12 June 2019

What do you mean you're not a Lawyer?!

Evolving! The Role of 'Non-Lawyers' in Legal Firms

Non-lawyers. The affectionate and loving term we use for those members of a law firm without a law degree. You might be a gifted IT specialist or you might be a super savvy financial advisor. Whatever. It doesn’t matter to us. We’ll just call you “non-lawyer” and be done with it.But – surprise, surprise – calling these employees ‘non-lawyers’ does them a massive disservice. Defining them purely in the negative not only dismisses their talents but also suggests that only those in the firm with a law degree do any meaningful work. Which, if they stopped swaggering around admiring their own superior qualifications, lawyers might realise is a big mistake.

Because look around! Change is afoot.

Lawyer life as we know it is going to look very different, very soon. Clients are demanding more from firms, and at cheaper rates. Technology is radically transforming how we do things and competition is on the rise.

So you need an edge. No, we don’t mean a quirky hat and a tattoo. We mean a diverse workforce. People with a range of skills from a range of backgrounds coming together. United by a common vision. A beautiful alliance of talented workers, ready to take on the world. Or something.

Plus, did we mention the number of students enrolling in law school is plummeting? So you don’t actually have much choice.

Non-lawyers have actually been working in firms for a long time now – as secretaries, receptionists, and the like. But now joining the ranks are roles like pricing director, non-lawyer business development roles, sales roles, and Chief Financial Officers. The latter in particular play a major part in shaping a firm’s future.

Then there are those roles that involve technology. A Litigation Support Professional, for example – or an ‘e-discovery professional.’ Both terribly un-catchy names for a terribly important role. Litigation Support Professionals bridge the gap between a paralegal and technology role, helping identify, preserve, and manage electronically stored data. They often have a top degree in computer science from a top university – whizz-kids, basically, coming to the aid of luddite lawyers everywhere.

Because running a successful legal practice requires more than just amazing lawyers. Knowledge and expertise are good, yes, but what about understanding commerce and competition? What about communicating with clients? What about marketing? What about managing inter-team dynamics? What about installing the latest version of a painfully complex piece of cloud software? You’d better not look to the lawyers for that.

And what about the current buzzword in the legal press? 

The new role that’s all the rage…The Legal Project Manager.

Erm, sorry?

To put it in its most jargony form, legal project management is a process of defining the parameters of a matter, planning how it will take shape, managing it, and, finally, evaluating how successfully it was handled.

More simply put, a legal project manager sets out to make processes more disciplined, systematic, clearer, and to encourage better communication. Doesn’t that sound appealing?

But until recently, legal education didn’t include formal training in project management and only minimal training in business management. Plus, lawyers are instinctively opposed to what LPM stands for: process compliance, accountability, trust, delegation, communication, and standardisation. It’s not exactly a picnic in the sun, is it?

But for clients – wary of being overcharged and of the increasingly common occurrence of write-offs – LPM really is fun. They are told exactly how much a project will cost and lawyers have much less leeway for overstepping the budget.

Furthermore, malpractice insurers have identified the common causes of claims to be failure to communicate, failure to explain risks and costs, failure to manage expectations, and failure to document. Guess what? These are all the things LPM can prevent. Studies show implementing LPM leads to more matters delivered on time and on budget, better communication between the firm and client, greater efficiency, and reduced spending. This means new and better client relationships for the firm – and much less stress. Everyone’s a winner, basically.

What’s more, in both the UK and US, non-lawyers are also now running law firms.

Don’t freak out! We know you hate this idea. But it makes sense. Why would a lawyer, trained purely in law, know anything about project management, business development, innovation, knowledge management, or really anything else apart from law? A business professional should be in charge of the business elements of a law firm, leaving the lawyers to do what they do best. Keeping their time free to do lawyer stuff is more efficient and more economical.

And there are plenty of examples of non-lawyers who are successful CEOs of major law firms. There’s Paul Eberle, CEO of Husch Blackwell and former entrepreneur and business owner. There’s Scott Green, Global Chief Operating and Financial Officer for Hogan Lovells, former CEO of Pepper Hamilton, with an MBA from Harvard University and who is a Certified Public Accountant. And finally, Justin Kan, CEO of Atrium, an Internet entrepreneur and investor.

Ok, you’re thinking. I’ll accept a non-lawyer as a CEO. Just as longer as they don’t go anywhere near the partnership. Anywhere but the beloved, sacred partnership!

And of course, in most cases, a firm’s equity partners are lawyers. In fact, in the US, regulations state that only lawyers can be equity partners. And although the British legal industry has been liberalized somewhat with alternative business structures now allowed, the level of outside investment in law firms since these reforms still remains relatively low.

But the current partnership model is deeply problematic. Here’s why…

Firstly, as partners pull all profits at the end of each year, no revenue is left for research and development. Which means no planning for the future. Which means, to be blunt, bad business.

Next, let’s face it. Being a partner sucks. There’s very little of the prestige and autonomy you were promised. You’re still subject to billable-hour requirements – as well as having to labour to bring in new business, organise your subordinates, and do lots of tedious management jobs to boot. But you invested all that money so you can hardly leave. You’re trapped!

No wonder fewer associates are interested in becoming partners. As Jordan Furlong writes on the Law21 Blog, it seems “the partnership model for law firms…has run its course.”

But without investment from lawyers, where will law firms get their capital? Where will they find investors?

Well, look who it is. Once again, riding in on their white horses to save the day. Yes, you’ve guessed it. It’s the non-lawyers.

Because looking for investment from more diverse sources makes total business sense. Making non-lawyers equity partners offers the opportunity to revive the partnership model. Not only that, but wouldn’t lawyers trust a non-lawyer CEO more if said CEO had a stake in the business?

But, naturally, law firms are struggling to swallow all this.

As Sterling Strategies writes, while the role of non-lawyers is becoming increasingly critical, “it is currently an area in which many otherwise sophisticated law firms fail miserably.”  It seems, as Bruce MacEwen writes in Growth is Dead, “lawyers are inclined to assume they can do anyone else’s job but no one else could possibly do what they do.”

But there’s no denying it. Word’s out now and non-lawyers are about to have their time. Very soon we’ll need people trained in all fields – from engineering to information technology, from psychology to marketing. To work together with lawyers to create a firm that is far more efficient, innovative, creative, and successful.

And what will we call non-lawyers when their day finally comes? We’re not sure yet. But it better be good. They’re watching.

Cora Harrison, June 2019