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No JD required - Hiring research assistants gains ground

For years, legal technology’s increased sophistication with AI enhancements has been blamed as a disruptor in attorney hiring. While the proverbial robolawyer is still invoked in thinkpieces as firms across the country cease hiring entry level associates, some large and midsized firms are turning to hiring research assistants — no JD required — as a strategy to increase output and decrease cost.


How does this work? The prevailing (but not the only) argument is that legal research tools have become so sophisticated and efficient at answering research queries that an attorney can create the parameters to be researched, then delegate the actual researching. The legal nuances and comprehensive scope once needed to research authority supporting an argument are being better incorporated in legal research platforms and algorithms powering AI solutions, requiring a human on the job to be more extractor than decision maker during the course of research.


For law firms outside the AmLaw 200, any place to be more efficient at a cheaper cost matters. The high billable rate for an attorney researching can be reduced significantly by assigning research tasks to another professional. Document review outsourcing is commonplace given the rise of ASPs and technology services. Now, firms consider legal research ripe for similar outsourcing and delegation as clients are less willing to pay as much as past for research costs.


This trend is not new, as AmLaw firms have experimented with similar setups. In the 2000s, Kirkland & Ellis employed “litigation associates,” people functioning above the typical paralegal level to conduct legal research, draft provisions of litigation documents, and other associate-level tasks. Recruiting undergraduates finishing top of the class at elite institutions, these positions customarily lasted 2-3 years, after which associates were expected to continue their education or move into career paralegal positions. Greenberg Traurig introduced a resident associate program in 2014, where attorneys were paid a fraction of the starting associate salary, performing research in the context of receiving added training and exposure to law practice. One major east coast law firm staffs their library with research analysts, who may or may not have knowledge management experience or a J.D. or library science degree, who perform research on behalf of attorneys for a fraction of the associate billable rate. The expectation in this case is that attorneys simply will not bill for research and the library shoulders that workload.


When asked about introducing research analysts into a prominent New England-based firm, an associate, who wished to remain anonymous in exchange for candor, responded that “it makes sense; most of what I do research-wise could certainly be delegated with the right guidance.” Kobre & Kim, a midsized international firm headquartered in New York, has foregone hiring entry and junior associates, employing research analysts to free up attorneys for more sophisticated tasks and reduce the cost ultimately billed to a client. These analysts are recently graduated under graduates who have no law school training and stay on the job no more than three years. Attorneys at the immigration firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy rarely, if ever, do their own research, outsourcing such tasks to a designated in-house group (however that group is comprised of attorneys and law clerks, supporting the trend of delegating research workload off associates without aligning with the research analyst model).


The model is not without criticism. ABA Model Rule 5.3 holds supervising attorneys responsible for all nonlawyer work, and cautions that while nonlawyers are not subject to professional discipline, attorneys certainly are. Skepticism exists over whether clients want their work delegated to a nonlawyer, as well as whether the nonlawyer researcher can catch all the contours of paring legal authority to support or distinguish an argument. Many firms are instead turning to cost-saving providers, such as Axiom or other LPOs. Others still leverage the increasing availability of law students to intern full-time for months on end at all times of the year, essentially short-term filling the research analyst role with a student who has at least a year or two of legal education.


Nonetheless, midsized firms, more than ever before, are under economic pressure to rethink their processes and business models. Leveraging advances in legal technology allows firms to upend traditional hiring methods and the allocation of attorney resources from the routine to the specialized. This nonlawyer delegation of traditional associate research work is yet another solution popping up in the landscape to best address the efficiency and financial concerns firms face in today’s legal economy.

© 2018 Peter Colin, Jr.