Guide to Staffing Certified Professional Paralegals
Before you place an advertisement in search of candidates, you must first understand exactly what a Certified Professional Paralegal does versus other support staff.
The title Paralegal is a stand-alone professional title: Some law firms seek to save money and receive as much work from one person as possible. Therefore, they place employment ads searching for one candidate to place under dual job titles such as Paralegal / Manager, Director of Litigation / Paralegal, Paralegal / Legal Secretary, etc. Each title is a full-time or part-time job. They should not be placed upon one person, especially a professional paralegal who are one step away from becoming an attorney via the Law Office Study Program or as a student in law school.
This paraprofessional has studied to become a paralegal, not an office manager, director or HR administrator. Although they may have these skills and experience, this is not their primary role. If you push several professional jobs on this one paralegal it will lead to burn out and mistakes in their work product due to being stretched too thin.
All staff members can become stressed and exhausted in a moderate to busy law firm. Do not compound this possibility by putting too much on one person. Hire more staff and assign the duties to the appropriate professionals. You will find that your staff will be happier, the workflow will be smoother, and your paralegal will have the opportunity to focus on the work within his/her expertise.
What is a Paralegal?
Paralegals are indispensable to the legal industry? You will find paralegals in law offices, within the legal departments of corporations, and state and federal government agencies. , Paralegals keep the law office running smoothly on cases by working diligently and remaining adaptable. Therefore, it is imperative that the job description of the paralegal is carefully drafted to include the professional duties that are in line with the paralegal’s training. Include the duties and responsibilities that a paralegal is skilled to accomplished.
Skill certified professional paralegals have specific skills that will wow any attorney no matter what area of law they work within. They are highly educated in paralegal studies and in other disciplines as high as a master’s degree as well. They are detailed oriented, organized, efficient, adaptable, hardworking, computer savvy, technologically proficient, have strong written and verbal communications skills, treat their positions with the highest reverence, and they are expensive.
Respect your para-professional, pay them what they are worth, do not stack several titles upon the paralegal title, and treat them well. Only then will you have the pleasure of working with them successfully for many years.
Paralegal Job Description: [Fine tune this description depending on your office area of law.]
Assist Attorney During Trial
Organize Case Files
Prepare Trial Notes
Perform Legal Research
Prepare Legal Briefs
Client and Witness Interviews
Train Junior Paralegals
Review Relevant Documents
Track Billable Time
Summarize Deposition Transcripts
Some of the most inappropriate job duties that I have witnessed being assigned to paralegals on top of their regular paralegal duties include:
Office Space Search [Realtor Task] Oversee Marketing [Marketing Staff]
Status Meetings [Office Manager] Cultural Meeting [Office Manager]
Counsel Attorneys [Therapist] Solicit New Clients – [Sales Staff]
Pay Invoices - [Legal Secretary] Attorney-Client Billing - [Secretary]
If you are requiring your Paralegal to do these types of tasks in addition to their paralegal duties and responsibilities, stop. Recognize that these are not paralegal duties. Hire the right professional for the right role in your firm.
You will find paralegals in the job search market with 1 – 30 years’ experience. Paralegals with fewer skills should be placed under the supervision of an experienced Certified Professional Paralegal – not an office manager. This junior paralegal generally has less than 4 years’ experience and requires on the job training that is best facilitated by an experienced Certified Paralegal.
It is not a good idea to place a paralegal from a non-litigation background in your litigation practice. A highly specialized paralegal such as one from a Probate, Wills and Trusts background with no litigation work experience should be considered as a junior paralegal. You will find that this paralegal will require crossover training and may spend more time in training then billing on your files for the first 6 – 8 months. Additionally, do not place a litigation paralegal in your non-litigation practice. The fast pace environment of a litigation office is very different. The litigation paralegal is not likely to stay.
Exception: Paralegals with 10 plus years’ experience are usually proficient in 3 – 4 different areas of law including litigation and specialty areas of law. If you have a law practice that handles more than one area of law, hire the most experienced Certified Paralegal that you can find to match your firm’s needs.
Paralegals Are Not . . .
Paralegals are not your partner. Paralegals may not partner with an attorney therefore, it is not fair to your paralegal to hear you state that you think of them as a partner. They are your paraprofessional, not your partner.
Paralegals are not your counselor. Do not share your personal problems with the paralegal. Once you cross that line with your paraprofessional and begin to share personal details of your marriage or other relationships, you compromise the integrity and professionalism of your working relationship. Depending on what information you share, your paraprofessional may lose respect for you. If you need to speak with someone about your personal problems, hire a Therapist or Counselor. Keep that interaction away from your staff.
Paralegals are not your Human Resources manager. They should not be placed in a position to hire, fire, or counsel your staff. That is a separate full time or part-time job for another professional. Once you begin placing more responsibility outside the norm of what a paralegal does on a daily basis upon this paralegal, you are interfering with their primary focus on their paralegal duties. Hiring and firing is not a paralegal duty or responsibility. Hire another professional to handle these additional duties. If you cannot afford to hire a Human Resources staff member, hire an outside vendor to handle this task for you or do this yourself. After all, it’s your office and it requires your 100% attention to details. You should know better than anyone what your office needs and how to obtain what you need through the right professional in that industry.
Junior Paralegals, Legal Secretaries Versus Certified Professional Paralegals
One of the biggest mistakes made during the drafting of job descriptions for Paralegals and a Legal Secretary is that a law firm seeks to get around paying a paralegal salary. Therefore, they hire a secretary and give that employee paralegal level work. This is a bad decision because it passes off professional responsibilities to a secretary that is not trained in professional paralegal studies. This will lead to errors, a high turnover, and less billing capability of the office, thereby causing the firm to lose income.
Legal Secretary Job Description
Legal secretaries are not paralegals. They have a different set of skills that should be valued. Their job descriptions are simple and straight to the point.
Draft letters and memorandums
Prepare summons and subpoenas
Federal and State E-Filing
Respond to email
Process Attorney and Client Billing
Maintain Law and Motion Calendar
Schedule Appearances, Meetings Depositions, and Attorney Services
Maintain Attorney’s Calendar
As you can see, the job description of a paralegal and that of a legal secretary support one another but, they are different. Do not combine the two into one position. In the legal industry, every team member has a lane that they work within where cross-training is only necessary to handle overflow in a busy office or to cover for temporary shortage in staff due to vacation, sick leave, and unexpected staff openings. These lanes are the core positions in every law office: Attorney, Paralegal, Law Clerk, Legal Secretary, Intern, and Office Administrator.
True Story: While waiting for our case to be heard, I sat in on a hearing of a litigation law firm in a highly contested case. The attorney made one excuse after another to the judge regarding why mistakes were made in their pleadings and scheduling. The judge listened patiently while the attorney offered one excuse after another in an attempt to sway the judge to grant his request. He blamed his secretary whom he assigned to complete paralegal work filed with the Court. He blamed other staff members for errors that were before the judge on this day. The judge first reminded the attorney of the warning extended to him during the last court appearance, giving him a second chance at that time. The Judge stated, “Your professors must have taught you this in law school, but just in case you were not in class that day, remember the lesson that you are learning here today. Everything that goes wrong in a law firm is the fault of the attorney. Stop blaming your staff. Their failures and mistakes are your failures and mistakes.”
You must take an interest in making sure you are hiring the professional staff that you need, can trust, and that will help your firm to succeed. Don’t cut corners, combine job descriptions, or disrespect your staff. Treat them well and pay them what they deserve.