Non-Lawyers: A Critical Success Factor for the Law Firm of the Future

by Sterling on December 5, 2013

Having great attorneys – well-trained, highly capable, hard-working and client focused – has long been a critical success factor for law firms.  Strategically, it has become basic table stakes for competing effectively in the legal industry, particularly among more sophisticated law firms (i.e., BigLaw and BigEnoughLaw).  The big change coming to the legal industry is the growing criticality of non-lawyers.  Yet, it is currently an area in which many otherwise sophisticated law firms fail miserably.

Think about it for a moment.  Where else (besides large and mid-sized law firms) do highly educated professionals get placed on such limited career paths, essentially for lack of a JD?  Furthermore, what is it about obtaining a JD that qualifies a person as an expert in information technology, project management, business development, process redesign, innovation, knowledge management or really anything besides the law and precedent?  As Bruce MacEwen astutely observed in his Growth is Dead e-book, “lawyers are inclined to assume they can do anyone else’s job but no one else could possibly do what they do.”

The very term “non-lawyers” is a peculiar construct of law firms.  And, at many firms it is used in a way that devalues, even marginalizes, professionals who are not lawyers by training and education.  Given the trends affecting the legal industry, especially the trends facing sophisticated law firms, those with a cultural predisposition that devalues so-called non-lawyers will be at a distinct disadvantage in the future.  Consider three examples where non-lawyers will be critical to success.

Responding to Macro-Level Trends

The most obvious arena in which non-lawyers will drive the success or failure of law firms is in response to the macro-level trends influencing the more sophisticated segments of the legal industry.  Richard Susskind’s book is called The End of Lawyers in large part because it foretells a future in which legal training and expertise are necessary, but insufficient for survival and prosperity.  More sophisticated law firms will be (are being) forced by clients and competitors to embrace technology, knowledge management, project management, lean process, and other management tools more common outside the legal industry.

Successfully adopting any of those management tools requires attracting great people – well-trained, highly capable, hard-working and client focused – whose professional training is grounded in engineering, information technology, organizational psychology, management, and other fields.  Their training and backgrounds will not include a JD or a background practicing law (with rare exceptions).  Even in cases where those functional managers do have a JD, it will not be instrumental to the contribution they make to the success of their law firm.

In short, winning law firms in the future will attract (and will highly value) professionals across a range of professional disciplines.  Attorneys will defer to the expertise these professionals bring to the table.  And, attorneys will collaborate effectively with those professionals to apply their expertise to the firm’s practice and its relationships with clients.

Business Development and Marketing

Over the past twenty years, marketing professionals have been gradually gaining credibility and respect in law firms.  Marketing and business development positions have been elevated within the management hierarchy and investment in the leadership positions appears to be rising.  However, there is a long way to go to fully capitalize on the expertise of marketing and business development professionals in law firms.

As long as powerful partners can push marketing and business development professionals (and their own partners) away from direct contact with select clients, the firm is at a disadvantage and at risk.  That risk includes the potential of losing the partner (and his/her clients) to a lateral move.  Frankly, partners who keep others away from “their clients” raise a number of red flags.  Beyond the risk of purely mercenary behavior on the part of a partner, a lack of broader contact risks the loss of the client relationship.  Studies demonstrate that clients with multiple partner relationships and/or that use multiple practice groups are much more likely to remain with a firm.  Further, that broader contact improves the probability that emerging and/or nagging problems (e.g., responsiveness, pricing, quality of work, etc.) will surface before a client shops their work to other law firms.

Looking forward, business development and marketing professionals will play an increasingly important role in a number of areas including:  gathering genuine, actionable client feedback; expanding existing client relationships (e.g., facilitating cross-marketing); identifying opportunities to deepen and strengthen existing relationships via process improvement, technology, pricing and other innovations.  Marginalize marketing and business development professionals at your own risk.

Delivering Cost Effective Legal Services

Perhaps the most challenging (or controversial) change coming to the legal industry is the inevitability of involving more non-lawyers in the direct delivery of client services.  That growing involvement of non-lawyers will go well beyond (though it will include) the use of paralegals over the next five to ten years.

Ask yourself a few questions (thought experiments if you will).  Who is a better value to clients in managing document discovery, a well-trained paraprofessional with expertise in IT, database searches and document management or an associate earning three to four times the salary (with less grounding in large scale document management)?  Can a $60,000 per year professional with a finance degree add value to a transactions team (perhaps many times more value than a junior associate)?  Can a trained actuary add value to risk management assessments for major litigation clients?

Certainly, some firms have already made great strides in the use of non-attorneys in the delivery of legal services.  For instance, the best IP practices and firms are loaded with PhD and Masters level technical specialists.  In the future, firms across the practice spectrum will be challenged to become much more creative in integrating non-attorney professionals into their client service teams.  That will be especially evident in practices where clients and/or competition drive the market toward more cost effective solutions.

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So, if your firm still has a culture that devalues non-lawyers – that doesn’t draw upon the knowledge and expertise of other professionals – you better get started on changing that culture.  No silver bullet (technology or otherwise) will save you in the long run if the only voices that matter in your law firm are attorney voices (or even more narrowly, partner voices).

