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Meet the indispensables: The rise of the non-lawyers

Meet the indispensables: The rise of the non-lawyers

The power of non-lawyers within the legal profession is on the rise as they prove their worth by driving business success. Briana Everett finds out why they're indispensable

The power of non-lawyers within the legal profession is on the rise as they prove their worth by driving business success. Briana Everett finds out why they're indispensable

RISING UP: The power and influence of non-lawyers in the legal industry is increasing.

The non-lawyers of the legal world have gradually infiltrated the legal profession. Mostly, they are behind the scenes, but their power and influence in the legal industry is most certainly on the rise.

As the legal market rapidly evolves - largely thanks to creeping globalisation and rapidly changing technology - and as firms gradually pay closer attention to the marketing, business development and branding side of their business, the power of the non-lawyer has skyrocketed as the critical nature of their roles becomes more apparent.

The demand for non-lawyers - from chief executive officers, business development managers, communications managers and knowledge managers through to executive assistants and librarians - has dramatically increased in recent times, and it seems they no longer have to prove their worth to gain acceptance amongst the profession.

"Being a non-lawyer within a law firm is actually a nice place to be," says Jeremy Hyman, the media and communications manager at Middletons. "I think sometimes some people feel that it's difficult for someone who's a non-lawyer, or that it's not as rewarding or respected, but that couldn't be further from the truth, in my experience."

According to Warrick McLean, president of the Australian Legal Practice Management Association and general manager of Coleman Greig Lawyers, as firms increasingly recognise the need to develop a firm's profile within the marketplace, the business development, marketing and communications professionals within the industry are more valuable than ever.

"From a marketing, business development and communications point of view, I would suggest the people in those roles are gold," he says. "They're a resource that can ultimately, like any practice management professional, help the principals and the firm get from A to B."

McLean adds that non-lawyers are growing in importance within the profession because partners and managing partners simply don't have the time, the focus or the energy to deliver the results themselves. But beyond that, the sophistication of practice management is increasing and non-lawyers are demonstrating the significant value they can add to any legal business.

After almost three years as the communications manager for Middletons, following two-and-a-half years in a similar role at Freehills, Hyman has witnessed the changing nature of the industry and the increased focus on brand and reputation and the resulting need for specialists in this space.

"It's always interesting to me just how much we're covered in the media, how much prominence our voice has within the general business community or wider community on social issues," he says.

"Law proliferates all aspects of life and if you look back over the last 10 or 15 years, what has evolved in the legal industry is even more intense scrutiny ... Sometimes it's even more weighted to scrutiny than other industries you would think would have more of a public interest. But I must say, you couldn't get a greater public interest than the law."

"From a marketing, business development and communications point of view, I would suggest the people in those roles are gold"

Warrick McLean, general manager, Coleman Greig Lawyers

As a result of this increased scrutiny, Hyman observes how the use and engagement of the media has become a core part of legal business.

"Building, enhancing and protecting a brand or reputation has become a far more complex, sophisticated beast," he says. "The use and engagement with the media is entirely sophisticated."

While the bar has been raised for the non-lawyers tasked with the difficult job of protecting a firm's brand from outside forces such as the media, non-lawyers in internal communications roles are also facing a tougher job as firms begin to ramp up their efforts to engage employees, improve the employee brand and improve staff retention.

"Law firms have put a lot of focus on getting their internal communications right, certainly at Middletons, so that staff are engaged, understand the business and what's happening in the business, and that they are on the same journey as the business," says Hyman.

"Communication, by its nature, speaks to transparency, speaks to collegiality, and speaks to empowering the individuals within the organisation through information and knowledge."

This added value that non-lawyers have to offer businesses has resulted in law firms upping their non-lawyer headcount as well as creating entirely new roles to achieve an edge in a more sophisticated, competitive market. While the jury is still out for some firms as to the actual value social media has to offer business, its presence, along with other new technologies, has been a game-changer for the legal industry - as it has been for many others.

"Gone are the days of when you can just do a good job and continue to have work flowing through the door," says McLean.

"In terms of social media, those marketing teams [within firms] which have been early adopters, I would suggest have a bit of an edge," he says, noting that given the return of the "talent squeeze", social media's value as a tool for talent management is becoming more evident.

"Law firms are traditionally very conservative but being able to deliver social media and social media strategies are part and parcel of [good management]. It's a given these days and it doesn't matter whether it's from a client perspective or a staff member perspective."

Proof of social media's game-changing effect on the industry is the emergence of newly created roles within firms that focus solely on using social media as a business development, recruitment and brand-building tool.

This year Blake Dawson became the first top-tier firm in Australia to introduce a specialist social media role, arguably setting the tone for what's to come in the years ahead.

"It's quite an interesting space to be playing in ... within the traditional style [of the legal] industry. Bringing that innovation into this type of industry is really quite interesting and has some excitement to it. It's just another way to communicate and people are changing they way they communicate," says Blake Dawson's new social media strategist, Kelly O'Shaughnessy.

"The appetite is absolutely there for doing things differently and trying new things, really getting up to speed with these emerging technologies and just having a go."

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