[Note: We’d like to welcome our guest-blogger, Ian Nelson, from Practical Law Company and a former Corporate Attorney with an AmLaw 100 firm in New York.  This is part one of a three-part guest-series on Practice Support Lawyers (PSL) and the emergence of PSLs in the United States.]
The Emerging Role of the PSL in the US
An interesting and recent development in the US legal industry is the emergence of the professional support lawyer, or PSL (some firms are referring to this as a “practice support lawyer”, “practice resource attorney” or “knowledge management lawyer”).  PSLs have been an important part of UK firms for at least 20 years and are now, thankfully, entering the US scene.  Toby dedicated a post to this topic in November 2010 and a recent online search showed at least three open PSL positions at major firms. 
In this 3-part series, I will provide some background on the role of the PSL, a look at the PSL model in the UK and a suggested approach for the US based on lessons learned from the UK.  
A Brief Explanation of the PSL
For anyone not familiar with this function, PSLs play a crucial role in supporting attorneys and firms by creating and maintaining a wide range of practical resources such as practice guides, standard documents and forms, checklists, updates on legal developments, and other materials attorneys turn to on a daily basis.  PSLs also support specific practices with business development initiatives, research and pitch materials.  This is much different than storing and retrieving old work product and completed deal documents.
PSLs ensure that the frontline attorneys are working as efficiently as possible, that there is consistency in work product and that people are not reinventing the wheel on each deal.  With a central collection of up-to-date materials, attorneys will have less need for performing random Google searches or all too familiar “Does anyone have a recent form that does X, Y, Z” email.  Firms also use materials prepared by PSLs to create practical training and professional development programs and junior lawyers have a place to turn to when given unfamiliar assignments (which is most of the time!). 
When I was a corporate associate with Kramer Levin in NY, I spent six months practicing at a UK firm, Berwin Leighton Paisner.  When I was introduced to their corporate department’s PSL team and saw what they produced for the attorneys, I was dumbstruck and realized that the US was missing a huge opportunity to work in a much smarter, more efficient way.  My passion for innovation in the delivery of legal services was born during this time in London, which is why I ended up leaving practice to help start the US office of Practical Law Company.
PSLs in the US – Why Now?
I believe that US firms are now seriously looking at this role for a few reasons.  Chief among them: 
  • Client demands for increased efficiency that resulted from the recent economic downturn;
  • Clients are simply fed up with paying for the time of junior associates that they feel aren’t adding value to their matters;
  • Firms are trying to quickly implement better training programs and develop more resources but don’t have the time; and 
  • Alternative fee arrangements are taking permanent hold in many firms and client relationships, so the need to get deals done faster and smarter directly impacts the bottom line.
Now that the US is starting to employ this model, the real opportunity firms have is to get this right from the outset and apply lessons learned from the UK. 
As Toby’s earlier post points out, the UK has largely taken a human-centric view of this work and the US approach to KM and content has been technology-centric.  I strongly agree with Toby that the answer lies in the middle.  It is unnecessary for US firms to make the degree of human investment in PSLs that UK firms make, but if the correct approach is taken from the start, I believe that US firms can maximize the investments they are making in their PSLs, both for themselves and for their clients. 
In Part 2 of this series, we will take a look at the PSL model in the UK, including a brief analysis of key lessons learned.