Business of Law

Law firms turn to nonlawyer experts to enhance practice and provide value

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Some firms are finding profits, and success, in relying on non-lawyer experts from other industries as a means of providing better services to their clients.

In a Tuesday story in the Legal Intelligencer, several firms have started utilizing “content experts” that have actual, real-world experience in the areas of the law a firm provides legal services for. For example, a Pennsylvania health law boutique, Saxton & Stump, works with doctors, nurses and others in the health care industry. More recently, the firm worked with a psychologist to help create a tool that can screen physicians who might be suffering from burnout.

“When you put these content experts, industry experts together in a room with our lawyers … you just create a better outcome, a better product,” firm CEO James Saxton told the Intelligencer. “What we were thinking about at a firm was the question of value.”

According to the Intelligencer, another firm with multiple offices in Pennsylvania, McNees Wallace & Nurick, has land-planning specialists in its real estate practice group, as well as engineers in its energy practice. “When you’re analyzing, for example, RFPs for the purchasing of electricity or natural gas, a law degree isn’t required. When you’re looking at land use planning maps or blueprints, that does not require a law degree to do that,” firm chairman David Kleppinger told the Intelligencer. “It’s a pretty clear line as to where the lawyer steps in and supervises and oversees the work.”

Kleppinger also noted that the model provides value for his clients, because billing rates for engineers and land use experts are closer to those of paralegals rather than attorneys.

Of course, utilizing non-lawyers is nothing new within the legal industry. However, as the Intelligencer points out, use of non-lawyer experts has largely been confined to certain areas, such as patent law and political lobbying. Besides the firms featured in the story, the Intelligencer points out that Goulston & Storrs has an architectural historian, Anne Adams, as part of its real estate group in Washington, D.C.

“The firms that are being innovative are getting the fact that there are other services they can offer a client to solve a problem,” said Susan Saltonstall Duncan, founder of Rainmaking Oasis, to the Intelligencer. Duncan, however, cautioned that the law firm structure, as well as restrictions on partnership, could constrain the use of non-lawyer experts. “They bump up against a ceiling … that’s usually where you see people get frustrated,” Duncan said.

Tom Clay of Altman Weil, meanwhile, told the Intelligencer that he’s seen mixed results from firms that use non-lawyer experts. He also said that, while he hybrid models were good for lawyers, they probably would not become the norm. “You should always be pushing work down to the lowest competent level,” Clay told the Intelligencer. “If you ask, what’s the lowest competent level … it might be a paraprofessional, it might be a lawyer who’s a contract lawyer or a part-time lawyer, or it might be a consultant.”

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