently on your ‘to do’ list?

I’m working on three big projects at the moment:

  1. Implementing a standard contract database: I realised early on that we didn’t have a standard system in place where colleagues could store signed agreements. There were some interesting strategies people were using to store their agreements!
  2. There was no consistency with how these documents were managed post-signature. Heineken is a Microsoft shop so we partnered with a Microsoft vendor that could help us create that database within SharePoint. I’m at the roll-out stage of trying to get those operational companies on board to adopt this new database.
  3. Managing business data: I’m co-leading a cross-functional project to improve upon how we manage our business data internally. It can get complicated in a business of our size, with so many different teams across different regions. We're currently re-evaluating how we track and manage changes to our entity information, for example. 
  4. Evaluating our existing tech stack: there are a few systems Heineken has implemented in the head office that haven't really added value. I’m evaluating our current tech and bringing everyone up to speed on how it should be used in the business. I’m hoping that with clarity we can improve our internal processes and make the most of the tech we have in place.
I think it's really rare that you get an opportunity to join a business like Heineken, and create something from the ground up. I’m working with some fantastic people, and I learn a ton from them every day

How often do you collaborate with legal to get a project over the line?

From day one, building up those relationships with legal was really important to me. I regularly get the GC’s input on current projects - I’m fortunate that our dynamic is open and collaborative by nature.

For me, it’s useful to know:

  • Which project he thinks should be the highest priority
  • What the legal team needs in order to work more efficiently
  • What is the biggest value-add, in his opinion

This alignment ensures that I'm not spinning my wheels or wasting energy on tasks that don’t matter to legal - I’m a team of one, so I certainly can’t be doing everything!

You were initially in customer success at a legal management scaleup, Brightflag - what prompted the move to legal ops?

I looked at my time at Brightflag like a crash course in legal operations. I had a chance to work closely with legal operations and legal teams at well-known giants like Uber, Shopify, Ericsson and others. For many of our customers, legal spend management was one of their first projects - whether it’s rolling out an e-billing system, or dealing with matter management.

It was a fantastic opportunity and through Brightflag I became fascinated with the legal ops field in general. 

And how did you find the move from customer success to legal ops?

It's challenging, and will always be challenging. It’s just a tough job - but also a great one. I've really enjoyed the experience and I really liked the problem-solving aspect of my day-to-day. I've been empowered by management to make decisions when necessary and identify points of improvement, which helps when you’re the only person in a team.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job? 

I think it's really rare that you get an opportunity to join a business like Heineken, and create something from the ground up. I’m working with some fantastic people, and I learn a ton from them every day.

When the pandemic hit, I was, like everyone else, reevaluating my career and doing some soul searching - and that’s when I decided to pivot away from customer success and into this role. It was a big step, but it’s definitely been worth it.

Thanks, Sean!

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Sean Houston is the Legal Operations Manager at Heineken

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