Ask many client-facing solicitors and partners across the country how they perceive a professional support lawyer’s (PSL) role, and they’re still likely to turn up their noses. For them it is a ‘softer’ approach to legal work, limiting exposure to the cut and thrust of core client work and watering down their legal work with administrative or support tasks.
Yet while some would suggest that to work as a PSL indicates a lack of ambition and a desire for a comfortable nine-to-five existence, the contrary could also be argued.
For while the origins of the PSL role lie in female fee-earners looking to cut hours in pursuit of a better family life, the role now offers solicitors the option of building broader business experience in management rather than the relatively narrow confines of their legal specialism.
Typically, the PSL will be tasked with an array of marketing, training and business development work. Where once this was an opportunity for partners to dump their administrative tasks, it now allows this new species of lawyer the opportunity to acquire thought leadership of their department and, collectively, their firm.
To look briefly at the different roles the modern PSL performs confirms this theory. Their marketing work is tailored towards improving understanding of both the work their practice achieves internally and promoting their successes to potential clients, in association with their firm’s marketing staff.
They are responsible for the training of lawyers in the department – be it ensuring the availability of information through a ‘know how’ scheme, the organisation of seminars, improving their negotiation skills or even items as varied as litigation sales training or polishing up their grammar.
A PSL is frequently asked to audit the quality of a department’s work – from the way it deals with its clients to the effectiveness of its documents – and often takes the lead in investigating new systems, processes and trends that could improve their firm’s work.
Throw in their intelligence-gathering and involvement in client relationship management, and it appears that the PSL is effectively performing the managerial aspects of a partner’s role, without the distraction of fee-earning work.
It is not necessarily an incorrect comparison. Historically, wages for PSLs lagged behind their fee-earning colleagues by between 10 and 15 per cent. It is indicative of their enhanced role and status within a firm that that gap has now largely disappeared.
Similarly, PSLs are now being seen increasingly as specialists within larger firms – be it neo-academic types who will enhance the knowledge base across a department or dedicated managers who can add value in IT or in strategic roles.
It comes as little surprise, then, that several City firms have recognised the value in assigning responsibility for the way their business is run to this group and have promoted PSLs to their partnership.
Perhaps it is a sign of the increasing awareness of corporate governance in law firms that responsibility for the running of a practice is not necessarily given to its best litigator or key rainmaker. The benefits for both firm and employee are notable: the ability to mix legal and wider business work is clearly of immense appeal to both.
In a market in which firms are increasingly accepting the value of allowing non-fee-earners influence in their business, the stock of the ambitious PSL can only rise. Which means the nine-to-five prejudices of their fee-earning colleagues will become yet further misplaced.
Sue Eccleston is head of learning and professional development at