WHEN construction law specialist Lynda Ross returned from a career break to become a professional support lawyer (PSL) at Burness Paull, the role was largely untested.

While it suited her own personal circumstances at that time, the job, which was largely focused on providing support to more senior practitioners, was still seen by some as somehow inferior to traditional associate or partner positions.

Thirteen years on, however, and the scope of the PSL job has evolved to such a degree that it is now viewed as a career in its own right, with a growing number of firms recognising the vital role PSLs play in their practice teams.

“I’ve seen the role evolve and change and grow and there are now enormous opportunities for lawyers who want to take this career path,” Ms Ross said.

“Law firms have recognised the need for lawyers who can specialise in areas such as the management of legal knowledge and innovation. These are areas that have undergone radical change and that’s what’s made the difference.”

Law Society of Scotland professional practice director Fiona Robb agreed, noting that with technology continuing to change the way law is practised, PSLs’ contribution is set to grow.

“Professional support lawyers play an important role in the business models of commercial law firms,” she said.

“The face of the legal profession is ever changing and has seen great transformation in recent decades. With an increasingly competitive marketplace and the growing importance of technology, legal firms have developed new smarter ways of working to keep pace and offer improved client care.”

For lawyers like Ms Ross, who had 10 years’ fee-earning experience before taking a break from the law, this means that the seniority of the role matches well with her level of experience.

“Most PSLs are highly experienced lawyers,” she said. “Law firms are recognising that there are areas like legal knowledge, technology and innovation that they need to invest in to stay ahead of the game. They’re willing to invest in lawyers whose skills or interests lie in those areas.

“I have a very wide role: I advise the team and support them with new and complex areas of law; I do training, mentoring and manage projects; and I have an external-facing role too – I love training clients. None of this is fee-earning so for law firms to invest in PSLs they need to recognise that they bring value to the firm.”

For other lawyers in a similar position to the one Ms Ross was in when she returned to work 13 years ago, that is making a career as a PSL seem ever more attractive. Kirsty McFarlane, a consultant at HRC Recruitment, said candidates are increasingly looking for PSL roles because they are now seen as being central to the way firms operate.

“Even five to six years ago seeing PSLs as failed fee-earners would have been a push, but the job was viewed as a grade below,” she said.

“Now, if you look at firms like Burness Paull, Harper Macleod or CMS, they’ve devised really intricate PSL frameworks that offer a lot more career progression. The role has become an awful lot more complex than it was before and it’s much more attractive in terms of salary as well – it’s equivalent to fee earning.”

Crucially, because PSLs do not have billable-hours targets, the hours tend to be more conducive to family life, making the job an attractive proposition for female returners who want to hold down a senior position without having to focus on partnership.

“It’s not to say that men aren’t interested in these roles, but it’s predominantly women that go for them,” Ms McFarlane said.

“It’s geared towards people who have a lot of experience – typically in a transactional fee-earning role – because to have the level and depth of knowledge required to be able to advise teams of partners you have to have been there, seen it and done it.”

And, as Ms Ross has proved, the role does not have to be an end in itself, thanks to firms’ willingness to recognise PSLs’ contribution by promoting them into positions that would be more easily recognisable in the traditional law firm structure.

“I was really pleased this year to be made a legal director,” Ms Ross said. “That was the first time the firm had done that for a PSL and was recognition of the role we play.”