Maximizing the power of your legal support staff

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), “Rare is the law firm that fully leverages its paralegal team.” While law schools may provide attorneys with a solid legal education, many successful lawyers don’t have the faintest idea how to best utilize their support staff.

When attorneys don’t consider their staff a part of the legal team and treat them as such, they’re not fully appreciating the talents of their trained support team or making the most of their abilities.

If a law firm wants to function at peak efficiency, with all employees feeling empowered and challenged, here are some tips to use your paralegals and support staff to their full potential:

#1 Assign work appropriately

Attorneys generally lack the knowledge of what paralegals and legal support staff are qualified to do, and so often incorrectly assign work. Paralegals are qualified to conduct legal research, respond to discovery requests, and interview witnesses, all of which are hours of billable work.

Answering the phone, transcribing dictation, and mailing correspondence cannot be billed to the client, falling instead under the general overhead of a law office. Legal secretaries should be tasked with this necessary clerical work, for a much more efficient and profitable division of responsibility.

#2 Bill accordingly

Attorneys are permitted to bill clients for time that paralegals spend doing substantive work on their cases, so long as it is legal and not clerical in nature. This approach defers some of an attorney’s billable tasks to paralegals and gives them additional time to work on more complex matters. It also provides clients with a discount on those billable hours.

The Association of Legal Assistants and Paralegals (NALA) reports that the billing rates for paralegals from 2010-2014 averaged between $99 and a little over $200 per hour, depending on years of experience, size of firm, and certification status. According to a survey by the National Law Journal, average billing rates for attorneys ranged from $370 for associates to more than $600 per hour for partners.

#3 Provide educational opportunities

Professional development is essential for lawyers to maintain licensure, but such opportunities should also be made available for legal support staff, whether or not it is required. The law is always changing and new technology is continually being developed; just two of the reasons that professional development is essential for legal support staff.

When an attorney invests in his or her team, they, in turn, feel more invested in the firm. With this approach law firms can better retain staff members who are not only knowledgeable about new issues and new laws, but loyal to the firm as well. 

#4 Offer attractive compensation and benefits

To build a strong legal team, become a law office that is concerned with providing an all-around positive experience for its employees. This should include incentives to succeed, bonuses for especially great work, flexible work hours, and additional time off. Identify ways in which you can further encourage and enable your employees, as these additional benefits — plus respect and appreciation — are some of the best forms of compensation your firm can provide. Not just to boost morale but also to help you retain talented employees.

#5 Change the culture

Initiatives to maximize the utilization of paralegals and support staff will fail if they are not supported by a positive and nurturing law firm culture. Firms must take steps to rid their organizations of the all-too-familiar yet damaging perception that paralegals and support staff are “second-class.” Recognizing the worth of these valuable employees is vital to creating and maintaining a strong legal team. After all, your success relies, too, on the power of your paralegals and legal secretaries and assistants.

Finding meaning in one’s work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, job satisfaction, and performance, and also decrease absenteeism and stress. Unfortunately, a meaningful work experience is not the norm, particularly in law firms. Attorneys can change that by altering their approach to paralegals in the space.

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How does your law firm maximize the talents of paralegals and legal support staff? Tell us about it in the comments!

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