The rise of the ‘legal support-preneur’

By Jerome Doraisamy|25 February 2021
legal support-preneur

For a bounty of reasons – from underappreciation by employers to a desire for greater flexibility – support professionals in law firms are looking to consult externally, which may cause law firms to rethink how they engage with such experts.

One’s value to a law firm

Over 10 years ago, as a graduate lawyer at a global firm, Aidan Parsons (pictured, bottom-left) witnessed a trainee solicitor arguing with a legal secretary. A senior lawyer, also watching, said to him that “there would only be one winner” in the interaction.

The mindset, Mr Parsons told Lawyers Weekly, surrounded who would be more valuable to the firm: “some kid who is fresh out of uni, or someone who has been with the firm for 20-plus years and knows everything there is to know about the firm and its clients?”.

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“Watching inexperienced lawyers lecturing people about the ways of the world, while the 10+ PAE lawyer, who just happens to have taken on a non-fee earning role in the firm and is too polite to bring someone down a peg or two in public, sits there quietly nodding along, is cringeworthy. I’ve seen it more times than I’d care to recall,” he said.

“Firms that don’t appreciate that are going to lose good people, and it will come back to bite them.”

For as long as one can remember, Julip Advisory founder and beaton partner Kim Wiegand (pictured, top-left) muses, there have been two camps within law firms.

“Many firms have come to appreciate the expertise that certain support personnel bring, but in general there is still an undercurrent of fee-earner versus cost centre. For some firms during COVID-19, this became ever so apparent and perhaps intensified,” she said.

“I imagine it was challenging for support personnel, who traditionally earn less, when impacted heavily during COVID-19 whilst their fee-earning peers were not. Some firms, from top-tier to boutique, have still paused on support staff promotions and pay rises whilst progressing fee earner reviews. This simply intensifies the gap between the two groups and creates animosity, where there needn’t be any.”

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There remains a barrier, Lawganised founder and director Ben Deverson (pictured, bottom-right) said in agreement, to acceptance and perception of legal support professionals – something, he added, is also common in industries like accounting and engineering. Language, he said, is a contributing factor in this.

“The outdated label of ‘professional staff’ within firms needs to be deleted from the law firm dialect. Legal support professionals are therefore labelled ‘non-professional’ as a distinction between the practising colleagues. Whatever qualification a legal support professional attains, in my view, they are just as professional as the practising solicitors,” he argued.

Such attitudes are, of course, not the norm in every law firm. POPCOM founder and director Amanda Lacey (pictured, top-right) reflected that she hasn’t worked with any senior lawyer “who has thought of support as anything but essential, and we all know culture comes from the top”.

“I also know that when you are passionate about your job and confident about what you do, people treat you with respect. If a junior lawyer was to think that they are superior to support – or any individual within a firm, I feel like they would have a hard time holding down a job these days (rightfully),” she said.

“Growing unease”

According to Ms Wiegand, there is “definitely a growing unease” among legal support professionals, many of whom are now assessing their options outside of private practice roles. She herself has nothing but positive things to say about her former employer, McCullough Robertson, but noted that there are two main themes driving disquiet within the ranks of such professionals.

“First, there are senior professionals with fewer senior roles to progress into (career path ceiling), who also value a flexible lifestyle and quality and varied projects. And second, there are support personnel who are disgruntled at the growing gap between the value attributed to legal staff versus support staff. I understand that several firms did not manage the engagement and support of staff equally during COVID-19 and sometimes at the expense of the support professionals,” she submitted.

Working for medium- to large-sized law firms will always be attractive to some, said Mr Parsons, who is now the managing director of St Leger Brockman Legal Recruitment.

However, when working with such a business, he said one will “also get the red tape and politics that comes with an organisation of any significant size. A lot of big practices aren’t getting the best out of the absolute all-stars they have on their team, because they’ve got archaic views on who should and should not be able to interact with clients”.

