The Practice Support Lawyer—An Endangered Species?

This week 3 Geeks and a Law Blog offered three posts by guest blogger Ian Nelson, of Practical Law Company, on the role of practice support lawyers, or PSLs, in the U.S. The third in the series appeared yesterday; they’re all available here. (Ian’s a former colleague. Yo, Ian!)

Here’s where Ian ends up:

The PSL role should be less about creating standard, or generic, resources, and more about focusing on firm-specific materials and expertise.  The ideal situation is for firms to outsource the standard materials, for PSLs to focus on firm-specific materials and expertise and for technology to provide the most efficient way to search for and categorize the content.

I basically agree with him, but here’s my own spin on it.

In recent weeks I’ve noticed some one-upmanship online regarding what occupation is most likely to be toast in this brave new economy of ours. My entry in this sweepstakes is the foot-soldier PSL, to the extent that such a person exists in the U.S.

Law firms have generally been drastically inefficient in how they handle deal work, endlessly reinventing the wheel when doing research and creating deal documents. (I speak only of transactional work, as that’s all I know.) Historically, they’ve been able to pass along the costs of that inefficiency, but when it becomes a bit much, they look for efficiencies. Hence PSLs.

PSLs have long had a prominent role in the U.K., where their role has been, as Ian says, “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.” They’ve also been a fixture at Canadian law firms. By contrast, for various cultural reasons they’ve been thin on the ground in the U.S., where it’s not always clear that they serve a distinct function, as opposed to simply doing deal work at a lower billing rate.

If you consider the U.K. notion of a PSL, less inefficient doesn’t necessarily mean efficient. Any English law firm with a big squad of PSLs was still reinventing the wheel; it had simply shifted that work to lower-cost workers. That became untenable in the Great Recession, and the axe fell on PSLs. As Ian notes, “It made little sense for every firm in town to dedicate expensive employee time to creating essentially the same exact resources.” Various lower-cost alternatives to PSLs have presented themselves in the form of technology and outsourcing, and that shows no sign of slowing down.

That doesn’t leave much for PSLs. In the U.S., it may be that we’re swinging quickly from an environment that was so tolerant of inefficiency that PSLs weren’t necessary to one where efficiency is sufficiently valued that using PSL isn’t efficient enough. I think that the notion of big U.S. law firms having a cadre of PSLs is an idea whose time has gone before it every really came.

But Ian says that the role of PSLs is growing in importance in the U.S., and he notes that at least three major firms are looking for PSLs. So, do we disagree? I don’t think so. It depends on what you mean by “PSL.” Ian says, “The ideal PSLs are senior attorneys who are known and respected by their practice group that act as knowledge brokers and thought leaders.” That doesn’t sound much like the old U.K. notion of PSLs. Instead, it sounds to me more like knowledge management.

I’m sure that possible encroachment by a new breed of PSL won’t help the identity crisis that, to this outsider, seems endemic in law-firm KM.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.