I’d much rather do what I do and focus on the legal issues than fight with people over the phone or in a courtroom all day, or paper deals," says Do-Ellen Hansen, a research partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Vancouver. "Those were some of the things I didn’t like about securities law."
With the exception of that brief stint in securities law early in her career, Hansen has always been a full-time legal research lawyer. It suits her personality and her interest in law generally.
"A lot of people say they could never do my job because you never get out to meet people and it’s too hard," she says. "But I love it. I’m constantly intrigued and challenged by the research. I think it’s a fascinating time to be doing this job. It’s exciting to see the evolution that’s been happening."
While fewer than five percent of all lawyers currently specialize in research, the perception among research lawyers is that their numbers are growing. Marisol Miró, Past Chair of the Legal Research Section of the CBA’s Quebec Branch, recently conducted a survey of legal research lawyers. She expects "more and more" law firms to create positions for full-time researchers.
Although she now specializes in environmental law with Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP in Montreal, Miró was herself a research lawyer for five years, so she’s familiar with the advantages to firms of having full-time researchers. "It’s a necessity nowadays," she says.
"Research has become a specialty by itself, partly because there is now so much complex technology involved," observes Miró. "The challenge is not only in finding a decision or a piece of information, but in knowing how to use the tools and technology required to do so."
In fact, there is now a firm in Vancouver whose entire business is research. OnPoint Legal Research, founded by Sarah Picciotto in 2000, was originally launched as a consultancy; Picciotto intended simply to generate enough work for herself so she could focus on research.
Two years into the job, however, demand from lawyers for her services was so high that she realized there was potential to turn her flourishing business into a larger firm. So she started bringing other researchers onboard; today, she has a team of four research lawyers.
To the best of her knowledge, hers is the only firm in Canada whose exclusive focus is legal research, although she has identified at least five such firms in the U.S. "I’m really excited about it," says Picciotto. "I think it’s the wave of the future. The clients who have figured it out are just thrilled that they have someone else to do their research."
She and her employees think of themselves as "on-call associates," says Picciotto. Her clients — typically small- and medium-sized law firms — enjoy the opportunity to outsource research to lawyers they can trust, eliminating the overhead involved in conducting their own research.
The lawyers Picciotto has hired "love the hunt," she says — "the thrill of chasing down something and the joy of finding it. It’s also a love of analysis and of writing. The researchers who love these things benefit immensely from not having to deal with the other aspects of practice that they don’t enjoy."
Derek Jackson, a research lawyer with Brownlee LLP in Calgary, enjoys his work for similar reasons. "It’s great to be able to work your way through a problem and decide what would be the best plan of attack or defence on a file," he says.
Jackson and Hansen both agree that one of the best perks of the specialty is its more flexible hours, especially when compared to the demands of standard private-practice law. "There is definitely more room to move in terms of your work schedule," says Jackson. "Sometimes it’s extremely busy, but other times not."
In fact, up until a few years ago, Hansen, who has three children, worked just four days a week. "In terms of my own personal life, it’s worked out really well," she says.
"My sense is that, at least in Vancouver, a lot of the people who practise research law as a specialty are in that same boat — are mothers of young children — and this is something that works and is manageable. If you’re a litigator and you have a trial, well, you have a trial; you may have to work 14 hours a day. That can be hard to do with a family."
Of course, many research lawyers are freelancers, and may dictate their own hours, even taking the summer off or working part-time. Jackson thinks "progressive" firms and lawyers are responsible for the increasing tendency of lawyers to specialize in research.
Further change will come as the result of client demand, he believes. "When you combine those demands with progressive-minded lawyers who want to create efficiencies in the delivery of legal services, then the research becomes an integral component of that," Jackson notes. "I believe it’s worked very well for our firm."
Hansen also credits her firm for its progressive attitude. "I think the fact that I was admitted to the partnership here reflects something different," she says. "I think there are firms where people like me, who have never been litigators, would not be admitted to the partnership. I feel honoured in a sense, and I think it reflects quite a progressive view within the Vancouver office of Borden Ladner Gervais."
Barriers and beefs
It’s not all wine and roses, however. Hansen agrees that partnership is still relatively uncommon for research lawyers who have never litigated, most likely because a key criteria of becoming a partner, aside from professional aptitude, is the ability to bring in clients and make a financial contribution to the firm. She believes she’s the only partner in Vancouver who has always been a research lawyer.