{ 10 comments }

Amy Knapp December 6, 2013 at 11:22 am

Really a good article and a well-made point, John. I’ve shared the article on Twitter and LinkedIn with my network. Best, Amy

John Sterling December 6, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Thanks Amy. Glad you found it useful.

Milena Higgins December 6, 2013 at 2:42 pm

As one of those rare non-lawyers (a scientist) who stumbled into patent law in the mid-1990s and now working in a Knowledge Management role, I wholehartedly agree with this article. I think part of the resistence of lawyers hiring non-lawyers stems from situations where a professional from outside the legal industry is hired, not given training on how things work in the legal environment, and then ultimately “fails” because they don’t understand how things are done in our world. This is exactly why roles for non-practicing lawyers are growing. They get it. Part of the solution lies in training professionals hired from outside so that they can get it too. I think there is value in bringing professionals from outside the legal industry to help us learn new ways of doing things and spur innovation in the legal industry.

Phyllis Weiss Haserot December 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I agree with the article, and the issue is well stated. As a trailblazing consultant in business development and marketing for law firms since the mid 19u0’s who has advocated the roles of non-lawyers since the late 80’s, it is frustrating to see that we are still having the same discussions, although, yes, marketing folks are more respected and better paid. But other talent is need too, whether law firm employees or ancillary business activities – which I was an early proponent and chronicler of.

What is missing in the picture described in the article are two significant points: 1) the caste system in law firms has always existed among level of lawyers as well as lawyers vs. non-lawyers. Compensation and incentive systems have to change so lawyers don’t hoard clients and power and are willing to shift roles and let younger lawyers as well as non-lawyers with relevant talent/skills build close relationships with firm clients or “their clients.”

The savvy firm that wants to keep the best talent and be most effective and profitable in the long term will be open to collaboration of lawyers, non-lawyers, and all of the generations performing the roles that they are best for. It doesn’t take a lawyer and 20 years of experience or even 5 years for many things to be best at many roles required in a law firm. They have to be open to role shifting and giving respect to people who do shift roles and train and mentor others who would take their leadership place.

Chris Bull December 10, 2013 at 2:26 am

Very good piece John. I am a bit of an optimist today, after 17 years as a “non-lawyer” working with lawyers (and, hey, if I didn’t love it I wouldn’t stay around). In the UK the market is receiving a big shake-up post the Legal Services Act. I have illustrated that at a few conferences recently by using the tale of the first hires that a fictional (but definitely representative) new law firm would make. Faced with a choice of who to build the business from a highly skilled attorney, a web marketing expert, a financing and funding ace and a IT specialist able to deliver cloud based integrated legal systems they will always draft the lawyer last. Reason – the three others are, certainly in the legal market context, are incredibly rare and absolutely essential for success in the digital age. There are, however, loads of good lawyers out there. The firm will need them of course (although maybe not so many of them need to be qualified) but they probably won’t build a market beating business for you – the non-lawyers really could.

Legal IT Chap December 11, 2013 at 4:54 am

I am seeing IT as a real driver of success in UK law firms of all sizes: enabling compliance, productivity, cost cutting, improved client / internal communication … and all of these tools / skills are not ones that lawyers, what we call barristers and solicitors, are taught or knowledgeable about typically, so non-law associates and outsourced partners, we use http://www.rtwhosting.com , rather than having an in-0house team as we are only a small/medium sized firm and simply can’t keep up with technology otherwise

John Grimley December 13, 2013 at 10:14 am

excellent post. As it relates to marketing and BD roles. In my opinion, law firms are far, far behind the business development options which are available to them. Law firms can, in fact, create demand for their own services. This requires a sophistication few if any law firms now employ. Law firms also ought to place essentially all responsibility for business development in the hands of hybrid lawyer/business developers – capable of the entire “sales cycle” from identification of potential clients to new client signs. Cross-marketing should only take place in the case of a firm bringing commercially actionable opportunities to clients. A tiny fraction of law firms employ these types of professionals. Prospectively this discipline needs to be the center of all marketing and business development for law firms. Precision, sophisticated business development needs to replace in nearly all instances – inexact, generalist marketing.

Tony Harvin December 13, 2013 at 10:18 am

This is an excellent piece. A path many non-lawyers are utilizing to provide the leadership skills and business acumen needed to succeed in the industry and to advance their firm’s goals as well as their own professional careers is the graduate program in Law Firm Management ( http://cps.gwu.edu/law-firm-management) offered by The George Washington University College of Professional Studies. You should take a moment to review the program.

John Sterling December 13, 2013 at 10:48 am

Tony – Heard from Carl last night (perhaps you forwarded this to him?). Very impressed with what you folks are doing at GWU.

Amy Bowser-Rollins December 29, 2013 at 11:16 am

John – Thanks for writing this article. I am one of the non-lawyers that plays an integral part on the legal team (or so I believe). I have worked for large firms and small firms in my 30 year legal career. I work best with the attorneys that believe I add value to the process. I love working in litigation support and around litigators.

I also teach a Legal Technology course in the paralegal studies program at Georgetown University and I know that the students appreciate what they learn by the end of the semester because they send me emails describing how they apply what they learned. I love those emails!

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