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PSLs: no poor relations

20 June 16

Professional support lawyers are relatively few in Scotland, but the role is becoming a rewarding and challenging career in its own right, with a potential that deserves wider recognition by employers

by Catherine Hart

Professional support is a topic that I am passionate about.

I have been a professional support lawyer (PSL) for nearly nine years and the PSL at Digby Brown LLP for almost two years, supporting more than 150 fee earners in seven offices across Scotland.

How the role developed

The role of PSL first emerged in London in the early 1990s when it was recognised that, with the increasing pressure on fee earners to make every chargeable hour count, there was a need for experienced solicitors who were not fee earners to support the fee earning function. The role is now very well developed south of the border, with larger firms having dozens of PSLs across the different departments and a separate career structure for their PSLs – it is not seen as unusual for PSLs and other legal professionals involved in knowledge management to reach the level of director or partner.

In Scotland, professional support took longer to catch on, but gradually PSLs were appointed, initially to support corporate and conveyancing teams, and probably the majority of PSLs in Scotland still work in those areas. There remain comparatively few in litigation – I doubt if there are more than 20 across Scotland – and even fewer in pursuer personal injury litigation. Digby Brown however saw a need for the role.

Originally, the PSL role was seen as one largely filled by women who, perhaps after having children, were looking for a less demanding, part time position. At that time there were fewer opportunities to work part time as a fee earner, and it was considered more acceptable to fulfil the professional support function on a part time basis. As a result, there was sometimes a perception that the role was a sidestep or dead end on the career path. However, this is certainly no longer the case, as professional support is widely seen as a viable career option. The role is often a full time one and many men as well as women pursue a career in this area. In addition, in my experience, a role in professional support can be just as demanding as one in fee earning, although the pressures may be different. Many PSLs regard the fee earners they support as their clients, and solicitors can be a very challenging client group!

Multi-skilled work

Those unfamiliar with the role should not be fooled into thinking that providing support is the same as fulfilling an admin function. It involves a great deal more than that and is very diverse – no two days are ever the same – but at its core is the provision of support to fee earners to allow them to work more effectively, and this usually centres around knowledge management in some form. It can be difficult to define what the “typical” role of a PSL entails, as much depends on the priorities and requirements of the particular practice area and its fee earners.

To be successful as a PSL, you have to be approachable and have excellent communication skills, have a strong desire to help people, and it is also important to be proactive in identifying areas where support is required and you can add value. Creativity is also necessary to come up with solutions which will work in practice.

Knowledge management (KM) is essentially the gathering and sharing of information in various forms. This can be formal knowledge such as briefing notes, research and case updates, or tacit knowledge, which is much harder to capture as it is gained through experience and so is more difficult to share. A significant part of the PSL role can involve promoting and maintaining a culture that encourages the sharing of knowledge and experience. The PSL will often be the link between different teams or departments, and plays an important role in ensuring that there is consistency of approach and that best practices are shared. Many PSLs will be responsible for maintaining a central knowledge bank which, to be of value, has to be constantly reviewed and developed so that fee earners can rely on the material as accurate and up-to-date.

Fee earners need to keep up-to-date with developments in their area of practice, but with full workloads this can be a challenge, and PSLs are often responsible for ensuring that fee earners have information about relevant case law, legislation and changes that affect them. This can take the form of a presentation at a team meeting or a regular written update. With the numerous sources of information available nowadays, the PSL’s role in reviewing the many legal alerts and publications to filter the information and identify the key points affecting their practice area can save fee earners valuable time.

The role is particularly valuable when there are significant changes in an area of practice, such as the recent civil court reforms and the introduction of the new system of land registration. A PSL can devote time to becoming fully familiar with important changes and provide invaluable guidance and support to help fee earners get up to speed as quickly as possible and so minimise the impact of significant changes in practice.

Training is another significant function of many PSLs; they will organise training sessions and may also deliver these. The PSL may well be responsible for deciding on the topics to be covered and sourcing speakers, both internal and external. In addition, they may assist fee earners to put together material for training and presentations.

The role of many PSLs will have client facing aspects. They may be involved in delivering training to clients or in contributing to tender documentation. With clients and potential clients looking for added value, many are interested in the professional support/knowledge management provision of their legal advisers, as a strong offering in this area not only shows the business as serious about ensuring that fee earners are kept up to date and have the necessary resources to support them, but is also seen as a valuable resource from which clients can benefit directly by having access to the services of the PSL and to material they have produced.

These are only some of the key aspects of practice that the PSL role may encompass. There are a myriad other tasks that can fall within a PSL’s remit, from carrying out research to creating and maintaining styles and providing a general “sounding board” for fee earners on day-to-day issues of practice.

Career development

Although professional support is a relatively new role in legal practice and, as yet, there are limited professional support roles north of the border, that does not prevent it being a viable career. Solicitors may be reluctant to apply for these roles because of concerns about the effect on their future career and progression, but taking on a professional support or KM role certainly does not have to mean stepping off the career ladder.

Practices which already have PSLs recognise the importance of the role, and some larger Scottish firms and those with a UK-wide presence already have specific career structures for PSLs/KM professionals.
I believe that the challenge for PSLs is to show that we can add value to the practice and become integral
to the success of the teams we support.

There is no doubt that this is not always straightforward. There is more emphasis than ever on fee targets and key performance indicators, but these are not measures by which a PSL’s value can be assessed. It is my experience that those involved in professional support have to have the desire and determination to make their own opportunities by looking for ways to add value to the business and become involved at different levels, not simply “behind the scenes”. Because of their role, PSLs are very well placed to have a broad perspective on the way the business is run. They are often involved in firm-wide initiatives such as IT projects, business development plans and the improvement of practice policies, and can add a valuable dimension to aspects of its management. In doing so, PSLs can establish their place as an integral and valued member of the business.

In order to be fully effective as a PSL, I think it is vital to have had some experience in practice. This is important as it gives the PSL a practical perspective on tasks, which definitely helps make the role more effective. The knowledge obtained in practice provides awareness of fee earners’ requirements and the pressures they are under. Fee earners may also be more likely to trust the opinion of someone from a similar background who has relevant experience.

The professional support role can also offer flexibility, as there is often scope to undertake it on a part time basis and it also lends itself to working at home, although spending time in the office is essential to maintain your profile among the fee earners.

Value recognised

Although PSLs do not generate fees directly, I would argue that theirs is a highly valuable role, and the fact that, although some PSLs were made redundant during the recent recession, many kept their jobs, appears to support this as practices recognised the value which PSLs bring in a non-fee earning role.

It seems clear that we will see the professional support role develop more widely in Scotland, and as a result there will be increased scope to develop it as a rewarding and challenging career option. As its importance grows, there will be increased opportunities for PSLs to shape their role. I hope that, in the not too distant future, many more practices across Scotland will be posing the question, not “Why do we need a PSL?” but rather, “How can we manage without one?”

Catherine Hart is an associate and professional support lawyer with Digby Brown LLP 

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