Challenge your external advisers on non-lawyer mythology

Two observations from the GC of BT Technology, Chris Fowler, stand out in our innovation feature, ‘Arrested development’. One: ‘If the work is repeatable and needs delivering to certain set outcomes at a certain price point, you become agnostic as to who is actually doing the work’ – suggesting the sacred cult of the individual may be diminishing in the eyes of clients. Two: ‘It always appears to us that the partner wins the work, the partner prices the work, and the partner delivers the work. I struggle with that in today’s world.’

have perhaps come a long way from the days when power-play behaviour from individual partners could actually hurt firms by putting GCs’ noses out of joint. Control has been ceded in many areas, recognising that allowing business professionals to play their part and junior lawyers to develop on the job enhances the offering that clients receive.

But Fowler’s observations suggest there is more work to be done. This gives further credence to arguments that we’ve advanced before, that firms’ pricing models should be better linked to client outcomes than hours spent on the job, and that projects should be resourced more realistically, with partners supervising and project managing work with less experienced staff delivering outcomes – unless the client specifies otherwise. There is also far more scope for external advisers to invest in business development professionals and even dedicated legal services sales teams, a development that could free up partner time to do the things that many are truly good at – providing bespoke, strategic legal advice.

This all relates to the hoary old term ‘non-lawyer’, which undermines the work of many business professionals at law firms. This is distinctly a private practice problem – you don’t hear in-house specialists referring to their colleagues as ‘non-lawyers’ – which is why using that term in front of GCs and heads of legal should be an own goal, something that reinforces an insular attitude that clients should be challenging. It brings to mind the definition of a lawyer according to the Bionic Lawyer Project:

‘If you are contributing to problem solving in the legal ecosystem, we see you as a lawyer. This broad definition is not used to be provocative, it is used this way to be a statement of inclusivity and approach. It is used to avoid labels and to try to unwind a perceived stigma around individuals being described as a “non-lawyer”, even when they are essential to the provision of legal services and can even own legal firms.’

Business professionals can enhance a law firm’s performance. This isn’t a new development – law firms have recruited accountants, risk managers, business development specialists and technologists for years – but the expertise being bought in is often secondary to the whims of partners.

As clients, you might feel that the best external advisers should be self-regulating in this regard and an attitude problem within their partnership is something they should sort out themselves. But if you challenge them to confront the stigma of the ‘non-lawyer’, allow everyone within a law firm to do what they are good at and – whisper it – listen, the results may be surprising.