The “non-lawyer” gap in law firms: narrowing or widening?

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I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several groups of law firm professionals this summer, principally in presentations to the Private Law Libraries Summit at the American Association of Law Libraries and the International Legal Technology Association’s annual conference. In these venues, I’ve spoken to and heard from law librarians, knowledge managers, IT professionals, training and recruitment specialists, HR chiefs, and other “non-lawyers” who keep law firms ticking along while the lawyers are out bringing in revenue.

These people, as you’ll know if you’ve spent much time with them, are smart, highly credentialed (sometimes more so than the lawyers for whom they work) and very good at getting things done. Yet they’re frequently frustrated by their inability to get lawyers to notice them, acknowledge their priorities, and act on them. They keep running into the same familiar responses (sometimes explicit, more often implicit) from lawyers:

  • “I don’t really understand what you do.”
  • “I don’t highly value what you do.”
  • “We can’t afford to do that right now.”
  • “You don’t bring in revenue; you’re just a cost center.”
  • “You’re not a lawyer.”

The first four of these objections can all be met and overcome, so long as the professional staff have enough time, energy and resilience, and if they can find a champion on the partnership committee (or better yet, with a key client) who will campaign for their interests. The “cost center” response is a tough nut to crack, but even that hurdle can be cleared if the professional’s work can be integrated into revenue-generating activities or quantified by calculating its replacement value to the firm. Most lawyers do appreciate the business side of their practice, if dimly, and can be led to a more illuminated perspective on it with time and patience.

That fifth objection, however, is usually the killer. It taps into lawyers’ deeply rooted cultural distinction between lawyers and “non-lawyers,” between those whose opinions merit a default level of respect and attention and those whose opinions do not. Virtually every lawyer falls into this pattern, even the good ones who treat “non-lawyers” thoughtfully and well. It’s a class distinction that’s bred in the bone: law students’ natural affinity for exclusivity and elitism is encouraged in law school and exacerbated by prolonged exposure to the practicing bar. As I’m fond of saying, this isn’t a bug in lawyers’ personalities: it’s a feature.

My view, slightly cynical as it might be, is that the “non-lawyer” distinction is the main reason why professional staff have such difficulties getting their work and their perspectives taken seriously. It explains why the same internal initiative, when championed by a lawyer, makes far more headway among the partners than when even the most highly experienced and credentialed non-lawyer makes the case. It echoes my own experiences: I’ve encountered lawyers who initially greet my opinions with skepticism or hostility suddenly warm to my perspective when they learn that I’m a lawyer. That shouldn’t matter — arguments should be judged on their merits, not on their source — but for many lawyers, it does.

These cultural blinders damage both law firms’ effectiveness and lawyers’ profitability. “Non-lawyer” professionals can do (and have done) amazing things in law firms, if the lawyers only let them. Sadly, another belief to which many lawyers subscribe is that they’re innately better qualified to make decisions about areas outside their expertise than are the professionals they hired to handle this work. I often marvel at the patience and professionalism of law firm staff who are repeatedly second-guessed and overruled by people less qualified than they are. “Non-lawyers” have been second-class citizens in most law firms almost from the day of their founding, and all the C-Suite titles bestowed upon “non-lawyer” professionals can never entirely forgive their original sin of lacking a law degree.

Before meeting with these groups over the summer, I had held out some hope that the situation might be improving, that lawyers who needed to focus on improving their profitability might become more willing to grant more resources and autonomy to their “non-lawyers.” However, after listening to what’s been happening in their workplaces, I’m starting to wonder if the opposite might be true.

I heard a number of non-lawyer professionals at ILTA ask about whether they should invest in a law degree — not to further their careers, but to protect them.  These people have seen growing encroachment on “non-lawyer” territory by unemployed and underemployed lawyers, and they believe that applicants for “non-lawyer” positions with J.D.s hold an enormous advantage over those without. Indeed, I spoke with one law firm partner whose firm plans to convert underutilized lawyers into full-time knowledge managers. It’s obviously a very small data set, but it suggests to me that law firms might finally be preparing to deal with lawyers’ neglect of non-lawyer issues. But not by getting their lawyers to take the non-lawyers more seriously — by placing lawyers into traditional “non-lawyer” positions.

This strategy, if it unfolds, would have several benefits from the firm’s perspective:

  • It would make good use of lawyers who otherwise don’t have enough work to keep them busy, a growing problem in many firms that have seen business go slack and hours fall off.
  • It would help postpone decisions about ending these lawyers’ careers with the firm — it’s much easier to fire a staff person than it is to lay off a lawyer, and you might need the lawyer again when business picks up.
  • It would bring a dose of “lawyer knowledge” to traditional “non-lawyer” roles (don’t underestimate the premium that lawyers place on legal knowledge as an all-purpose contributor of value).
  • It would ensure these positions and their priorities will be treated more seriously and more quickly by the partnership, because lawyers will naturally pay more attention to one of their own than to a “non-lawyer.”