But it’s not just workplace cultures that might be changing the ways such professionals want to work, points out Singapore-based Eva Hildebrand (pictured, bottom-middle), who is a member of the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership.

“Wellbeing and work-life-balance became equally important to a successful career path. I believe during the pandemic people and companies might have realised how easy it is to work from home. This might also have changed perspectives in terms of self-employment – at least that was the case for me,” she said.

Mr Deverson has also noticed what he calls the growing embrace of the vertical pillar strategy: “One of my initial considerations was that I considered my offering was a gap in the market that small-to-medium firms really needed and those firms that did not have the capacity or size to hire in house.”

“In the circumstances where legal support professionals lean towards doing their own thing, I do believe that limited career progression and development is a factor, particularly within the larger practices where senior professionals lead an internal function such as marketing, human resources or IT,” he said.

However, not all such professionals will be wanting to make the jump, Ms Lacey identified, noting that “there is a lot of safety in being an employee rather than ‘out on your own’ and I am sure other consultants or people wanting to become a consultant can see the same advantages”.

“Most firms have successfully navigated WFH and are aware of the need for flexibility for working parents. This is a great leap forward and negates some of the ‘need’,” she said.

Why legal support professionals choose to run their own businesses

The year 2020 – and especially COVID-19 – was a “circuit-breaker” for Ms Wiegand. “It made me reassess the career path I was on and whether it was sustainable for my family, or my own mental and physical wellbeing,” she said.

“Based on the market changes and firm focus, it became apparent that the career growth trajectory I was on pre-COVID had become less of a reality for the medium-term at least. As someone who admits to gaining significant self-worth from the value that I deliver to the firms I work with, this left me assessing whether the satisfaction I now got from my refocused inhouse leadership role, was worth sacrificing the precious time with family I had enjoyed throughout 2020.”

Mr Parsons also experienced a circuit-breaker, but of a different kind: “I was made redundant as things were really starting to kick off with COVID-19. As I wasn’t a permanent resident at that stage, losing my job meant that I also lost my work rights in Australia,” he recalled.

“It wasn’t a great time to be looking for a job, so I thought I might as well see where I got to by going it alone. My view was that I couldn’t really lose – if I set something up and it was a success, then I would have a great ‘founding story’ and could join the long list of successful businesses that were founded during a recession; and if it failed, well, it was the middle of a pandemic – of course it wasn’t going to work.”

It was, he said, a “free pass to try something out and a ready-made excuse to explain it away if it didn’t work. The real attraction for me was to have absolute control over the kind of work I took on and who I worked with”.

Mr Deverson and Ms Hildebrand both wanted to spread their wings, with the former saying that after years of working in senior management roles in law and accounting, he’d “developed an intimate understanding of the levers that these firms needed to push and pull to achieve great performance”.

Ms Hildebrand was writing and delivering business plans for others, and realised she should do one for herself: “Personally, I was looking for something with a purpose,” she said.

Flexibility is what was critical for Ms Lacey: “I’ve never been afraid of putting in the hours, I really love my work, but day care runs and commuting during peak hour was difficult. Professionally, I love that I get the opportunity to work on specific and high-impact campaigns and planning, without getting bogged down in the million other jobs marketing managers need to perform to keep the ship running. I also love that I get to work with high-calibre clients and get to know and work with new people.”

Benefits for such professionals

None of the professionals Lawyers Weekly spoke to for this story regretted going out on their own, for reason of the myriad advantages that come with such a set-up. For Mr Deverson, being able to learn new concepts and have greater autonomy are top of the list.

“Throughout the evolution of my business, my clients have asked me to assist in many and varied ways, some I have never encountered before. As a result, I have researched and investigated new and different disciplines, such as personality profiling, psychology, consumer behaviour and counselling to name a few,” he said.

“And, of course, the autonomy of owning your own business means you are in control of your agenda and means I can dedicate my efforts to the things that matter the most to my clients, including dropping everything with five minutes notice and flying to another city to support a client with a tough issue.”

