Reflecting on the PSL role

A passing comment in Ron Friedmann’s latest blog post has prompted me to recycle some material here that I originally put together for our own Professional Support Lawyers. In the context of a commentary on an interesting report by OMC Partners (commissioned by PLC), Ron notes:

Few large US firms, at least in their US offices, have PSL ratios even approaching those commonly found in the UK. (Some large US firms are now increasing the number of PSLs though in my view, it is premature to call this a trend.)

I think Ron is right to play down the trend. What would interest me more is to know what the US PSL community is being tasked with. That is because I think the role of PSLs in many UK law firms has changed significantly over the past three years or so, and that pace of change is not likely to slacken.

First, some history.

Harriet Creamer was Freshfields’ first PSL (and therefore one of the first in the City) in the late 1980s. She then became a partner with responsibility for knowledge management, and is now a consultant.  Over the past couple of years she has presented at a number of conferences and workshops on the changing role of the PSL. (Reports of those presentations can easily be found on the web, if you are interested.) In November 2009, Harriet summarised her thinking in an article in The Lawyer, entitled “Knowledge management needs serious consideration.” In it, she provides a potted history of the PSL and KM function in law firms, and finishes with a rallying call for change:

At many firms, the basic organisational tasks took longer than expected, and ­eventually became so time-consuming that many KM lawyers remained almost wholly focused on them. In some cases management of the KM function was poor and priorities were commonly set by client partners who misunderstood the ultimate goal or who had particular axes to grind. The vision of the KM function as the ­efficiency engine of the firm, constantly streamlining working practices and driving forward proprietary knowhow, became blurred. Now is the time to clarify it.

To do this it is critical that KM lawyers engage proactively with the business. Their central focus should be on ­profitability. They will need a clear ­understanding, at both the financial and technical levels, of the work undertaken and the systems adopted in the different practice areas.

The comments on Harriet’s piece are intriguing. They don’t display much insight or awareness, and some of them are unnecessarily vituperative. If they are typical of lawyers’ attitudes to KM and PSLs, we have a very steep hill to climb.

One of the firms whose PSLs have taken a lead in the strategic reaction to market change is Berwin Leighton Paisner. Lucy Dillon, Director of KM at BLP (and formerly a litigation PSL at Linklaters), wrote a short note for Law Business Review (“PSLs – Gatekeepers of Excellence”) summarising the ways in which she has seen the PSL role change over the last 20 years.

PSLs, with their experience of practice, are in an excellent position to help review internal processes to identify areas of inefficiency and offer solutions for improving service delivery. Standard forms, document automation, checklists, work flow systems, and FAQs are all areas where a PSL’s experience can be invaluable. They can apply their practical experience and their holistic approach to transactional work to “unbundle” the traditional deal model and identify smarter ways of delivering on clients’ objectives. Such solutions are a pre-requisite to faster turn-around times, while operating in a risk managed environment.

Some of the initiatives that Lucy describes are unique to BLP, and different firms will have different needs. The general theme — that PSLs can take part in driving change is, however, a universal one. I wonder how many firms can say that their PSLs are empowered to do this.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am fond of drawing parallels with other areas of work to try and illuminate the challenges facing law firms (especially in their knowledge-related activities). I think a good comparison here is to consider the ways in which traditional media are dealing with changes in technology and reader behaviours.

In some (limited) respects, the role of a journalist parallels that of PSLs. Journalists are skilled at taking undifferentiated chunks of data and information and packaging them into useful chunks of knowledge. Historically this distillation and delivery has defined their role. Over the past decade, this traditional approach has become inadequate in the face of (a) rolling 24-hour TV news, (b) contribution to news channels by non-journalists (so-called ‘user-generated content’) and (c) commentary away from the news channels (on Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, etc.). One result has been a huge decline in advertising revenues (exacerbated by the recession) and closures of many long-established newspapers. 

If you are interested in some reactions to the challenge facing journalism, I have a number of relevant bookmarks stored online. However, I think a couple are worth singling out.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant in New York. Writing about the challenge facing sports journalism in November 2009 (“This Is Broken: From Game Stories to, Well, Everything”), he poses a key question.

The question to ask about game stories is the same question to ask about everything we do in journalism: If we were starting today, would we do this? That’s the question. Not whether we’ve spent a lot of money on the infrastructure of producing something a certain way, or whether a journalistic form is a cherished tradition, or whether it still works for a niche audience, or whether it can still be done very well by the best practitioners of the craft. All of those questions are distractions from the real business at hand.

If we were starting today, would we do this?

So: If I were starting a sports site (or a sports section on a general-news Web site), would I pay a reporter or some third-party source for a summary of yesterday’s game, knowing that today my audience is much more likely to have watched the game, can get a recap on SportsCenter once an hour during the morning, can see the highlights on demand from a team or league site, and can watch a condensed game on the iPhone?

Absolutely not.

The problem as he sees it is that the medium for which traditional journalism is designed (the daily newspaper of record) has been overtaken by other sources. People get more value from those other sources, but journalists have failed to see that:

Why didn’t we change? Journalists are masters at filtering, synthesizing and presenting information, yet we’ve spent more than a decade repurposing a 19th-century form of specialized storytelling instead of starting fresh with the possibilities of a new medium. Newspapers could have been Wikipedia, instead of being left to try and learn from it. And what are we learning? The news article is in some fundamental ways just as broken as the game story — if it weren’t, Jimmy Wales wouldn’t see a surge of traffic to Wikipedia in the wake of any big news event. We need to rethink the basics: If we were starting today, would we do this? But when will we unshackle ourselves from print and really ask the question? And at what point will the answer come too late to matter?

That question “If we were starting today, would we do this?” is one that I think all firms need to ask themselves about a whole range of issues. In this context, I am curious to know whether US firms that have adopted the PSL role have started to define that role from scratch or whether they have adopted the historic UK model without significantly adapting it for changed circumstances.

(If you are interested in reading further into the journalism debate, I would also recommend Jonathan Stray’s article, “Does Journalism Work?”, which examines the ‘why’ of journalism, rather than the ‘how’ that is Jason Fry’s focus. Stray’s piece still has parallels with knowledge support in law firms, but they are much more strained. However, his hypothesis is an interesting one, and I may return to consider the ‘why’ of law firm KM at some point.)

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