Large law firms create specialized positions to gain efficiency and improve service. Dickstein Shapiro’s innovative research attorney role is a recent example of a new and focused role. 

Research Attorneys Offer Focused Services, Training (National Law Journal, 15 July 2008, by Hollye R. Mann, Amy J. Spencer and Joanna Hudson-Therway) describes how Dickstein Shapiro has innovated in legal research. The firm’s research attorneys are former practicing lawyers. Beyond doing legal research, they mentor and train associates on research and resources:

“The chief expertise of research attorneys is the ability to combine their knowledge as career research professionals with their experience as practicing attorneys to produce thorough, premium legal research…. A research-attorney department can serve as a key member of the firm’s knowledge-management team, creating and establishing methods of research collection and retrieval to benefit the firm and its clients.”

I think the role makes sense given that many graduates of US law schools lack good research skills. Already 15 years ago I know – based on first hand survey work, personal observation, and many discussions with law librarians – that many junior associates had weak research skills. For example, few really understood online searching (e.g., Boolean or proximity searches) on Lexis or Westlaw. With the advent of Google, I imagine the situation has gotten worse.

This new role also makes sense because of client sensitivity to hours billed. Having a specialist conduct research likely saves time in comparison to having a typical associate do so. Clients presumably receive better work product and the firm presumably faces fewer write offs.

The role overlaps with practice support lawyers (PSL) but differs. PSL have never caught on in the US as they have in the UK. I suspect that the research attorney role is a better fit in the US. First, BigLaw partners understand what research is and the need for it. Knowledge management professionals’ efforts notwithstanding, many US partners have not accepted the PSL idea. Second, research attorneys are presumably a centralized role in contrast to the typical practice-focused PSL role. That’s a better fit for US firms. And third, I assume that research attorneys can be fairly billable. I know that PSLs do bill some time but much of their work benefits the practice rather than specific clients so is harder to bill.