From the UK to the US: the PSL role goes global

UK firms have long engaged professional support lawyers and now US firms are embracing the role with full force…

Practice support lawyers are non-practicing lawyers who – through subject matter expertise, knowledge management, and technology – help firm’s practicing lawyers work smarter and more efficiently. While UK law firms have successfully engaged practice/professional support lawyers since the 1990s, the role did not catch on in mainstream US firms until this decade. In fact, when I transitioned from practicing attorney to PSL in 2011, I was my law firm’s first and only PSL, and most of my colleagues at Ogletree Deakins and elsewhere did not understand what I was doing and why.

By 2018, however, PSLs have arrived in full force in the US. I now lead a team of three indispensable PSLs at my firm who have revolutionised the way our firm’s attorneys practice law (think: smarter, better, faster). Similar findings come from US firms elsewhere: I surveyed over 25 US firms, each with more than 100 attorneys, and over three-quarters of them now employ PSLs (spanning from one to more than 20 PSLs per firm). Further, more than half of the firms I surveyed plan to increase their PSL ranks over the next 12 months.

To what do we owe the growth of PSLs in the US? I credit three primary factors:

  1. client demand
  2. the rise of alternative fee arrangement engagements
  3. disruptive innovations in the legal space

First, today’s legal clients are empowered consumers with sophisticated expectations. Beyond price and quality, they now demand efficiency, transparency, value, predictability, innovation, and value-added services. Most of the Requests for Proposals issued to my firm for US-based legal services now ask pointed, specific questions about how our firm shares knowledge, provides value, offers analytics, and innovates. PSLs are key to supporting these initiatives.

Second, over a quarter of all US legal work is now structured under an alternative fee arrangement, with that percentage expected to increase. With attorneys unable to make more money by simply billing more hours, initiatives that increase attorney efficiency are at a premium. PSLs enable firms to do more with less, while not compromising quality. Their responsibilities include the development and vetting of tools and services that enhance efficiency (e.g., document automation, workflows, process maps, AI, etc.), template and form preparation, and maintenance of systems that help identify the right attorney and right materials for the assignment.

A third driver of the rise of PSLs in the US is the growth of disruptive innovation in legal services. This includes both firm-facing innovations (allowing law firms to provide their clients better services, such as document-automation and A.I.-based tools), and client-facing innovations (developed by law firms as a revenue-generator or a value-added service for clients, such as expert systems). PSLs are ideally suited for developing, evaluating, rolling out, training on, and championing such innovations: they have the subject matter expertise, the tech savviness, a familiarity with the firm’s workflows and client preferences, and lack the pressures of the billable hour.

While it took some time, PSLs now have a significant presence in US firms, with interesting roles and responsibilities driven by the challenges and opportunities faced in the US legal market. So long as PSLs continue to drive attorney efficiency, excellence and innovation, their popularity will only continue to climb.

By Evan J Shenkman, Director of KM counsel and research at Ogletree Deakins, contributor to ‘The Evolving Role of the Professional Support Lawyer’, which is due to be published at the end of September.

The evolving role of the PSL will be discussed at the upcoming Professional Support Lawyer conference 2018, where PSLs from Europe and further afield can learn how to add further value to their firms. To find out more, and to book your place, click here.