"In Toronto, there are quite a number of large firms with research departments, and probably half of the people in them would be partners," Hansen adds. "But in most cases, they’ve been litigators before they specialized in research."
Compensation, too, may be lower for research lawyers, although most of the lawyers interviewed for this story were reluctant to speculate. "I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s significantly less, but that’s a guess," says Hansen.
For his part, Jackson is "satisfied" with his compensation, although he doesn’t think it’s any secret that legal research lawyers probably earn less than colleagues who litigate successfully or bring in a lot of business.
Another disadvantage of research specialization, says Hansen, is that it can impede career development, because researchers tend to work in isolation. "It’s harder in a big firm to establish and prove yourself as a research lawyer, because you operate as a bit of a satellite," she observes. "You’re circling around, helping people out, but you’re not viewed by any of them as a key member of their group."
Miró’s experience was similar. She enjoyed the flexible hours and the fact that every day was different from the one before, but says full-time researchers can have difficulty finding a niche and may miss that sense of belonging.
A related concern is workload juggling. For example, a litigator may ask a researcher to work on an issue without realizing that the transactions lawyer on the third floor has assigned something else equally urgent, while the person down the hall wants something quickly on a wills matter. Lawyers, says Hansen, can be demanding clients.
Miró and Hansen also have concerns about the lack of specialization available to research lawyers. "The reality is that you have a different type of expertise if you’re a full-time researcher," says Hansen. "Nonetheless, when you get to be more senior in terms of call, you look at your peers and think, ‘I don’t know as much about X as they do,’ and sometimes that feels uncomfortable."
Then there’s the touchy subject of respect among peers. Are research lawyers treated any differently than their litigating colleagues?
"There’s always some good-natured kidding about that," concedes Jackson. "Sometimes, when you meet people from outside the firm and tell them what you do, they’re a little perplexed, because it’s a bit out of the ordinary. But overall, I think people do respect what I do. It’s just something that’s a bit new and different, and when people see it in action, their impressions change."
"I think if you asked another person in this firm, they’d say, ‘Oh, of course I respect her, she’s good at her job,’" says Hansen "But I think there’s a subtle difference. It’s almost like you’re not a member of the old boys’ club.
"You’re perceived as having more non-billable hours than others, which is not necessarily the case. There’s a subtle and unacknowledged distinction that the hours I work are ‘not the same kind’ of hours." In reality, says Hansen, about 80 percent of her work is billable. "People are often surprised at that, and I’m not sure where that [other] perception comes from."
However, she adds, that perception is also changing. Having a full-time researcher at Borden Ladner has been an educational process — the lawyers at her firm are remembering that they have an excellent resource at their disposal and are learning how to make the most of it. "It’s become a really great working relationship," says Hansen. "And it’s not because of me; it’s the vision this firm had."
Looking ahead, Hansen is unsure whether the legal profession will see a boom in the number of lawyers specializing in research. Ten years ago, she says, she expected more of the big firms to start hiring full-time researchers, but it hasn’t happened yet.
"The firms that had research people ten years ago are the same ones that have them now, and I don’t get the sense that others are taking that step," she says. That may be thanks to the economic structure of most partnerships and the resulting reluctance to give researchers more recognition, because they’re viewed as not bringing clients in the door, says Hansen, adding that this view may be "a bit short-sighted."
Jackson expects research to become increasingly recognized as a specialty when firms begin to appreciate the efficiencies that can be created by having dedicated research people. "It hasn’t quite caught on yet, but when firms and clients gain more confidence in this system, it will."
He wonders if the slow start to the research trend is simply the result of law firms being set in their ways. "Sometimes law firms don’t change as quickly as other types of businesses," he says. "The mentality is, ‘Why should we change?’ But I think change will come with the drive to become more efficient."
It just makes sense, Picciotto agrees. Her clients know what to expect from her firm, and can go to court knowing they’ve got the most recent law and analysis. "It frees up their time to focus on client development, running their files and doing other things, because otherwise research can take up such a big chunk of time in someone’s day," she says. "It’s hard to run back and forth and do bits and pieces of it and expect to run your practice, too."
With clients across British Columbia already, Picciotto is looking to expand. "We aim to be servicing all of Canada," she says. "It’s a matter of time. The exponential growth we’ve had over the past couple of years indicates that it’s just going to take off."
Patti Ryanis a freelance writer based in Ottawa. Her previous article for National, "The new BAC door," about changes to Bar Admissions Courses, appeared in our June/July 2004 issue.