Law firms across the United States remain under clouds of economic uncertainty, making some attorneys eager to keep busy and prove their worth. Sometimes, though, these attorneys are undermining firm profitability by doing work that’s better left to paralegals and creating a ripple effect of staff members performing tasks for which they’re overqualified. To prevent such problems, you need to ensure you’re using your paralegals effectively.
Clarify the Role
The ABA defines a “paralegal” as “a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Other entities have formulated various definitions; according to the National Association of Legal Assistants, the common threads are that paralegals have received specialized training and perform nonclerical, substantive legal work in assisting an attorney.
Despite such definitions, confusion about the paralegal’s role abounds in many law firms. Often attorneys are unsure about the types of work to give paralegals or harbor doubts about their capabilities. Not surprisingly, paralegals sometimes complain that attorneys don’t treat them as professionals, their firms fail to provide clear career paths, and they have no voice in their firms.
Paralegals shouldn’t be confused with secretaries or administrative staff. Paralegals are there to perform tasks that administrative employees aren’t qualified to do. The respective job descriptions should make the distinctions among paralegals, secretaries and administrative staff clear.
Regard Paralegals as Legal Staff
To fully integrate your paralegals as members of the legal staff, take the necessary steps to ensure that they:
- Participate alongside attorneys in meetings,
- Contribute to decisions about their practice groups,
- Receive opportunities for professional development,
- Comply with the same ethical requirements applied to attorneys, as well as those for paralegals and legal assistants,
- Are treated as professionals both inside and outside the firm, and
- Receive performance evaluations that resemble those for attorneys.
Some firms have found it helpful to designate a paralegal coordinator, such as a respected attorney who understands the value that paralegals bring to the firm and its clients. The coordinator is responsible for the hiring, development, training and optimal use of paralegals. While the coordinator need not actually assign paralegal work, he or she should be an advocate for the appropriate use and treatment of paralegals.
Leverage the Work
With the economy still struggling, few firms can afford to squander their resources by having attorneys and staff members perform work that could be done more cost-efficiently by others. Properly leveraging your paralegals is one way to avoid this pricey mistake.