More is needed to create high-performing multidisciplinary teams, a new study finds
While the work of legal business professionals becomes increasingly consequential to legal service delivery, most law firms in Australia and New Zealand can do much more to accommodate these non-lawyer personnel.
The finding comes from “The Emerging Legal Professional Survey” conducted by the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) and the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) at The College of Law.
The survey, which had more than 180 respondents across Australia and New Zealand, found that for 59% of all legal organisations surveyed, 40% or more of employees are not lawyers. These legal business professionals are in a wide range of roles, including as C-level executives (24%), office managers (9%), human resources staff (4%) or IT professionals (2%).
Two key disparities
The study identified two major disparities existing between lawyers and legal business professionals.
The first gap is in terms of employment status. ALPMA and CLI said that only 12% of legal organisations said that 95% of legal business professionals are full-time employees, while 31% said that 95% of their lawyers are full-time employees.
The survey also found that legal business professionals have more limited career opportunities compared to lawyers. ALPMA and CLI said that 52% of legal organisations had defined career paths for lawyers, while just 29% could say the same for legal business professionals.
Lawyers are also more likely to have competency frameworks that serve as guides for career development and promotion. Among the respondents, 44% said they had competency frameworks for lawyers, while 34% have the same for legal business professionals.
“The division of lawyer and legal work is changing but most law firms are underprepared for it. Law firm talent-management strategies remain focused mostly on lawyers and not equally on the emerging, multi-disciplinary group of legal business professionals,” ALPMA and CLI wrote.
Development of industry standards
Most respondents to the survey said industry standards help in recruiting.
While recruiting lawyers, respondents used a narrower set of standards, with academic qualifications being the most important.
For recruiting legal business professionals, respondents said a wider set of standards applied. These criteria include experience, team compatibility, flexibility, ability to learn, ability to use technology, referees, referrals and positive recommendations.
ALPMA and CLI said that respondents support the development of industry standards for both lawyers and legal business professionals.
While technology proficiency is important for both, respondents view the use of technology tools and augmentation of technology into practice as more important for legal business professionals. Leadership is a higher priority for lawyers, the respondents said.
“These priorities reflect a more traditional view of the work and role of lawyers and legal business professionals in the legal industry,” the study said.
In terms of who should develop, monitor, manage, and provide certifications for legal industry standards, respondents preferred that legal professional associations and state law societies be given the responsibility.
Increasingly important work
“Traditional lawyer work is decreasing while legal work done by other professionals is increasing. Where legal business professionals were once mostly employed in clerical or administrative support functions, they are increasingly integral to delivering cost-effective services, product development and revenue generation. As legaltech and AI continue to advance, these professionals will increasingly be in demand to work directly with clients, and to lead multi-skilled project teams,” said Terri Mottershead, CLI director.
“The future of work in law firms and legal departments is already here. If firms don’t incorporate these emerging professions to help them deliver better and cheaper services, then their clients will choose to move to alternative service providers,” she said.
It is imperative for law firms and legal departments to address these issues to create high-performing multidisciplinary teams, said Fiona Croswell, ALPMA learning and development manager.
“Unless legal business professionals are given the same employment status and career opportunities, law firms will be unable to attract the talent they need,” she said. “We need to spend more time on defining key skills and career paths for legal business professionals or many highly skilled professionals will choose to work in other industries, seeing a job with a law firm as a career limiting move.”