Make Your Law Office More Efficient - Hire a Paralegal
Attorneys often wonder why they should hire paralegal, or, if they do, just
what that paralegal can do. The answers to those questions are simple, but
the implications of hiring a paralegal can be profound for your law office.
Paralegals can improve the efficiency and profitability of a law office because
paralegals can literally perform most of the same tasks attorneys perform – but,
at reduced rates and reduced salaries. Since paralegals can perform substantive
legal tasks at reduced rates, some firms are using paralegals to reduce the
cost of legal services to clients and thereby attract more clientele. And since
hiring a paralegal is less costly in terms of salary and benefits than hiring
a new attorney, firms can increase their staff and their productivity at lower
Today, paralegals are making a real difference in the practice of law. Many
of the larger law firms in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., use paralegals extensively
to perform substantive legal work. These firms have experienced first-hand
the true value of paralegals. Smaller firms and firms in outlying counties
are beginning to understand the impact a paralegal professional can have in
a law office.
Let's start with the basics. What is a paralegal? The American Bar Association
"paralegal" as follows: "A legal assistant or paralegal is 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 and who
performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is
responsible." Although the term "legal assistant" is included in this definition,
there is often confusion as to the difference between a legal assistant and
a paralegal. The ABA indicates that the terms are generally synonymous, but
in practicality, at least in Maryland, the title "legal assistant" more often
refers to a position that is more administrative or secretarial in nature,
whereas the term "paralegal" more often denotes a position that includes more
substantive legal work. For this reason, paralegal professionals in Maryland
are more likely to respond to positions that are classified as "paralegal."
It is noteworthy that the definition above indicates that one can be classified
as a paralegal by
"education, training, or work experience." However, since law firms
are using paralegals to do substantive legal work, the trend is that lawyers
want to hire paralegals with legal educational training. Hiring a paralegal
with a bachelor's degree or associate's degree or certificate in paralegal
studies ensures that the paralegal is trained in all aspects of legal work.
Although paralegals can receive educational training like attorneys, they
are not currently licensed like attorneys, nor are they subject to any other
regulatory scheme. However, some states, like California, require a certain
level of education of persons using the title "paralegal," and other states
are considering state regulation. Last year, the MSBA created the Special Committee
on Paralegals, and one of the long-range goals of this Committee is to review
the status of state regulatory schemes for paralegals nationwide and determine
if such regulation should be imposed for paralegals in Maryland.
Currently, paralegals in Maryland or elsewhere can become "certified" if
they complete a voluntary certification process from a professional association
that has developed specified levels of professional competency. The National
Association of Paralegals (NALA) awards the designation of Certified Legal
Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP) to persons who have met its requirements,
which include a competency exam. In addition, the National Federation of Paralegal
Associations (NFPA) awards the designation of (RP) to persons who have met
its requirements, which also include passing a competency exam.
The ABA does not certify paralegals; however, the ABA does approve college
paralegal programs. Today, more educational institutions are seeking ABA approval
for their paralegal programs. Likewise, more lawyers are not only seeking college-trained
paralegals, but they are seeking paralegals trained at ABA-approved institutions.
Why? Because ABA approval of a paralegal program ensures that the program satisfies
rigorous standards of legal education.
Currently, there are only four colleges in Maryland – including two-
and four-year institutions –
that offer ABA-approved paralegal programs. They are Anne Arundel Community
College, Community College of Baltimore County, Harford Community College,
and Villa Julie College.
What a Paralegal Can Do
Adding paralegals to your staff can be a real asset to your law practice
because of the legal knowledge a paralegal brings to the job. Most lawyers
who initially hire a paralegal are surprised at the substantive legal knowledge
and skills the paralegal possesses. For the most part, individuals who receive
educational training in paralegal studies are trained just like law students.
Trained paralegals can be delegated any task normally performed by a lawyer
(except those proscribed by law), as long as the lawyer supervises the work.
Trained paralegals are qualified to perform substantive legal work, such as
simple and complex legal research; simple and complex legal writing including
legal memoranda, motions, and appellate briefs; document writing and preparation,
including pleadings and interrogatories; reviewing and organizing client files
and trial notebooks; interviewing clients and witnesses; assisting at closings
and trials, etc. Note also that some paralegals are becoming trained mediators.
This skill, too, can be an asset to a law firm specializing in ADR.
How Paralegals Can Make Law Offices More Profitable
Paralegals can improve the profitability of law offices in numerous ways.
Consider these possibilities:
- » Paralegal time can be billed out separately to clients and at
- » Paralegals can be paid less than attorneys, yet handle most of
the same tasks (under attorney supervision),
- » Client satisfaction can improve due to increased contact with
your office through the paralegal, and
- » Paralegals generate revenue three times their salary (called the "Rule
For more information on how a paralegal staff can be a profit center for
your practice, read the ABA Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal
Services and the Economic Benefits of Paralegal Utilization. Information
on both of these resources can be found at www.abanet.org/legalservices/paralegals.
The paralegal field is projected to be one of the fastest-growing occupations
through 2014. This employment growth results from law offices increasingly
hiring paralegals to lower costs and increase the availability and efficiency
of legal services. Private law firms will probably continue to be the largest
employers of paralegals, but many other organizations are hiring paralegals
in increasing numbers, including corporate legal departments, insurance companies,
real estate and title companies, banks, and government and consumer agencies.
Next time you're considering increasing your legal staff, think about the advantages
of hiring a paralegal.
Karen L. Cook, J.D., is a member of the MSBA Board of
Governors and the MSBA Special Committee on Paralegals. She is a past president
of the Anne Arundel Bar Association and is Coordinator of Legal Studies and
Paralegal Internship Coordinator at Anne Arundel Community College.