Four questions - will the Ark KM Legal and PSL conference provide the answers?

By Sophie Brookes, PSL and Partner, Gateley plc

2019 will see the first dedicated ARK KM Legal and PSL conference to be held outside London. As well as sharing my thoughts on PSL career development at the event, I'm looking forward to hearing from the various presenters, meeting contemporaries from different firms and learning from each other's experiences – all without the need for a pre-dawn start to catch a train south!

The full programme for the conference can be seen here – but these are some of the questions I'm hoping might be answered on the day:

AI: heaven or hype?

No more due diligence reviews! Produce a suite of documents at the click of a button! Sign documents anywhere, anytime! We've all heard the hype surrounding the new technology driving change in the legal market, but does it live up to expectations? Investigating many of these products, I've found myself simultaneously impressed by their capabilities yet disappointed by their limitations. Product X can be tailored to produce an efficient solution to problem Y; but it can't provide a generic solution capable of applying across broadly similar, but specifically different, situations. Whilst I've yet to be convinced by any of the due diligence products we've trialled, document automation has proved successful and is hugely popular with fee-earners, removing the heavy lifting and allowing them to concentrate on the more rewarding aspects of their job where they really add value.

New technology, including AI, document automation and electronic signatures, will be explored at the conference.

Are PSLs the missing link?

Finding the bridge between higher primates and humans has long been a Holy Grail for anthropologists. When it comes to driving innovation, PSLs are often expected to bridge the gap between the developers of new systems or technology and the legal end users. I make no comment on whether the lawyers or the technologists are the primates or the humans….but I will say that in my experience, IT specialists and lawyers speak completely different languages. PSLs are increasingly expected to take the lead in implementing new systems and working practices, often underpinned by innovative technology. Acting as the missing link between the capabilities of that technology and its use in practice is critical for its deployment to work. But it's something PSLs may be uncomfortable with, particularly if they are not very "techy" themselves. "Would it have helped me in practice?" is a touchstone I often use. If the answer is yes, then it's worth investing the time to properly understand the benefits and capabilities of new innovations, translating them into a language and methodology which lawyers can easily grasp and embed into their working practices.

The link between knowledge and innovation will be discussed by Michelle Bramley, Global Head of Knowledge, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

PSL management: all for one or one for all?

Law firms are structured, and lawyers specialise by practice area. As a result, PSLs tend to work within a specific department or unit. This enables them to focus on the needs of that particular practice area and tailor their priorities accordingly. It leads to PSLs generally being line-managed within that unit, reporting to the unit head, and forming part of the unit's own budget. But is that the best structure? As an alternative, PSLs could band together to form a separate team within the firm, led and managed by a senior know-how lawyer with a dedicated budget. This might lead to more consistency of service across the PSL function, but would it stifle the flexibility of unit-focused PSLs? And anyway, does one size really fit all?

At Gateley, we take a hybrid approach: PSLs are managed within their units and agree their priorities with the unit head. But the PSL team meets regularly and works collaboratively to share best practice and drive firm-wide initiatives.

Claire McNamara, Director of Knowledge Management at Holman Fenwick Willan, will be discussing different organisational structures and how to choose the best one for your firm.

PSL or "know-how lawyer": what's in a name?

The term "professional support lawyer" was coined back in the early 1990s when the role first developed with PSLs primarily drafting precedents. Since then it has evolved to cover a much broader remit, transitioning from an internally focused role to one which is increasingly external or client centred. Whilst the PSL name is widely recognised within the industry, is it still fit for purpose? Does "support" imply a misleading hierarchy between fee-earners and know-how lawyers? PSLs wouldn't be able to do their role if they didn't have fee-earners to "support"; but would a different name better recognise the equally important contribution to a firm's overall success made by knowledge lawyers?

We've kept the PSL name at Gateley…for now. But I'm keen to meet "Knowledge Managers", "Knowledge Development Lawyers", "Know How Lawyers" and everyone else at the conference, hearing how they decided on a name for their role, whether it's a better fit and what benefits it brings.

Sophie will be speaking at ARK Group's KM Legal and Professional Support Lawyer conference in Manchester, March 5, 2019.  Learn more and view the agenda.