For Ms Lacey and Ms Wiegand, having flexibility to look after young children was essential.

“To be able to work at a high capacity, I have built my own team (I have two full time employees) the way I have wanted to build it. I really enjoy that business development side of my work and I am not sure I would be offered the same opportunity if I was working in house. Running a small business is a 24-hour job, though, it is not to be entered into lightly,” Ms Lacey warned.

Ms Wiegand said: “I also wanted to be free to focus on those big crazy passion projects with great people in my network and challenging pieces of client work that I enjoy. 2020 felt like a step back for many in professional support roles who moved into COVID response, which was hellishly exhausting. It has only been three months, but so far, I have achieved each of those things I set out to.”

Setting up his own business, Mr Parsons recalled, allowed him to pull together elements he’s enjoyed from previous roles and create a position better tailored to his interests.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are still dull bits that need to be done, but I’m fortunate that I can take on work that interests me to fill most of my day. If you enjoy what you do, you give more to it, and this leads to better results. Better results lead to a better reputation, which leads to more work. Take on work that you enjoy doing and the business development and marketing takes care of itself to an extent,” he said.

This all said, Ms Hildebrand noted that one has to be “very dedicated and structured” when starting their own businesses, as often, no one is around to offer guidance. This can, however, be useful too: “A huge benefit is that I learnt a lot in a short period of time – not just about how to set up a business but also about myself. I also became less scared of failure as you have to fail to learn and to grow,” she explained.

Impact of COVID-19 on entrepreneurial drive

At the onset of coronavirus, Ms Lacey worried that she’d have to revert to an in-house position. That concern, she mused, passed after a week. The pandemic, she decided, was going to be the time when she doubled down and grew her business.

“PR is necessary but not always needed full time, it would be hard to justify the cost for a full-time employee. POPCOM is flexible working by design, we have a small office in Double Bay which we attend two to three days per week – so I guess our environmental footprint is small,” she explained.

Mr Deverson agreed, reflecting that COVID-19 assisted his business rather than hindering it. “The economic downturn meant law firms started to look inside for ways to be more efficient, to sharpen their execution and plan for the future. The stimulus provided by all three levels of government also supported investment in professional advice and many law firms engaged consultants such as me to assist their planning and rebounding from COVID-19,” he said.

Ms Hildebrand had to contend with the elimination of travel from her schedule, but this in itself had a silver lining: “The fact that I was (and still am) stuck in one place allowed me a lot of time to ask all the big questions and to seek answers. Coronavirus showed us that we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond. Understanding that is very powerful,” she insisted.

Being more risk-adverse in the wake of the pandemic, Mr Parsons added, is a good thing.

“My view is that the current environment gives people a chance to try something new. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it can easily be explained away. But when you start doing work that you enjoy and you’re passionate about, the chances of it working are a lot higher,” he noted.

“To an extent, it’s easy for me to take that view, as I don’t have school fees and stuff like that to cover, and my wife has been incredibly supportive of my business plans. But I think a lot of people would surprise themselves if they branch out on their own and back themselves.”

Whether one has sunk or swum in this time, Ms Wiegand said that the reality of the global pandemic has highlighted the fragility of professionals’ existences.

“I found myself asking, ‘If it all ends tomorrow, would I be glad I stayed in a role that didn’t 100 per cent fulfil me at the expense of spending time with my girls? Or would I be satisfied by taking a leap, refocusing my life style and giving it a go’. Perhaps it is also setting an example for my daughters that calculated risk and believing in yourself is ok – more than ok, it is important. I am lucky that my old firm has been very supportive of my move and understand my reasons which made my decision easier,” she said.

How law firms will have to respond

When asked if firms are going to have to hire external consultants, as opposed to having in-house experts on hand, in a post-pandemic marketplace, Ms Hildebrand said “they already do”.