Along with these anticipated benefits, of course, would come some downsides.

  • Lawyers are still more expensive than non-lawyers, so the firm would be paying more for these positions than it currently does (although still less than the lawyer would make if he or she were in practice).
  • Inside the “lawyer bias” can be found another bias, this one held by lawyers who generate revenue against lawyers who don’t (“You’re not a real lawyer,” etc.), which could continue to limit the degree to which partners take these issues seriously.
  • “Non-lawyers” provide unseen and unappreciated (by lawyers) diversity of thinking and perspectives to law firms — very few situations have been improved by increasing the population density of lawyers in the vicinity.
  • This stuff that the “non-lawyers” do? It’s actually not as easy to pick up as you might suppose it is.

I don’t think that sending lawyers in to do “non-lawyer” jobs would be the way to a more effective and profitable firm. I’d be far more inclined to make better use of the “non-lawyers” that firms currently employ: give them more resources, grant them more leeway, get them more training, and upgrade the quality and reach of their contributions to the firm. Most importantly, pay attention to what they have to say, and make it your default position to accept their recommendations if they’re sensible and practical. You hired these people; you might as well use them to the best of their abilities.

I don’t know if law firms are really heading in this direction — I’d welcome your own eyewitness reports from the field. But knowing lawyers and their tendency to believe they’re usually the best solution to most problems, it wouldn’t surprise me either. And it would be a mistake. “Non-lawyers” are poised to become the rule more than the exception in the legal services market; law firms should be finding ways to gather them close, not drive them away.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.

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9 Responses to “The “non-lawyer” gap in law firms: narrowing or widening?”

  1. Toby Brown

    Sadly, I think you are right in your assessment Jordan. For your ‘”downside” list I would share this analogy.

    Would you deploy an under-utilized architect as a plumber? Why not? They know a lot about the design of a building and are obviously smarter and more educated than the plumber. They can easily “pick up” plumbing skills.

    Go ahead and use the architect in this role. But next time you use the ‘facility’ beware the mismatched pipes.

  2. Mark Gould

    I think you are right (and I love Toby’s analogy too). I suspect that there is something else going on as well.

    In a couple of the instances of ‘replace non-lawyer with lawyer’ that I have witnessed, where the lawyer in question has been a partner, it has been justified by reference to the need to ensure that partners are better engaged with the critical management activities of the firm. For years, people have complained (rightly) about the fact that lawyers are not necessarily suited to management. That complaint is partly explained by the fact that many lawyers get no management experience until too late. I can understand that (alongside the reasons that you identify) firms might want to take advantage of an over-supply of lawyers to try and fix the problem of lawyers without management experience. But I think they are misguided if they expect an overall improvement.

  3. Grace Carr Lee

    Well said.

    And in what other profession is someone called a “NON” anything?

  4. Jordan Furlong

    Excellent point, Grace. This is a long-standing peeve of mine — I linked my first “non-lawyer” reference above to a previous post on that very subject. I should have been more explicit about my dislike for the term, though, and included the actual excerpt. Here’s what I said then:

    =================

    “When we say, as Mr. Weber and others say, that lawyer-run law firms are better and more admirable and more desirable than firms run by non-lawyers — what exactly do we mean by that?

    “What we mean, of course, is that we’re better. We have higher ethical standards, better behavioural norms, more high-minded professional concerns than everyone else. That’s what the overused term ‘non-lawyer’ really means, doesn’t it? We’re the only profession I can think of that divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘not us’ — have you ever heard of ‘non-plumbers’ or ‘non-nurses’? We do this because we really believe, in our hearts, that there are two types of people — lawyers and everyone else — and we are certain that we’re the wiser, nobler, and more responsible segment.

    “That’s why we’ve never been able to come up with a better term than ‘non-lawyer’ — it’s because we don’t need to. It’s perfect. It says everything we believe about ourselves.”

  5. Windy Brown

    I am a licensed lawyer and have held senior administrative positions in AMLAW 200 firms. I found that the value of my degree/license was limited by the pervasive view that I was somehow “lesser” than my attorney peers because I had chosen not to practice. Now, obviously not everyone thought that way or I would not have gotten the jobs I did. However, just having the degree won’t help…
    Nowadays in the tech world, they have decided that they want lawyers who have practiced for 5-10 years, because they are “real” lawyers. Can anyone tell me how someone who has practiced for 5-10 years is up to speed on any specialty other than their practice specialty? And, when it comes to IT and E-discovery, knowing the law has nothing to do with knowing how to handle technology or manage a project or department.
    I never cease to be amazed (or saddened) by how we as a profession manage to shoot ourselves in the collective feet.

