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January 20, 2009 5:25 PM

The Innovation Agenda: Practical Law Company Sets Up Shop in NYC

Posted by Ross Todd

The future of law is a topic we've spent quite a bit of time on in recent months. So when the latest "innovative" legal services company to hit the New York market offered to tell us about their vision of the future, we figured we'd hear what they have to say.

First impressions count for something. When we walked into 747 Third Avenue recently to head up to Practical Law Company's New York digs, it felt like we'd stepped into someone's vision of the office building of the future--or perhaps a stylized experiment in cost cutting.

The sign outside 747's revolving doors informed us that we were being surveilled by "28 or more" cameras. Once inside, another sign directed us to speak our full name and destination into yet another camera before proceeding to the elevator banks. Neon signs embedded within those banks read "BUTTON," directing us to press a button to summon an elevator.

After running this high-tech gauntlet and landing on the thirty-sixth floor, The Am Law Daily met with leaders of PLC. The U.K.-based purveyors of practice tools for transactional lawyers recently began offering web-based services to the U.S. legal market. The company hopes to take advantage of clients' increased calls for efficiency from their outside law firms.

PLC, the brainchild of two former Slaughter and May lawyers, launched in 1990 as a print venture geared toward transactional lawyers in the United Kingdom. The company's first publications detailed the lawyering requirements for specific types of transactions--highly structured leveraged buyouts and the like--and discussed why certain structures are used for certain types of deals.

"We created the thing that we wanted when we were practicing," says Chris Millerchip, PLC's cofounder and chairman.

Ten years later, the company developed a set of Web-based tools meant to help transactional lawyers work more efficiently. PLC created--and continues to update--practice notes, document templates, standard clauses, deal checklists, and tools that lay out the basics of dealmaking for junior associates.

Initially midsize firms signed on. Today, 99 of the top 100 firms in the U.K.--including the Magic Circle firms--use PLC. The company's pitch is that its tools not only help junior lawyers use their time more efficiently, they say their updates keep partners abreast with the latest regulations and market trends. PLC also provides U.K. law services to about 70 percent of The Am Law 100 firms with a London office, including Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Latham & Watkins, Shearman & Sterling, White & Case, and Kirkland & Ellis.

PLC's team has been developing its U.S. presence since November 2007. The company launched beta versions of its corporate/securities and finance products in December 2008. PLC's sales team is reaching out to the 500 largest U.S. firms and about 3,000 corporations in person, by direct mail, by phone, and through a print and internet advertising campaign. So far, about 100 firms have signed up on a trial basis.

The company's U.S. staff, based in the midtown Manhattan office, numbers 42. PLC turned to Major, Lindsey & Africa for help in filling about 80 percent of its 21 legal staff positions--nearly all of whom are large law firm alumnae. "Selling the job is not hard," says PLC's U.S. CEO Jeroen Plink, a former Clifford Chance associate who also spent time on secondment in Latham & Watkins Los Angeles office before joining PLC in 2002. About 80 lawyers interviewed for spots with PLC in the last year-and-a-half, Plink says.

Given the economy, selling PLC's product might be another matter.

"We would have preferred to launch two years ago," says Plink with a grin. But he says the struggling economy may actually be a blessing in disguise for PLC. With many firms attempting to do more work with fewer attorneys, and lawyers retooling to practice in new areas, Plink is confident PLC can compete for a piece of law firm budgets in the U.S.

Cost cutting--stylized or not--seems to be in everybody's vision of the future these days.

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Even if the US services are only half as good as the services in the UK then they would still prove vital to every Corporate and Finance lawyer within the US.

I would add that they don't just do the basic information either. Their practice notes are extremely detailed so the whole team benefit, not just the junior members of the team.

My access to PLC has become even more vital in the current climate. The main focus within my firm currently is on billable work, PLC take care of the majority of the work that isn't billable leaving me free to have a chance at hitting my targets!

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