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

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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