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What should the role of a paralegal be in your law firm?

What Should The Role Of A Paralegal Be In Your Law Firm
What does a paralegal do and what should their role be within your law firm? Join a paralegal with decades of experience and learn the responsibilities they are typically expected to perform.

What exactly does a paralegal do? And what exactly is the role they should perform within a law firm?

From conducting legal research and drafting documents to liaising with clients and assisting attorneys, the multifaceted responsibilities of paralegals are as diverse as the cases they support.

Join us as we delve into the core aspects of their role, shedding light on the invaluable contributions paralegals make to the legal landscape. Whether you’re considering a career in law or simply curious about the inner workings of legal support, this exploration of the paralegal profession promises to be an enlightening guide.

What is the difference between a legal secretary and a paralegal?

In order to make the most of a paralegal in your firm, it is important to first know the difference between a legal secretary and a paralegal. While both support the attorneys in a law office, the tasks they perform differ. Legal secretaries typically perform administrative tasks, while paralegals perform substantive legal work.

Legal SecretaryParalegal
Coordinate office tasksInterview clients and witnesses
Gather documents, evidence, and other case materialPerforms legal research
Maintain filing systemsDraft and review legal documents
Schedule appointments with clientsAnswer client’s questions without giving legal advice
Send and pay billsConsult with attorneys on legal strategies
Type transcriptions, documents, and correspondencePrepare and respond to discovery
Other administrative work as neededGather and organize evidence for use at deposition, trial, mediation, arbitration, etc.
CalendaringProvide litigation support to attorneys at deposition, trial, mediation, arbitration, etc.

Other key differences between legal secretaries and paralegals

  • In California, paralegals are regulated by Business and Professions Code section 6450, et seq., which defines a paralegal and paralegal requirements. California has no requirements for legal secretaries.
  • Paralegal fees are recoverable under the Equal Access to Justice Act and many California fee-shifting statutes.

Role and responsibilities of the paralegal

Paralegals perform substantive work under the direction of an attorney. So, what exactly is substantive work? Any work that would normally be performed by an attorney, with a few exceptions, will be discussed later.

Keep in mind that paralegal duties and responsibilities will vary depending on the size of the firm. In smaller firms, paralegals usually have more responsibility and wear different hats, such as legal secretary, receptionist, and office manager.

In large firms, paralegals are not expected to perform clerical work and may work in specialized departments such as the subpoena department or the discovery department. In addition to firm size, the type of law practiced will also determine the duties and responsibilities of the paralegal.

Paralegal responsibilities (under the supervision of an attorney)

Information gatherer 

  • Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client
  • Initial intake interviews of potential new clients
  • Obtain facts about the events involved in the incident
  • Locate and interview witnesses
  • Conduct investigations and statistical and documentary research
  • Conduct legal research

Client and Case Manager 

  • Liaison between the client and attorney
  • Paralegals are usually more available to talk to clients, answer non-legal questions, and relay information from the attorney
  • Manage deadlines
  • Manage client relations and expectations

Document preparation 

  • Draft legal documents and correspondence
  • Articles of Incorporation (Corporate Law Paralegal)
  • Draft estate documents (Elder Law Paralegal)
  • Draft disclosures (Family Law Paralegal)
  • Draft medical summaries and demand letters (Personal Injury Paralegal)
  • Draft grant, warranty, and other deeds (Real Property Paralegal

Litigation Support

  • Draft legal documents
  • Drafting includes but is not limited to pleadings, motions, and discovery
  • Summarize depositions, discovery responses, and testimony
  • Attend depositions, mediations, arbitrations, and trials to assist the attorney with case presentation.
  • eDiscovery liaison

Paralegal ethical considerations

Although paralegals perform a variety of substantive work under the supervision of an attorney, paralegals are prohibited from the following duties and responsibilities.

Establish an attorney-client relationship. (ABA Guideline 3 and NALA Canon 1) 

The lawyer must establish and maintain a relationship with the client to ensure that the client can effectively participate in the representation.

NALA Canon 3 states: “A paralegal may perform any task which is properly delegated and supervised by an attorney, as long as the attorney is ultimately responsible to the client, maintains a direct relationship with the client, and assumes professional responsibility for the work product.”

Set the fees charged for a legal service. (ABA Guideline 3 and NALA Canon 1) 

The lawyer must set fees and discuss the basis for fees directly with the client.

Offer legal advice. (ABA Guideline 3 and NALA Canon 1) 

Clients are entitled to their lawyers’ professional judgment and opinion. Paralegals may, however, be authorized to communicate a lawyer’s legal advice to a client so long as they do not interpret or expand on that advice. Although paralegals may be asked by the supervising attorney to help with the plan strategy for a case, it is ultimately the attorney who makes the legal decisions.

Other ethical considerations

  • Paralegals must identify his or her status as a paralegal (ABA Guideline 4 and NALA Canon 5)
  • Paralegals must protect client confidentiality (ABA Guideline 6 and NALA Canon 7)
  • Paralegals must maintain integrity and a high degree of competency through training and education (ABA Guideline 10 and NALA Canon 6)
  • Attorneys may not split legal fees with a paralegal nor pay a paralegal for the referral of legal business. (ABA Guideline 9) A lawyer may compensate a paralegal based on the quantity and quality of the paralegal’s work and the value of that work to a law practice, but the paralegal’s compensation may not be contingent, by advance agreement, upon the outcome of a particular case or class of cases.

Benefits of utilizing paralegals

Now that we know what paralegals can do, the next question is, what are the benefits to a firm using paralegals?

