Ex-City lawyer talks about being a PSL
This week we spoke to a Real Estate PSL who works at a large City firm. She previously worked for many years at both Burges Salmon in Bristol and Herbert Smith, and also tried a small local firm near to where she lives in an attempt to get a good work/life balance as a mother. She told us why out all of these options, the PSL role suits her current needs the best and described what the job involves on a day to day basis.
mtl: Hi PSL, please can you start by telling us about your legal background?
PSL: I did a law degree at King’s College, London, and the LPC in Guildford. I then trained at Burges Salmon in Bristol, where I stayed for two years on qualification. I missed London though and decided to move back, joining Herbert Smith, where I spent six years. I loved working there. It was a sink or swim environment without much support, but there was a lot of responsibility, which I enjoyed.
However, when I returned full-time from maternity leave after my first child was born, I realised instantly that working there was not compatible with family life; I often felt torn between work and home. After a year of trying to balance the two, I left and joined a local firm near to where I live. I enjoyed a very happy year there but having seen the PSL role begin to evolve while I was at Herbert Smith I had been attracted to that for some time. It seemed to offer the City environment that I most enjoyed working in, but with regular hours and the potential for flexible working. I saw an advert for the firm I now work for and decided to apply.
mtl: How did you find the transition?
PSL: It was an enormous shock. There was no real job description and the department didn’t know what it wanted from me, so I had to feel my own way. It was a case of trying to decide tasks and priorities and work out what to do and how to do it as I went. I was also surprised by how political a role it was; I hadn’t anticipated that at all. It is more than just a legal job. As a PSL you deal with many different personalities, all of whom are opinionated and all of whom you have to take into account. And often you are reliant upon the help of others to move projects forward, so there is a lack of control.
Law, King’s College, London
LPC, College of Law, Guildford
Trainee and Real Estate assistant at Burges Salmon, Bristol
Real Estate assistant, Herbert Smith
Real Estate assistant, small local firm
Real Estate PSL, large City firm
mtl: What do your days involve?
PSL: One of the nicest things about this role is that no two days are the same. There are my regular jobs that come around periodically, but then I also get involved in lots of one-off projects or pieces of advice.
In these days of information overload I act as a filter to establish what the lawyers in my practice area really need to know. So I review the legal alerts and journals to see what will affect best practice and whether there is anything that will have a knock-on effect on our precedents. I update and draft new precedents, with the assistance of a precedents committee, which is particularly helpful when it comes to deciding a policy approach.
Training in various guises also takes up a lot of my time. I am responsible for organising my group's training, both legal and soft skills, which can mean inviting outside speakers or others from within the firm to talk to us, or more ambitious half-day sessions, as well as running a training programme for my group's junior assistants. I also run and speak at client seminars.
I write a client bulletin myself once a month and I get asked to review articles others produce for publication. I keep the group's databank maintained, trying to capture all the advice that is being given in a meaningful manner.
I liaise with business development about press releases, I keep our Real Estate home page on the intranet up to date with relevant links and I now also have a consultancy role for the junior assistants, which I enjoy as they come and ask me for advice. I also liaise regularly with the Information Centre over books and journal subscriptions, organize the introduction of on-line services that are relevant to our practice area and co-operate with the business intake/risk management teams on issues that are particularly relevant to this group.
Firm-wide PSL projects that I have been involved with include the introduction of a new house style, consideration of document assembly products, helping graduate recruitment with interviewing for our vacation placement scheme and the induction of new trainees.
Some firms and groups have clear ideas of what they want their PSLs to do and the roles can therefore vary significantly depending on different cultures and practice areas. Transactional groups will always have a lot of precedents to produce and maintain, whereas the work in a litigation group, for example, will be much more research-based.
mtl: What would you say are the strengths of the PSL role?
PSL: Regular hours are the strongest selling point. I always know which train home I am taking, so it’s a wonderful job for women with children. Many PSL roles are now advertised as part-time. I work full-time, but flexibly, in that I am at home two days a week. With the IT systems that we have it is as effective as being in the office. And although you don’t earn as much as a fee earner, I think it is a well paid job with a good salary for what you are doing.
Some people I know have gone back to fee earning because of missing clients and/or the satisfaction of a deal completing. So it is not an irrevocable move and I don’t think that there is any cut-off point at which you wouldn’t be able to go back. After all, you will obviously have remained totally up to date with the law. As a PSL I have also had the opportunity to develop other skills to supplement my legal skills.
The role doesn’t lend itself to having a career structure, which is a plus for me as I am not interested in climbing a ladder anymore. It also allows you to be more of an academic and intellectual lawyer if you wish as there is a lot of scope for reading cases, doing research and refining your knowledge of your chosen practice area.
mtl: Who would it appeal to and who would it suit?
PSL: It would appeal to people who want to keep working in the legal sector but who either don’t enjoy fee-earning because they find it too stressful or for whom a good work/life balance is more important than status. You have to be a self-starter as, for example, you have to make the training happen and ensure client bulletins go out. It might help if you like teaching, but if there are a number of PSLs in your department then you may not have to do that. Of course you have to be good at dealing with people.
mtl: Do you have any tips for lawyers considering the move?
PSL: The role can be isolating if you allow it to be. You are no longer an assistant and you are not a partner, so you are not “one of the crowd”. I consciously decided to make more effort to circulate around the office by replying in person to emails. And I began to think of the fee-earners as my clients which helped.
Be aware that partnerships are inherently hierarchical organisations and although some firms do have PSL partners, more generally you are stepping off the ladder and introducing a ceiling over your head, however qualified you are.
Find out how committed the firm is to professional support, for example by asking how many PSLs there are and what support and training they are given. You should be able to feel confident that you won’t have to justify your role. Ideally you would want to share the role with someone else in the department as you can then bounce ideas off each other.
Consider the size of the department that you are joining. Some PSL roles could be as stressful as fee earning if you are expected to look after a large number of fee earners. Finally, try not to switch before three years’ PQE and ideally wait until you have four-five years’ PQE. At that level you will have enough experience to be confident in the advice you give to your fee earners. I think if you moved too soon it could restrict your ability to go back to fee earning later should you wish to.
mtl: Thank you very much for talking to us.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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