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Law Firms Looking Outside The JD Box For Legal Talent – Above the Law

Law Firms Looking Outside The JD Box For Legal Talent – Above the Law


Rear view of young student wearing graduation gown with graduation cap in her commencement day.A couple weeks ago, we wrote about Edelson PC selecting actor, comedian, and former Daily Show Correspondent Bob Wiltfong to serve as its new Director of Communication & Impact. That post struck a chord with readers, becoming one of the most read articles of the week.

Obviously the Daily Show provides a tantalizing hook, but it’s hard to imagine that alone drew everyone to the article. It got me thinking that there’s something inherently intriguing about non-JDs joining the legal industry. And while non-JDs have long had a role in support staffing — from admins to CFOs — Wiltfong’s job description transcended typical firm communications and struck at some core strategic competencies for a plaintiff-side firm where communications and outreach play a major role in the work itself.

It’s not exactly clear WHAT makes this so intriguing. For some it might be embracing the expansion of the field. For others, it might be hate clicking on the dilution of the JD stranglehold on the practice. But there’s something about it.

When I recently chatted with Jonathan Harris, the Founder and Managing Partner of Harris St. Laurent Wechsler, and he told me that the firm has a full-time Ph.D. in psychology, Dr. Monica Delgado, on the team, I asked him to elaborate on how the firm came to look outside the JD box for help.

“The idea came out of a conversation I had many years ago with Paul Grand of Morvillo Abramowitz Grand et al.,” Harris told me. “We were in a criminal case representing co-defendants and the clients (understandably) were a mess. We were working on whether they should testify and they were having extraordinary trouble just wrapping their heads around what was going on, much less putting their best feet forward, and Paul said to me: ‘I see this all the time. They don’t need lawyers right now, they need someone to help them get in the right place emotionally and mentally so they can fully participate in their own defense.’ That just struck me.”

In my own practice, a partner once told me that the role of representing cooperating witnesses used to give him dreams/nightmares that he was an undertaker. He interpreted these dreams as a manifestation of the stress involved in guiding someone through testifying against their former colleagues and passing them over to their new life — which may or may not still involve criminal punishment. The impact on the witnesses themselves was clearly more pronounced.

“My core view is that lawyers overestimate JD degrees, and clients benefit enormously from multi-disciplinary teams,” Harris added. “If you have four people on a team, three lawyers is probably plenty. Clients want their problem solved, and I think lawyers also overestimate the value of legal process for solving those problems. Instead of just thinking about the next deposition or the next brief, it’s great to have someone on the team focusing on other ways to solve the client’s problem, or focusing on ways to help the client think about solving the problem.”

This theme of “thinking different,” which obviously works for the Apple brand, kept coming up in our conversation:

“It opens so many doors when we bring someone with a psychology background into the room – everything from Monica’s world view, to the academic literature she has read, to her life experience is different. So, it is different insight / different point of view on a daily basis.”

But, of course, law firms routinely hire outside experts to consult. Having different perspectives under the same roof just hits a little different.

By having Monica (and other professionals) under our roof, they become part of our fabric. So, for example, Monica goes to all our firm lunches, is on our weekly calls, goes to all firm events, and speaks with multiple folks at the firm every day. Everything from casual conversations to working together at length on a matter. So, the relationship is much closer than a consultant and lets us truly take advantage of her skills and knowledge.

The topic of hybrid work situations remains fraught with controversy, but this is why I’ve never embraced an exclusively remote model. At some point, knowledge isn’t easily categorized into a bullet point email. Informal conversations convert to formal revelations. There may not be a need to sit in an office 40 hours (or more… we’re lawyers) a week, but there’s a need to sit in the office some part of that week.

It also allows the portfolio of the expert to naturally expand. A psychology consultant gets called to do psychology work. The JD is always a gatekeeper to the consultant because the lawyerly lens decides when an issue implicates psychology as an expertise. That’s going to hamstring the psychologist from jump.

While Harris having a team psychologist is how we got on this topic, she’s not the only non-JD at the firm. He explained that the firm maintains a full-time graphics person with a true art degree and an IT specialist who also works on cases.

And the firm isn’t stopping there. “I would expect us to add more non-lawyers, in more areas, as we grow.”

Earlier: Daily Show Correspondent Joins Law Firm Because That’s Obviously The Logical Next Step

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.



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