[Note: This is part two of a three-part guest-series on Practice Support Lawyers (PSL) and the emergence of PSLs in the United States from our guest-blogger, Ian Nelson.]

PSLs in the UK – A Brief History
The PSL role first appeared in the largest UK firms in the early 1990s. These firms gradually built large teams of PSLs to support their various practice areas. Their role was generally to develop standard documents for their particular group, keep the practicing attorneys up to date with key developments and produce practice guides on core areas of the law. The PSL gradually became a feature of smaller firms that came to see the business logic of a team of non-fee-earning attorneys whose job was to make the frontline attorneys as efficient as possible.

The tighter economy in 2008 led firms to look closely at all their support departments, including their PSLs. PSLs were laid off in the same way firms reduced their frontline lawyers and other staff. Some firms were more creative and decided to repurpose their PSLs so they were doing more marketing and business development work.

Therefore, most firms started to, and still do, outsource the creation and maintenance of much of the content (or “know-how”) creation and maintenance to third parties.  (Full disclosure: The company I work for, Practical Law Company, is a leading provider of this know-how in London and the UK.)  This freed up the PSLs to focus on firm and client specific work and the attorneys ended up having more and better resources than before this work was outsourced.  It made little sense for every firm in town to dedicate expensive employee time to creating essentially the same exact resources.

Technology certainly plays an important role in the UK as well.  Most firms have search platforms (like Recommind) that pull up completed deal documents, the PSL work product and the outsourced, or third party created, know-how.
What works about this system is that technology is used to provide the most efficient, comprehensive search.  All of the firm’s precedents are easily found, the PSLs are freed up for high-value projects and the attorneys still have the necessary materials and how-to resources – all of which are always up to date.

This is also a highly cost-effective system.  Instead of employing 50 PSLs, a firm can maintain a smaller, more efficient team that won’t be bogged down with materials that, while necessary for day-to-day practice, do not add to the firm’s competitive advantage.  A PSL team, coupled with a reliable provider of the supporting know-how, has been proven to provide the greatest cost efficiencies and results.

So the PSL role in the UK has survived the last economic downturn but their numbers are smaller and they are one part of a firm’s overall knowledge management strategy.

The third and final installment of this series will suggest an approach in the US to make the smartest, most efficient use of PSLs.