Before starting work in a law firm, I’d never heard of professional support lawyers (PSLs). From day 1 of my training contract, it was clear that these founts of knowledge were interesting, interested, incredibly helpful and all-round golden individuals. PSLs generally won’t appear at your networking events or perhaps even feature heavily on vacation schemes or work experience, but they play an important role in legal practice, so let me introduce you to the role of a PSL having worked with and spoken to several over the past few months.
What is a PSL?
Before we deep-dive in, you should know that (particularly large law firms) have immense banks of knowledge and learning resources (knowhow) on their systems to keep lawyers up-to-date with current legislation, jurisprudence and market practice. Firms also have large banks of precedents – draft form documents which can go some of the way to producing a final version of a document. You then take a precedent, read around the matter you’re working on, applicable law and client instructions and use that contextual information to produce drafting which reflects the client’s aims and the circumstances of the matter.
“Who makes and maintains these core resources?” I hear you cry. Enter PSLs.
The role of a PSL is varied, but PSLs are specialist lawyers who maintain these resources and develop training and updates for lawyers and clients alike. PSLs answer technical legal queries too; I’m always excited if I’m asked to do some research or drafting and the instruction ends “If you don’t find an answer within an hour/half an hour/a couple of hours, call a PSL and ask them” – this is sure to be an interesting question without a simple answer (or else the more senior lawyer would most likely have known it themselves) and possibly without any answer. PSLs help practicing lawyers deal with such questions and develop approaches which address client needs whilst navigating any uncertainties in the law. Experts in their field, they add invaluable knowledge and importantly bring confidence to a team who often don’t share their expertise or have an equally detailed knowledge of precedents and knowhow.
How do you become a PSL?
As with many things in life, there are no hard-and-fast rules on how to become a PSL. PSLs are qualified lawyers and so will have studied either law or a non-law undergraduate degree plus a conversion course, the LPC and a training contract and usually have a few years qualified experience under their belt before moving across to their PSL role. Alternatively, you might meet PSLs who have more experience in firms, who continue to do some work as practicing lawyers as well as their PSL role and others who have taught law in universities and/or professional courses such as the LPC.
Where can you expect to see PSLs?
There needs to be a business case for PSLs, so they’re unlikely to appear in small practices. In the City, most medium-large firms would have PSLs in at least some of their practices.
What’s the difference between a PSL and a practicing lawyer?
As background, you should be aware that a law firm is divided into “fee-earners” and those who are not “fee-earners”. This language always makes me a little uncomfortable because I think it tacitly implies different value in work done by practicing lawyers compared to other roles in firms, so generally I’ll refer to “practicing lawyers” in this post – you can consider it synonymous with “fee earners”. The term “fee earner” is accurate and widely-used across the profession; practicing lawyers work on matters and can charge clients for that work (i.e. they earn fees for the firm, therefore are “fee-earners”). Practicing lawyers generally have an hourly-rate at which they charge clients for work on specific matters, meaning fee earners experience the joys of time recording. Secretaries, PSLs and other support staff help facilitate client work – as mentioned above PSLs will produce knowhow, guidance and expertise, and secretaries are heroes of billing, proofing, organisation and many many other aspects of work which make legal practice a seamless experience for all involved! These individuals will not charge for their time, they contribute to the overall service a law firm provides, rather than specific matters, therefore they are not “fee-earners”.
What does this mean on a day-to-day basis (aside from the fact that PSLs mostly escape the need to record their time!)? It means that PSLs will be less involved in client work, playing a predominantly behind the scenes role. As one PSL put it to me, the clients of a PSL are often the fee-earners at a firm. All of the above means that the role of PSL often invokes an image of more predictable working hours and a better work-life balance.
How do PSLs and practicing lawyers inter-relate and work together?
In addition to offering insight into matter teams, PSLs and practicing lawyers will work collaboratively when producing knowhow materials – the PSL having expertise in the law and experience of precedents and the body of material already available at the firm, and the practicing lawyer having first-hand experience of what’s market practice, how clients and counter-parties respond to certain approaches taken by lawyers and what works well from a practical perspective. Both PSLs and experienced practicing lawyers are a joy to listen to when speaking about their own expertise and experience – a PSL will have knowledge of technical legal positions and jurisprudence around a subject whilst a practicing lawyer will understand the business case for certain decisions clients make and what options are best suited to clients, as well as market practice. These two sets of experts will develop an open dialogue and co-operate to produce resources and consolidate and develop the knowledge of the other group. Together, this is really valuable because when you delve into knowhow, you’re tapping into the knowledge of experienced professionals first-hand and building your own experience and awareness through theirs.
Challenges and highlights of being a PSL
PSLs (as I hope you’ve already gauged from the above!) make a massive difference to practicing lawyers – they make work easier, more efficient and importantly give confidence that work is reliable and legitimate to achieve what practicing lawyers are aiming to do. Trading practicing law for knowhow-fuelled working does, however, mean (generally) waving goodbye to those champagne closings. By nature, a PSLs work is ongoing, to keep teams up-to-date and informed; whilst it lacks some of the sporadic shifts in workload which practicing lawyers experience, there may equally not be an easily identifiable milestone to celebrate. (Plus, the waves of practicing law and the late nights/weekends can generally be pretty exciting in my experience and some of the most rewarding work a practicing lawyer will do will be at antisocial times of the day (or night!)). PSLs will get a different kick from their work, perhaps without the thrill of late nights and tight deadlines, but PSLs get intellectually stimulating work which contributes much to the teams and firms they work with.
How to help PSLs
Especially as a junior lawyer, you want to help PSLs as much as possible, because they will most certainly be helping you lots as you get to grips with life in a law firm! As a junior lawyer, expect to get instructions like the one mentioned above to go away and do some digging and ask a PSL for help as and where necessary. Top tips to help PSLs when you go to them include doing some research and trying to find the answer yourself before reaching out. Remember that a PSL is a professional, an expert in their field. Their time and knowledge are super valuable so don’t waste these unnecessarily – have a go and bring something (even if just a list of what you’ve looked through previously) to the table and appreciate that they might be juggling several things when you approach them.
So, there’s an introduction to PSLs for you! Knowledgeable, helpful team members who contribute hugely to legal practice!