  6. Nina Platt

    I have been a “non-lawyer” working in law firm libraries and in law firm knowledge management (KM) for most of my adult life and I can’t tell you how much I’ve disliked being a negated and excluded being.

    I’ve all but given up on knowledge management because even though I’ve been working in a KM role since 1986 and wrote the first article posted on the web in 1996 – and many since – about legal KM, I am not seen as an expert by lawyers whether they be those lawyers who manage their firms or those who are knowledge managers with law degrees.

    I’ve considered getting a law degree but have always come to the conclusion that the payback would be minimal since I am not interested in practicing law. If someone asked me if they should get a law degree to work within a KM capacity within a law firm, I would recommend against it unless they have the funds to invest in a degree that might, just might, but then again, might not give them a higher status in the eyes of the lawyers in their firms.

    I don’t think all is lost for those individuals who have been hired to professionally manage a firm. That is, if the firm they are in has a managing partner and managing committee that treat them professionally. I was lucky to be at a firm at one time that had 2 managing partners, consecutively, who allowed their professional managers to manage the firm.

    The sad point came when the 3rd consecutive managing partner during my employment was appointed who treated all “non-lawyers” with distain and treated the professional managers, who had had significant impact on the success the firm enjoyed, with high disregard. By the end of his tenure as managing partner, the firm had slipped off the AmLaw 100 list along with other troubles.

    My conclusion, after having spent way to much time in law firms, is if a firm has lawyers in leadership positions who respect their administrative leaders, lets them do the job they were hired to do, and broadcasts their respect for these leaders and the rest of their administrative and support staff to the firm, the rest of the lawyers in the firm (for the most part) will behave the same way.

  7. Nicholas Varzandeh

    I completely agree with all the points in Jordan’s post, as well as all the comments – especially, Toby Brown’s architect/plumber analogy.

    I have held a variety of non-lawyer positions in AmLaw 100 firms since 2000 – project management, knowledge management, IT consulting, CRM/marketing technology leadership, and process improvement. Non-lawyers, if well-credentialed, deeply experienced, and with the willingness to serve as trusted advisers to the firm’s lawyers, are far more ideally suited to professionally manage the business of a law firm. I won’t repeat Jordan’s points or the points raised in the comments, but make the following observations regarding non-lawyer professionals, which I have frequently witnesses over the years:

    1. Non-lawyers (including those at the C-level and director level) are sometimes not knowledgeable and experienced enough for the roles that they hold (e.g., knowledge management, IT leadership, business development, finance & pricing, support staff management, etc.). Some of these professionals have been assigned to these roles, merely by default or by virtue of long tenures with the firms.

    2. Some non-lawyers do not always have the agility or willing or credibility (or sufficient respect from the lawyers) to serve as trusted advisers and diplomat, and to persuasively communicate the value of professional staff or the value of the functions and initiatives of administrative business departments.

    3. Some non-lawyers (C-level, directors, senior managers), after having spent many years in the industry, tend to exhibit similar behaviors (similar to lawyers) in inhibiting the empowerment of their professional staff members in their business units, clear definition and effective communication of the value of business functions, and organizational change.

    This post and the follow-up comments have reminded me of the following two relevant posts by Sean Larkan:

    Why law firm support service groups don’t add value, and how to fix this
    http://www.legalleadersblog.com/2012/05/21/why-law-firm-support-service-groups-dont-add-value-and-how-to-fix-this/

    Support your senior managers – or they will struggle to realize their potential
    http://www.legalleadersblog.com/2012/06/03/support-your-senior-managers-or-they-will-struggle-to-realise-their-potential/

    Thanks again, Jordan, for the post!

    –Nicholas

  8. Lona

    A great commentary! As a law librarian having worked in the largest law firms, a parallel issue being discussed is that the library has to promote itself more. Going back 25 years, I never agreed with this, and currently, I still do not. We promote our services, databases trained on and research skills. I have known librarians with additional Master’s degrees (other than a MLS) or doctorate degrees, and still not academically acknowledged by the firm or its attorneys. The culture is endorsed by professional organizations, and law school. Change is very slow in law firms and resistant by many.

  9. Valentino Buoro

    Interestingly the dichotomy between “them “ and “us“ is not peculiar to the legal profession. I am a Nigerian and an Attorney. Before my entry into the legal profession, I worked as a trained journalist in a Newspaper Group. Journalists always had challenges with their non journalist managers because these managers did not understand the peculiarities, needs and interests of the journalists. While the non journalist managers busied themselves trying to cut costs, which they did not in truth understand, the editors who approved the bills and their reporters, saw the managers as busy bodies and cost centers who are set to bring down the newspaper business sustained by editorial activities. I suppose a way around it for any frustrated law firm manager is to undertake a certificate course in paralegal studies. Undoubtedly there is a peculiarity to every profession or calling and only the initiates understand these . Or why do you think judicial authorities recognize customs of a trade?

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