BigLaw's Acceptance of Practice Support Lawyers: Ready for Primetime

Note: Guest Blogger, Ian Nelson

It was fascinating to read about BigLaw exploring new, more efficient ways to practice on the front page of the NY Times Business section.  If this doesn’t demonstrate how mainstream and “ready for prime time” this issue is then I don’t know what does. I certainly agree with the author of the article in that this movement is certainly in response to a “fundamental shift” in the law firm business model.

It’s also interesting to note that this “non-partner track” or “career associate” role being described is essentially that of the professional support lawyer, a role that I wrote a few posts on earlier this year and which Toby wrote about last year.

The issue that was not addressed by this article and one that merits further analysis is how to best structure this role so that the firms and clients realize maximum value.

Since the idea behind this role is to allow firms to operate more efficiently, offer services at lower prices and still grow profits, I wonder how efficient it will be if each firm hires large teams of support lawyers that, in many cases, are tasked with almost identical responsibilities.

Of course, each practice group and firm is different but it is safe to say that in this era every firm should have updated standard templates and clauses, practice and how-to guides, checklists, etc.  To not have them at all times is putting a firm at a competitive disadvantage, but the document itself is not why a client is hiring a firm.  In other words, IBM is not hiring a firm due to their form of asset purchase agreement or standard board minutes.

Should we now have every large firm essentially creating the same materials?

It is an interesting question and one the UK had to deal with as their own PSL industry developed.  The UK firms certainly started down a path of large teams of PSLs each doing the same things, but then the firms started to realize that outsourcing the generic materials and using their PSLs for firm-specific and client-facing work (the “crown jewels”) was a much more cost-effective way to proceed.  As I pointed out in my earlier posts and for full disclosure, the company I work for, Practical Law Company, is a provider of these materials to law firms and legal departments.

As the NYT article points out, this model is indeed one of outsourcing, but at a much higher level.  Firms need to take a look the economics and decide whether they are truly looking to the best value source.  30 people at $60,000 a year is $1.8 million – a rather hefty investment.  In most cases, the people filling these roles are experienced practitioners.  I would argue that focusing their time onto high level, firm specific work and outsourcing the generic work to trusted providers is a combination that truly reflects innovation and efficiency.

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David Hobbie said...

I don't think the NYT is talking about Practice Support Lawyers. The people in the article are practicing lawyers, off the partner track, but practicing and billing in close to the same basic mode as associates on the partner track.

Attorneys in these off-track roles have traded greater flexibility and lower billing requirements for lower salaries and the absence of any prospect for advancement to partnership.

I believe that UK or Canadian PSLs traditionally focus more on enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of their practice areas, rather than on the practice of law per se. In that way, they are more like large law firm knowledge managers than like these off-track attorneys.

Sadee Bear said...

As much as this sucks to hear being an incoming law student and all, at least now lawyers will be more affordable. Going to need it for all the lawsuits coming out in California soon: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/05/23/californias-anti-piracy-bill-would-allow-warrantless-searches/


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