PSLs – an evolving role
Two professional support lawyers describe how their roles have changed, and explain why a new Scottish Association of Litigation Support Solicitors has been set up to discuss matters of common interest
Lynda and Catherine renewed a student friendship when they met again this spring at the inaugural meeting of the Scottish Association of Litigation Support Solicitors (SALSS), a group set up by litigation professional support lawyers (PSLs) from firms across Scotland to discuss matters of common interest. Both had pursued careers as litigators, Catherine specialising in personal injury law and Lynda specialising in construction law. Both decided, about 13 years ago, to become PSLs at a time when the role was just beginning to be recognised in Scotland. When they started out, their roles were very traditional – keeping a bank of precedents and making sure that training took place on a regular basis. However, both have seen their work evolve in ways that neither of them could have anticipated. Both are convinced that there has never been a better time for litigation support lawyers to work together for the benefit of their respective firms.
What do professional support lawyers do?
Both: The first meeting of SALSS demonstrated that while the members come from a diverse range of firms, we have a great deal in common: our enthusiasm for the law, knowledge management, training, reform, and managing change. We all perform slightly different roles, with some PSLs focusing on precedents, current awareness and training, and others on advising their teams or managing projects. Some are engaged on internal facing work, while others provide external communications for clients. Some do a mixture.
Lynda: Basically, I have a great job! I am a member of two very different teams. One is the Construction & Projects team at Burness Paull. As their PSL, I have a very wide role which includes advising and supporting the team on new or complex areas of law, training and mentoring other lawyers, managing projects, and training clients. The other is the PSL team, a large team of nine PSLs. The size of the team reflects the importance which the firm places on knowledge management and training. We are all senior, experienced lawyers who work in our own specialist teams but collectively take on responsibility for knowledge management in the firm as well as training, which is no mean feat.
Catherine: I am also passionate about my job – no two days are the same. I head a small team providing professional support to over 200 fee earners across Digby Brown’s seven offices. As well as the more “traditional” elements of professional support, such as providing legal updates and coordinating the firm’s training programme, I am now involved in more managerial roles – I help to develop practice policies and procedures to ensure consistency across the firm. I am part of the firm’s Risk group and I am currently managing our GDPR compliance project. I see professional support as fulfilling a significant role in providing a central point of contact to encourage the sharing of knowledge and best practice. Attitude is also crucial. To be effective as a PSL, you have to want to support others and you need to have a proactive approach to identifying tasks that will make life easier for the fee earners and projects on which you can add value.
So what does a professional support lawyer add to a law firm?
Both: It is all about helping our teams, and our firms, to work more efficiently and effectively which ultimately translates into profits. Working “smarter” is the objective.
Lynda: What I bring to the table has changed over the last 13 years. In the past it was writing case update bulletins and trying to maintain some precedents. But life – and technology – has moved on. In the construction sector, external providers can now provide current awareness more quickly and efficiently than I can. What I provide is bespoke – insight into how legal developments actually impact the advice we are giving clients. Lawyers are inundated these days with emails containing legal updates, bulletins and blogs. Legal knowledge has never been easier to access, but perversely it has become harder to distil all this knowledge into what we actually need to know or do. That is where I come in. Integrating legal knowledge with market awareness is what the team – and clients – want.
Catherine: A PSL can add enormous value. In SALSS the lawyers are all experienced litigators and I think that this background is essential as it means that we understand the pressure of managing a caseload and dealing with clients. This allows us to identify how best to support the teams we work with and focus on the type of support that is likely to be most useful. One of my priorities is making reliable information and resources readily accessible. I think PSLs also have a significant role to play in providing a link between the fee earners and other parts of the business, for example the IT team. Our role enables us to have input into firm wide initiatives and projects, as we have an overview of the ways in which the different aspects of the business work, which can be very valuable.
What do you call yourselves?
Both: A variety of terms are used. Some in the SALSS group are called professional support lawyers, while others are known as knowledge lawyers or practice development lawyers.
Lynda: While the terms vary, probably because of the way the role has evolved and expanded, the key point is that we are all lawyers. In the past, the words “fee earners” and “lawyers” were used interchangeably because all lawyers tended to be fee earners. That is no longer the case. Indeed, I think that we will increasingly see firms recognising the advantages of experienced lawyers who may not generate fees but can bring substantial benefits and value to the firm.
Catherine: I agree – what’s important is the value that we bring through the assistance that we provide. In the same way as it can be difficult to explain concisely what PSLs do, it isn’t easy to find a single name which neatly encapsulates all aspects of our role! I think it is also important that we don’t allow ourselves to be “undersold”, though, as there is a temptation to see the role as somehow less significant than fee earning, which is far from the case. A good PSL should be seen as integral to the teams he or she supports, and the experience and knowledge that the PSL provides allow the fee earners to work more efficiently and therefore more profitably.
What does the future hold for professional support lawyers?
Both: The possibilities are endless.
Lynda: PSLs manage knowledge and change – and there is no shortage of either. We are all advising clients in a rapidly evolving legal system. The Scottish Law Commission is firing on all cylinders! Keeping up to date with changes in the law is not an easy task, and that is before we even get started on the impact of Brexit. There is, and will continue to be, no shortage of work for PSLs. Successful management of knowledge and change is now an art in itself – and firms need lawyers who specialise in this.
What does the future hold for SALSS?
Both: Litigators are facing a time of enormous change – not just as areas of the law change, but also as the way in which litigation is conducted develops. Technology is driving many of these changes. SALSS is an excellent example of how PSLs can come together and bridge the gap between knowledge and practice. Being part of the group will allow us to share good practice – and hopefully allow us to influence future discussion about changes.
Catherine: Significant changes lie ahead for litigators. It goes without saying that confidentiality is always respected, and there is no conflict in working together to ensure the new laws and processes work efficiently for the teams that we advise. In fact, by collaborating as a group, we can address common issues for the benefit of all and perhaps bring some influence to bear on how prospective changes are introduced. Some of the issues SALSS will be looking at are the Civil Online project; proposed changes in the civil court rules; and legislative changes including the Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Scotland) Bill, Third Party Rights (Scotland) Act, and the Prescription (Scotland) Bill.
Would you recommend a career as a professional support lawyer?
Both: Yes, absolutely. It is a job which is hugely fulfilling. You are at the cutting edge of legal developments, working out how they translate into practice.
There are opportunities to develop your career and these can be very flexible. Being a PSL can lead on to different senior roles within a law firm. Catherine became a partner at Digby Brown last year. Also, at Burness Paull, Lindsay Wallace (head of Knowledge & Risk and formerly a corporate PSL) became general counsel partner. Meanwhile, the importance of the role was recognised when Lynda was shortlisted as a finalist for Solicitor of the Year 2017 for her work in construction and engineering law.
Professional support lawyers play a vital role in law firms, one which is strategically important and highly valued by lawyers. It is an excellent career choice.
Lynda Ross is a professional support lawyer (Construction & Projects) with Burness Paull
e: firstname.lastname@example.org; t: 0131 473 5559
Catherine Hart is a partner and professional support lawyer with Digby Brown
e: Catherine.Hart@digbybrown.co.uk; t: 0141 566 9578
Scottish Association of Litigation Support Solicitors
If you are a professional support lawyer and are interested in joining SALSS, please contact Russell Eadie, Senior Solicitor, Professional Practice, The Law Society of Scotland, Atria One, 144 Morrison Street, Edinburgh, EH3 8EX
t: 0131 226 8893; e: RussellEadie@lawscot.org.uk