“It’s not unusual law firms hire BD professionals on a contractor basis these days. It allows for more flexibility in terms of headcount,” she said.

There is a growing trend, Mr Deverson outlined, towards project-based consultants and the flexibility they provide firms in avoiding the cost of in-house hires.

“Of course, for the firms with the appropriate scale, in-house resources are more appropriate in order to ensure the consistent application of operational procedures and strategy across several people,” he noted.

“There is always a place for the legal support professional in law firms and external consultants can support both them and their practising colleagues with expertise to support discrete projects and in adjusting to industry trends.”

PR and communications planning is a skill, Ms Lacey proclaimed, and consistent application of PR tactics takes time. “The need for press release writing in conjunction with lawyers, on behalf of their clients is also on the rise – some firms engage with me just for this service (litigation support). Public perception can make or break a brand and for law firms, having this knowledge and skill set available to clients is valuable.”

Ms Wiegand’s view is that the role of in-house support professional won’t quite disappear – there will always be a need of some description for this worker, she noted, albeit perhaps in a different way.

“There will be an increase in the way firms access expertise to support growing industry trends. More and more, firms are comfortable to bring in an expert to role something out, coach on partner and team performance, set strategy for client engagement and pursuits, build training frameworks, support credit control or payroll, for example. It makes efficient and cost-effective sense – pay for the expertise you need, when you need it and don’t carry the overhead of several permanent technical experts,” she said.

While some firms will want to employ someone who can sit within the business, Mr Parsons said, “sometimes it’s good to get an outsider’s perspective of things, and an external consultant will see things that might be key selling points for a firm that those within the firm might not appreciate.”

“Consultants working with multiple firms also have a better appreciation of ‘what good looks like’ and can bring the best elements of different firm’s approaches together,” he advised.

Working effectively with legal support professionals post-pandemic

Moving forward, Mr Deverson said, law firms must see their legal support staff as “critical enabling functions, much like the lungs in our bodies”.

“They are critical elements of each legal practice, often thankless functions, that can be remembered only for the unfortunate mishaps that impact every firm once in a while, for instance: a major ICT outage, a misspelling in a tender document, or an incorrect title on a guest’s nametag at an event,” he said.

“Often, for high performing legal support professional teams, hours of hard work, preparation and brilliance at their basics literally keep the law firm’s doors open and the cogs turning. So, in order for law firms to hang on to their legal support professionals, they need to be acknowledged and recognised as the talented individuals they are, staff that deliver real value and great, often unseen, outcomes.”

Such recognition, Ms Hildebrand suggested, should focus on individual development and growth, such as through coaching, mentoring, or counselling if necessary.

It is critical to offer such assistance, Ms Wiegand argued, given many people forget that legal support staff are “talented and qualified professionals in their own fields”.

“They have value, and keep people retained, even during challenging times,” she espoused.

“It is not an outrageous thought that these talented individuals deliver value, so that should be recognised. The most tangible recognition is still monetary, but investing in personal development, offering flexible leave options, personal check ins from stakeholders, formal review processes and setting of goals. It all helps to demonstrate the value the firm places on these individuals. It is often a false economy to not invest in people now as the firm will surely be impacted trying to replace key roles in the future.”

Recognition can come in many ways, Mr Deverson outlined, “but often the best recognition is a simple thank you, a lunch with the partners, or even a small reward like a box of chocolates, or tickets to a show”.

While the nature of the recognition may ultimately depend on the individual, the bottom line is ensuring professionals feel valued, Mr Parsons submitted.

“Giving people the impression that they are not important to the firm because they are not a ‘fee earner’ in the traditional sense of the term is not going to do much for continuity in the ranks,” he said.

“After I was made redundant, I had an interview with a large international law firm for a position in the BD team. My visa status was the sticking point. The firm could only sponsor people in fee-earning roles. Business development teams are there to bring in the opportunities that allow lawyers to earn those fees. It seemed quite strange to me.”

The rise of the ‘legal support-preneur’
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