Yesterday I attended Ark Group’s Professional Support Lawyer (PSL) conference, along with nearly 50 PSLs from over 35 firms. The presentations and audience contributions reminded me that PSLs are the hidden gems of legal business.
When firms first realised that they could improve the quality of their lawyers’ work, PSLs were expected to focus on technical excellence — creating and maintaining key documents, and ensuring that developments in the law were addressed through training or current awareness briefings. Like other aspects of legal practice, this focus has shifted over the past 20 or more years. Now firms can expect their PSLs to be an essential part of their strategic armoury. This can be seen in a variety of ways, but just two highlight particularly well how PSLs make a real difference: innovation and culture.
Coincidentally, today sees the publication of the FT’s annual Innovative Lawyers report. Looking at the list of standout, highly commended and commended initiatives by law firms, I see many that will have involved PSLs at some stage in their development. Some of the client service innovations depend for their success on materials created specifically by PSLs. Some of the innovations in legal expertise draw on insights made possible by the broader overview that PSLs can have over the legal landscape, unencumbered as they are by client demands.
In my own experience working alongside talented lawyers, I have seen a higher rate of products and services created or delivered by PSLs than by partners. And crucially, PSLs tend to be much better at seeing a product development cycle all the way through to the end — partly because they may have fewer distractions, but mainly because they know that this is a significant part of their role and they take it seriously.
Innovation is a tricky concept, much misunderstood and misused, but David Hepworth’s observations last week about ‘improvements’ read just as well when applied to ‘innovations’:
This is a classic case of Hepworth’s Law Of Improvement, which I developed over years of watching people trying to improve magazines. There’s improvement, then there’s the kind of improvement which is recognised by the user and finally there’s the kind of improvement which is both recognised and valued by the user.
Only the third sort is worth the trouble.
PSLs are often the most capable people in a firm to assess dispassionately what putative innovations would be recognised and valued by clients (and potential clients).
Innovation can clearly happen without PSLs, and some PSLs may not be in a position focus on new products and services for good reasons. But if your law firm is struggling with making innovation stick, try involving some PSLs — you may be surprised by the results.
Like many commercial organisations, law firms often struggle with culture. Sometimes this can result from the multiple role that partners have as owners and managers of the business as well as workers in it. A junior lawyer working alongside a partner is unlikely to see them as a co-worker, so will hold some things back that they might share with a peer. Partners therefore can only have a distorted view of their team. (Just as the Queen only ever sees perfectly clean, freshly-painted offices and hospitals.) PSLs, on the other hand, see lawyers at all levels in all types of situations. They help juniors with their panics over misfiled forms. They work as peers with all areas of business services (especially BD, HR, Risk and IT). They may be used as confidantes for aspiring partners.
At the same time as having strong relationships with a wider range of people working across the firm, PSLs are often regarded as peers by partners. Many of them will have experience in their area of expertise far in excess of some of the partners they work with. They may also have seen partners in other areas of the firm grow up from innocent trainees to practice-hardened lawyers. As a consequence their dealings with partners are different from any other group in the firm. PSLs often have the trust and confidence of partners across the firm.
This privileged position means that PSLs understand what is really going on (a shorthand for culture) much better than most other groups in the firm. Firms can use this insight intelligently in all sorts of ways. For example, mergers are one area where a number of firms have experienced the benefit of drawing on PSLs for more than their legal expertise. In the phase before a merger takes effect, PSLs from the two merging firms start work on the knowledge infrastructure for each new team. As the merger beds in, PSLs build new relationships with new colleagues — binding the team together better than partners can manage alone.
Why hidden gems?
Even if PSLs only do the core function of maintaining technical excellence, they generate more value for the firm than fee-earning lawyers. An hour of fee-earning will translate directly to income generated at the appropriate rate. There may be some intangible value in a deeper client relationship, but that is not guaranteed. By contrast, a well-focused hour of a PSL’s time spent drafting a standard document or a guidance note, or in providing training on a difficult new legal issue, should translate into many hours additional value by allowing fee-earners to work better. Over time, that single hour could multiply to 50 times as much value for the firm.
When PSLs go beyond the traditional core, they add even more value in all sorts of ways (not just innovation and cultural support). Not all firms see that yet. They forget to value the PSLs in return, or they suppress opportunities for PSLs to demonstrate their full potential (often by allowing them to be distracted by less significant chores). Firms that allow their jewels to shine see real returns on their investment.
If your firm is interested in working better with your PSLs — perhaps finding new ways of supporting their work; encouraging new ways of engaging with them as a group; or allowing them to lead more than they have so far — drop me a line: I would love to help you and your PSLs become more successful.