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Non-lawyers in a legal world

Non-lawyers in a legal world

The GFC placed a spotlight on the non-lawyers in law firms and called for their expertise to come to the fore, writes Briana Everett. For many, it was a chance to prove their worth.The value…

The GFC placed a spotlight on the non-lawyers in law firms and called for their expertise to come to the fore, writes Briana Everett. For many, it was a chance to prove their worth.

The value that practice management professionals add to law firms and the legal industry overall is well known. However, the actual worth of such "non-lawyers" within the industry has become increasingly apparent after many non-lawyers in law firms were able to successfully tackle the challenges of the global financial crisis and initiate new approaches to the business of law in non-traditional ways.

While in years gone past there has been a reluctance in the industry to hand over management responsibilities to non-lawyers, according to vice president of the Australian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) Warrick McLean, the sophistication of management is growing and non-lawyers are entering the industry at a much higher level and with the academic credentials to stand their ground.

"Non-lawyers are having a greater impact overall - simply because more and more [non-lawyers] are people with a track record and experience. [Lawyers] see that they can actually add value," McLean says.

Swaab Attorneys' business development manager, Paula Paterson, agrees that perceptions are shifting: "I think there is a persistent view that only lawyers can make decisions within a law firm. However things are changing and many law firms recognise the need for non-law specialists in areas such as IT, HR, business development and communication."

Gaining the industry's trust

Although there is no longer such a widespread reluctance to utilise non-lawyers, McLean says it is still all about law firms being able to trust non-lawyers, as well as a firm's ability to fully tap into the resources they have. "[It] gets back to trust, respect and perceiving that non-lawyers can actually add value to the practice," he says.

Building the necessary trust of lawyers and establishing credibility is still a constant challenge for practice management professionals. And the level of trust (and ultimately what value a non-lawyer can add) depends on the type of person in the role, according to McLean.

"Sometimes [non-lawyers] are people that might have been with the organisation for an extended period of time, whereas if you've got new people coming into the organisation, they normally have to try and get some runs on the board and achieve specific outcomes," he says.

Non-lawyers must still prove themselves to the legal profession to establish a working relationship of trust and that, according to Paterson, takes time.

"As I found out more about the way that lawyers work and law firms operate, it became easier for me to speak the language and have my opinion taken into account," she says. "That's also a two-way street. As the lawyers got to know me better, they began to understand that I was working from a vantage point which they didn't necessarily share and that they could benefit from my business perspective."

Presenting an opportunity to prove the value of non-lawyers, the global financial crisis placed a heavy strain on the industry and made lawyers even more aware of the need to utilise non-lawyers.

The financial crisis forced many firms to rely heavily on the financial managers within the organisation, requiring them to manage the top and bottom line more closely than ever. The crisis also necessitated the ability of HR, communications and other managers within their organisations to deal with the mass redundancies experienced across the industry, while managing the firm's reputation and its ability to attract staff in the future. According to McLean, it was during these tough times that non-lawyers really came to the fore.

McLean describes how non-lawyers, from the marketing or communications point of view, would not have faced that kind of scrutiny in the past. "That's not a bad thing at all but certainly something they weren't experienced in before," he says.

"Whether it's the HR people internally, whether it's the communications people internally or whether it be a general manager - we have to hire those resources to manage that external perception in the marketplace."

New opportunities and new approaches

Dealing with the tail end of the GFC, lawyers and the industry as a whole have had to look at non-traditional methods of attracting work and maintaining their competitiveness as the legal consumer becomes more sophisticated. And this new outlook is helping non-lawyers to truly establish themselves as a key aspect of the business of law.

"Law firms are increasingly becoming more sophisticated from the mid-tier down, [and] as a result the mid-tier and boutique firms are more and more approaching the business of law in non traditional ways," McLean says.

"Partners and principals of law firms are [relying] more heavily on the advice and input of the management staff in order to remain competitive, to win business and attract staff in a stable legal market," he says. In the last two years, according to McLean, an opportunity has arisen for boutique and mid-tier firms to acquire business from the top end of town, as prospective clients have become more conscious of their legal spend. As a result, the non-lawyers within those smaller firms now have to work with their partners to take advantage of those opportunities.

Paterson agrees and recognises the huge opportunity available for mid-tier firms as legal consumers are now shopping around. "It's a sophisticated buyer now and they have choice," she says.

This alternative approach to the business of law and taking advantage of the opportunities available can be seen in the rise of collaborative law practices and the greater utilisation of non-lawyer professionals as part of the dispute resolution process.

Collaborative law is gaining more momentum and smaller firms are starting to embrace non-lawyer professionals, such as psychologists and financial advisers into their practices - demolishing further the idea that only lawyers have a place in the industry.

Brisbane Family Law Centre is just one example of a smaller firm thinking outside the square and looking at the business of law from another angle. Preferring the collaborative law method because it's more client-driven as opposed to solicitor-based, director of the Brisbane Family Law Centre, Clarissa Rayward has always used other non-legal professionals, such as psychologists and financial planners. But now, after outsourcing these professionals, Rayward has decided to do something different and bring them onsite.

"I really see the benefit to my clients of having those professionals working with me on their matter....I firmly believe those other practitioners offer real value to my clients in areas where I can't."

The approach of a non-lawyer

As a consultant and managing director of Sales Strategy, Paterson assists with the business development, strategy and business planning for various professional services firms, but says the same methods of mapping, planning and tracking apply to each organisation. By applying these tried and tested methods, she explains, you can add value to any firm.

Explaining her role as a business development manager in the legal industry, Paterson says she has to be flexible and fit in with the individual styles and skill sets of each partner.

"My job is never to change partners or their way of doing business, however I work with their strengths and assist them to focus on building their practice and understanding which of their methods work. And this requires refining - it's an ongoing process," Paterson explains.

As the general manager at Coleman & Greig and with 13 years experience in the professional services industry, McLean agrees and says that to be a successful non-lawyer in a law firm you must have a particular focus and style.

Whether as a general manager, chief executive officer or in another management role, McLean says being a non-lawyer dealing with partners means you have to walk a very fine line. He says earning the respect and trust of the partners you report to is imperative.

"My role is a bit like the 'silent traffic cop' directing the traffic internally and also packaging up the practice and presenting it in the best light...law firms are generally good organisations and have good people in [them but] again it's how it's packaged up and presented."

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