Legal research is regarded as one of the necessary expenses of the legal profession. It’s a task that needs to be done to ensure that arguments are robust, and to build the most comprehensive case possible, but it is a time-consuming task. This is why legal research is often delegated to trainees and newly qualified solicitors, who are less expensive than those more established in the profession. However, while this does make legal research cheaper to conduct, it certainly does not make it cheap.
In order to get an idea of the true costs of legal research, we recently conducted a case study with a firm based in the west of England, with a focus on those who carry out this research on a day-to-day basis. We examined their newly qualified head count of over 50, and their average salary of £40,000. After determining that they spend 30% to 40% of their time conducting research, this resulted in an estimated salary bill of over £750,000 for legal research.
This figure alone is staggering, and should be seen as particularly concerning as clients are increasingly resistant to being billed for time spent doing legal research. This is happening for two reasons: firstly, clients are beginning to consider legal research as an overhead expense of a law firm doing business rather than something billable. Secondly, there is a naive assumption that legal practitioners should know what they need to, not need to conduct research to find out. As a result of this, a number of firms are now writing-off time spent conducting legal research. A recent report in America found that over 25% of research time is no longer billed, amounting to approximately $60,000 per associate, per year. In any other industry this would be cause for great concern, but why has this not been addressed in the legal sector?
There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the legal industry is perceived as a very traditional one, which is slow to adopt and apply new technologies to their working practices. This is now changing as there is less resistance from key stakeholders, and an increasing number of organisations are making a concerted effort to improve their software and processes, using more data-driven applications. This approach is being adopted in an attempt to gain a commercial edge over their competitors, although this has not yet been widely taken up where legal research software is concerned.
Secondly, while the trainees and newly qualified solicitors who conduct legal research would benefit if it was able to be conducted with greater efficiency, considering ways to save the firm money and improve the systems used is not their number one priority. Rightly, they are far more concerned with effectively doing what they have been asked to do, using the research platform they are provided with.
Finally, there is the procurement process itself, and the question of whose responsibility it is to evaluate and purchase legal research resources. Although law librarians often have to manage research budgets, their primary concern is ensuring that content bases are covered so that any resources required by the firm are available when they are needed. When this results in an improvement in the efficiency of their research software it is often a by-product of the platform which delivers the content that they require, although this too is beginning to change.
The result of this is that legal research is rarely identified as an area for major cost savings or improvements, even with the costs involved increasingly having to be borne by law firms. In order to begin to address this, we need to reconsider how we think of legal resources, and what the providers of legal research tools are capable of offering. Rather than comparing products solely as content bases, more of a distinction should be made between the content itself and the software used to search it, and the questions we should ask should change with that. Specifically, can this software improve the research tasks for which it will be used? Continue reading
By Aidan Hawes, Head of Commercial Development, Justis.