Law Practice

PSL or Passé? Job in UK May Be Technology in US

Posted Jul 1, 2011 2:10 AM CDT
By Richard Acello

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Depending on where you’re looking from, there may be a different brand of lawyer appearing on U.S. shores. Ian Nelson, a former attorney who is now vice president of business development and marketing for Practical Law Co. in New York City, sees anecdotal evidence of increasing use of PSLs—professional support or practice support lawyers.

It’s a position United Kingdom-based firms have used in the past, and some firms are bringing the job to their U.S. offices, Nelson says. “We’ve heard in the market that Clifford Chance and Freshfields are staffing up on PSLs in their New York offices. I also know that Davis Polk has a few PSLs.”

LIKE HAVING A MENTOR NEARBY

Professional support lawyers provide practice guides, up-to-date forms and other support that frees up transactional attorneys’ time. And they lessen the need for the young associate’s research all-nighter.

A PSL practice guide can be “like having a mentor sitting next to you, at your fingertips,” Nelson says, “leaving the lawyers on the case to do the value-added work.” For smaller firms, PSLs can help level the playing field, Nelson adds.

The job title may vary: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, with more than 60 such positions in its 2,500-lawyer firm, uses the title of knowledge management lawyer. And Nelson says that “many knowledge management people are being asked to ... also be responsible for the creation and maintenance of materials, so in essence they are putting PSL duties onto existing roles.”

But Americans like Kenneth Adams, a legal-writing expert and law school lecturer, question the value of the position, whatever it’s called. He says client demands for efficiency have already forced U.S. firms to find technological solutions to what PSLs provide.

Adams is founder and president of Koncision Contract Automation in Garden City, N.Y., which provides subscribers with substantive, up-to-date contract forms.

In a recent blog post, Adams wrote, “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.”

Nelson admits the U.K.’s approach to PSLs has been largely “human-centric,” while the U.S. approach has centered on technology. He believes the ideal solution is somewhere in the middle.

Virginia Flower is one of Freshfields’ knowledge management lawyers. Her duties include writing model documents and practice notes, generally written by more senior practitioners for junior members to point out the gray areas in the law. She’s also involved in training or mentoring younger lawyers.

Flower has been a lawyer since 1985 and a PSL since 1997, fitting in Nelson’s description of PSLs as having from five to 15 years of firm experience.

Adams suggests PSLs are “people who have been passed over in some respect” or are looking for a “less arduous time of it” at a firm. She says firms are interested in retaining PSLs “because they know the practice and can spot the emerging issues, and look over the parapet” at available strategy options.

Comparing PSL duties to those of traditional transactional lawyers, Flower says that “on balance, the PSL role is more enjoyable, because you’re dealing with interesting questions and have time to really think about issues.”

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