The practice of law is changing. In particular, as a result of modern technology, attorneys’ reliance upon support staff is not what it used to be. This has impacted the role of paralegals, members of a dwindling field. Indeed, according to the 2012 Survey of Law Firm Economics, the average number of paralegals per law firm has dipped by over 30%. However, paralegals still play an important role in a law firm. If utilized effectively, paralegals have proven to be invaluable players who provide a key service to clients.
In order to maximize paralegal effectiveness, consider what a paralegal can and cannot do, and familiarize yourself with your own responsibilities to oversee and manage. Paralegals may engage in semi-legal work such as conducting legal research, preparing documents such as subpoenas, and researching potential experts. They are often familiar with rules of procedure and evidence, motion practice, substantive law, and filing procedures. Using paralegals to perform such semi-legal tasks enable attorneys to devote their attention – and higher hourly rate – to more complex legal matters.
But, paralegals have limits under the law. All states prohibit the unauthorized practice of law and have an ethics rule such as Rule 5.5, which prohibits lawyers from aiding another person in the unauthorized practice of law. Although what constitutes the unauthorized practice of law varies from state to state, in most states a paralegal may not establish the attorney-client relationship, accept cases, set fees, conduct depositions, sign legal documents, advocate in courts, or provide legal advice. It is incumbent upon lawyer, not paralegal, to determine what constitutes the practice of law in her jurisdiction.
Appropriate paralegal supervision is also key. After all, the ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services caution that “a lawyer is responsible for all of the professional activities of a paralegal performing services at the lawyer’s direction and should take reasonable measures to ensure that the paralegal’s conduct is consistent with the lawyer’s obligations under the rule of professional conduct.” The guidelines also require lawyers to take “reasonable measures” to ensure that clients, courts and other lawyers are aware that an individual working with the lawyer is a paralegal and not licensed to practice law.
Most importantly, paralegals can assist in cost reduction and enhance client satisfaction. Do the math – an average junior attorney earns about $100,000 annually, or about $50 an hour. By contrast, a paralegal customarily earns about $55,000 per year, or $30 per hour. In many circumstances, paralegals can do the job of a junior attorney for much less. Paralegals can also contribute to more effective client service.
Some tips to maximize the performance of your team:
- Appreciate the abilities; respect the reach. Know what paralegals can and cannot do, and periodically remind paralegals to defer all legal issues to the lawyers. When delegating to a paralegal, make sure to properly guide, monitor, and review the paralegal’s work product. Supervision is key because the lawyer is responsible for the actions of any paralegal that she employs and proper supervision gives both the lawyer and the client confidence that the paralegal is taking substantively and ethically proper actions.
- Delegate deftly. Once you know the scope of a paralegal’s expertise, you will recognize that experienced paralegals can often handle the work of a junior associate. This is a win-win-win-win. Paralegals will be happy to receive more meaningful assignments and higher levels of responsibility; associates will appreciate receiving more complex billable work; the firm will benefit from increased profits because once you have delegated responsibilities to paralegals, attorneys will be able to focus on more sophisticated, higher-level billable work. Added benefits include lower stress levels and quicker turnaround time for client projects and requests.
- Capture client kudos. Speaking of your clients, effective use of paralegals will ensure a consistently high level of client service. Clients will appreciate the cost savings associated with using a paralegal to perform the same tasks that have been billed at attorney rates in the past, and will also be happy at the higher level of service delivered by the firm as a whole. Tasking paralegals with certain responsibilities keeps client costs down while still delivering a high level of service.