Lower costs to clients while increasing the firm’s revenue base

Paralegals are billed hourly at a lower rate than attorneys, which decreases the costs to the client. While it may seem counterintuitive that a lower hourly rate would result in an increased revenue base, with proper paralegal utilization, the paralegal can be a revenue center.

Example: The total cost of a paralegal is $133,000 per year (Salary $73,000 per year; taxes and benefits $20,000 per year; and overhead $40,000 per year).

To determine the cost per hour, divide the number of billable hours by the paralegal during the year. If the paralegal bills 1500 hours per year, the cost to employ the paralegal is $88.67 per hour. A lawyer will typically bill $100 -$175 per hour for paralegal work. The paralegal will generate $17,000 – $129,500 per year for the firm.

Allows the attorney to accept more cases or more significant cases

A number of tasks, such as routine document drafting, responding to written discovery and summarizing large volumes of potentially relevant factual material, are generally considered by experienced attorneys to be unappealing. Using paralegals allows attorneys to focus their time and efforts on legal analysis, case strategy, and client-and-witness interaction.

Decrease attorney’s workload and corresponding stress

If the attorney is accepting more cases, how can his workload decrease? With a competent paralegal performing substantive legal work, the attorney has more time to take on more cases without feeling overburdened. The attorney’s stress goes down, and their quality of life improves.

Increases client satisfaction and improves service

The number one complaint clients have regarding their attorneys is the lack of communication and updates on their cases. While attorneys are often out of the office on business and, therefore, not immediately available to clients, paralegals normally work in the office.

Therefore, an experienced paralegal who has a working relationship with a client can often respond to client questions and concerns more promptly and effectively than lawyers. Clients will also be happy with the reduced legal fees.

Effective use of a paralegal

The effective use of a paralegal starts with the hiring process:

Determine the needs of the attorney

  • Full-time or part-time?
  • What tasks and responsibilities are required of the paralegal?
  • Do you really need a paralegal, or are the tasks and responsibilities better suited for a legal secretary? Hiring a paralegal to perform legal secretary tasks will lead to frustration and an underutilization of the paralegal’s skills
  • What skills are needed/most important?
  • Legal Research
  • Legal writing
  • Technology
  • Is knowledge of a particular case management or e-discovery program necessary?
  • Is the position entry-level, or is more experience required?
  • Think carefully – hiring an underqualified paralegal will only lead to frustration for both the attorney and the paralegal. Hiring an overqualified paralegal will lead to paralegal frustration and boredom.
  • Is a bilingual paralegal necessary?

Once the skills and needs are determined, next develop the profile of the ideal candidate:

  • Is a strong, non-legal background in a related field required?
  • Is there a minimum level of education required for the position?

Interview carefully, verify credentials, and check references.

Key Characteristics of a successful paralegal

  • Professionalism
  • Ability to think logically
  • Ability to communicate effectively both orally and in writing
  • Ability to assume responsibility
  • Ability to work independently with minimal guidance
  • Attention to detail
  • Excellent organizational skills
  • Positive attitude

Thoughtful consideration in the hiring process will benefit both the attorney and paralegal by finding the right candidate for the position.

How the role of a paralegal has changed

I started my paralegal career in 2005, working full-time for a solo practitioner in his law office. At the time, in addition to paralegal skills, I needed basic computer skills (Word Perfect and Word).

When I left that office in 2011, to teach paralegal studies at a business college and to work as a contract paralegal, I had to expand my computer knowledge as I moved to remote work for attorneys. I now had to think about things such as computer security and cloud computing.

Over the last couple of years (maybe driven by Covid and remote work) more solo and small law firms are relying on practice management software such as CLIO and Lawcus.

The ease of having all case information and documents available in the cloud in one place is efficient and a time saver. Going to the office to pick up documents and files is a thing of the past.

The biggest change I fight is technological advances; since I would never give up the ease and efficiency that computers provide, I have learned to embrace technology.

When one of the attorneys I work for starts a sentence, “You are going to kill me …,” I know he wants to implement the latest and greatest app. I roll my eyes, feign frustration, and, as paralegals do, I adapt and do my best to embrace the latest and greatest.

Gone are the days of spending time in the Law Library looking through volumes of books, trying to find the find that one case on point, or the frustration of the limited hours of the law library; now both paid and free research sites are available for better or worse, any day of the week, at any time of the day.

How the role of a paralegal can change for the future

The biggest question I see for the future is what effect will Artificial Intelligence (AI) have on the paralegal profession.

Some, like me, are wary of AI, while others see AI becoming a critical tool, saving time on mundane but necessary tasks such as research.

While I do not believe paralegals will become obsolete, I do see the role changing, likely for the better.

Robots cannot console a client involved in a contentious divorce or listen to an elderly client describing their estate wishes.

These are truly human interactions. As paralegals, we adapt, and we will adapt to the ever-changing AI landscape.

Conclusion

Paralegals are dynamic contributors to the legal realm, undertaking tasks ranging from legal research to client liaison, elevating their role beyond administrative duties.

Distinguishing paralegals from legal secretaries is crucial, with paralegals engaging in substantive legal work under attorney supervision, guided by ethical considerations of professionalism and confidentiality.

The advantages of integrating paralegals into legal practices are manifold, from cost-effectiveness for clients to increased firm revenue and enhanced attorney focus on strategic legal aspects.

The evolving nature of the paralegal profession is evident in its embrace of technology, transitioning from traditional law libraries to contemporary practice management software, and the imminent integration of artificial intelligence.

While technology may streamline tasks, the irreplaceable human touch that paralegals bring to client interactions ensures their enduring significance within the legal landscape.

Ultimately, paralegals are an invaluable resource on the legal team, improving a law firm’s efficiency while also providing a better client-centered service to the clients.

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