Utilization of Paralegals
Attorneys may well be asking, "What does this mean and how would it benefit my law practice?" Or, they may be thinking, "Why should I create a new position?" The answer is simple enough: attorneys look to the bottom line and want to know what methods can ease their workload. The following is an overview of the legal assistant or paralegal professional and how utilizing paralegals can help to answer the above questions. Additional information can be found in the
American Bar Association’s Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegals
NALA’s Model Standards and Guidelines for Utilization of Legal Assistants – Paralegals
What's in a Name?
A legal assistant is a paralegal; the terms are interchangeable. Although there is no singly accepted definition of a paralegal, the general consensus is that a paralegal is a person who by education, experience, and training assists lawyers in the delivery of legal services and performs substantive legal work under the supervision of an attorney. Properly utilized paralegals contribute a broader scope of legal benefit to the firm than strictly secretarial or administrative employees.
How Will My Law Firm Benefit?
Time is Money
Use of paralegals contributes to the "bottom line." In-house paralegals can perform many tasks now assigned to outside counsel, thus, containing legal fees and improving case management. Paralegal salaries, while commensurate with other professionals having like credentials and responsibilities, are still less than those paid to lawyers. Paralegals are expected to manage a large number of assignments in an efficient and timely manner. Some of the substantive tasks appropriate for paralegals to perform include:
Conducting client interviews
Drafting legal documents, correspondence, and pleadings
Summarizing depositions, interrogatories, and testimony
Conducting legal research
Conducting real estate closings
Maintaining files and tickler systems
Authoring and signing correspondence (disclosing non-lawyer status)
Liaising with clients and court personnel
Locating and interviewing witnesses
Paralegals are still explicitly prohibited from giving legal advice, setting legal fees, fee splitting, and representing parties in court.
The primary reason a firm is not successful with paralegals is under use of their skills and talents. To achieve efficient use of the paralegal and to realize greater profit, the firm must involve the paralegal in a matter from the initial client conference. This contact enables the paralegal to gain an overall understanding of the issues introduced and the outcome sought. If paralegals do not grasp the nature of the case, it is difficult for them to use reasoning and creativity in completing assignments. For instance, if they are not involved in the case enough to understand the legal strategy, how can they effectively do thorough research? Involving our paralegal with the case as a whole will afford them the opportunity to work efficiently and attain maximum results.
Cost Savings to Firm
Employee loyalty is key to profitability. Legal assistant salaries are commensurate with other similarly trained professionals with like credentials and responsibilities. These salaries may be less than those paid to associate attorneys, and firms have greater projection control as to future costs related to the paralegal employee.
Most associate attorneys, especially those who are newly licensed, will remain with the firm only a few years. A satisfied paralegal is more likely to stay with the firm as a career choice, rather than using the position as a stepping-stone. Additionally, the attorney will generally determine the paralegal's effectiveness more quickly than in the case of a newly hired associate and, as a result, be in a position to cut losses earlier. In the event that the new employee does not work out, the cost of severing the relationship with a legal assistant is less than that of a departing associate.
It is true that a paralegal cannot perform all of the functions of an associate attorney. As outlined above, however, efficient use of the paralegal will free up the attorney who is currently performing many of the tasks that should be properly delegated to the non-lawyer assistant, tasks that are too complex for the secretary/receptionist employee and yet do not require an attorney's attention. Utilizing a paralegal in this manner enables the attorney to focus on specific functions appropriate only to those authorized to practice law.
Transactional work (e.g., preparing and negotiating contracts, protecting the corporation's intellectual property, and maintaining corporate records) can be done entirely in-house by paralegals, which reduces the need for outside counsel.
Typically, a good portion of an in-house attorney's time is spent managing outside counsel. Paralegals can assume a primary role in the management of cases and free the in-house attorney to work on more substantive legal matters. The bottom line is clear. Using paralegals significantly lowers outside counsel fees, improves the management of cases, and provides greater cost containment for the legal department.
An in-house paralegal acquires knowledge that is invaluable to both internal attorneys and outside counsel, which, in turn, allows matters to be handled efficiently and cost effectively. Corporate paralegals become extremely familiar with the organization of the company, its goals, priorities, and products, and can accumulate, analyze and summarize data and facts from an insider's perspective. From such insight paralegals can quickly determine the appropriate persons to contact to obtain specific information, saving time and money when working with outside counsel in preparing and responding to discovery requests in litigation.
Experienced legal assistants with in-house knowledge work not only in the legal department but are found in a variety of positions throughout a corporation: contract administrator, corporate procurement, patents or corporate secretary to name a few.
The use of paralegals provides consistency. When firms throughout the country are handling similar matters for the company, it is beneficial to have an in-house paralegal providing information so that each firm does not have to "reinvent the wheel."
Satisfied Clients Through Contact
Clients also like a paralegal working with the attorney on their case. The paralegal is intimately familiar with the details of the case, is easily accessible, and is a direct extension of the attorney. Often attorneys are out of reach due to court appearances, client meetings, or other commitments. The paralegal is usually available in the office and the person in direct contact with the attorney at any given point during the day. Although the paralegal may not give legal advice, clients are reassured when their call is answered that the question will be forwarded to the attorney and an answer forthcoming.
Lack of client communication is one of the primary reasons for the filing of bar complaints. Having a paralegal can alleviate many client concerns, while improving the quality of the legal services rendered.
In addition to the cost-savings and corporate-knowledge benefits described above, intangible benefits accrue to corporations who employ long-term paralegal. No dollar value can be placed on teamwork skills developed over time by attorneys, paralegals and other legal staff in a corporate setting. Attorneys and management can develop a comfort level with the predictability of performance of long-term in-house paralegals. Long-term relationships between paralegals and operations employees are also extremely beneficial to on-going company success.