Legal Business Blogs

Guest comment: The new differentiator for law firms?

A quiet revolution is happening, and I am here to champion it. For many years, the role of a professional support lawyer (PSL) or knowledge lawyer has been viewed as an optional extra, a ‘nice to have’, something that only a magic circle law firm could possibly justify. If this is what you think, then it’s time to update your precedent. PSLs have become a key differentiator as firms look to benefit not only from their legal experience but also their business acumen.

The PSL role was created back in the 1990s to support a firm’s practice by drafting and maintaining standard form precedents. At the time there was little in the way of legal databases or online research tools and PSLs became the focal point for this activity as well. However, while this remains a central part of the role, the functions of a PSL have evolved.

The importance of the 2008 financial crisis should not be overlooked in terms of furthering the PSL role. Cost pressures and budget cuts meant PSLs were some of the first to feel the pinch as firms axed support functions. However, as in the natural world, adversity creates opportunity. Symbiotically with the rise of technology, PSLs took on new business operations. The result: more than most, PSLs understand the business of law.

The aim of a PSL is a simple one: ensure their firm or practice group delivers effective and cost-efficient legal services. Yes, at the heart of it all is knowledge management. But let go of the perception that this is just about using knowhow systems and sharing an interesting article occasionally. Knowledge management is the harnessing of collective wisdom to significantly improve client outcomes. It is knowing that experience and expertise can be shared and repurposed for a wider benefit. It is connecting with clients not in silo but as a collective.

Those handling client matters must remain laser focused on their client’s needs. It’s incredibly demanding and virtually impossible for such an individual to provide the level of attention that is required of them while also staying on top of legal developments, advances in technology, social media marketing, data analytics and everything else in between. In contrast, no longer on the front line, PSLs have the relative freedom to enhance their legal knowledge (which is often unparalleled) with skills focused on the interests of the firm’s clients as well as the firm as a business itself.

When I decided to step away from the traditional career path for a lawyer, I had accepted that I wouldn’t necessarily be included in legal rankings or be featured alongside traditional industry leaders. I therefore note the significance that this year I was recognised by The Legal 500 for my contribution to my firm. However, I am one of very few (if any) PSLs to be recognised in this way.

For too long, the expertise of PSLs has flown under the radar. In my view, they are at the heart of a legal team and these individuals are pushing the boundaries when it comes to legal analysis, thought leadership and client services. But PSLs are also the ultimate team player, demonstrating individual commitment to a group effort whether that be their practice group, their firm, their industry sector, or the jurisdiction in which they operate.

There is a saying which sums it up best: ‘a player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player’. However, while the value of PSLs has been recognised by a great number of law firms, glass ceilings remain and wider recognition by the industry is lacking.

Clients see the value of the output from PSLs and knowledge management teams. Firms that champion the individuals behind this offering, beyond what’s gone before, will undoubtedly strengthen the connection with their clients and attract new ones as a result. A new differentiator? I think so.

Johnny Shearman is head of knowledge and legal services at Signature Litigation and is a recommended lawyer in The Legal 500 2022 for banking litigation: investment and retail.