What is a paralegal?
At the August 1997 ABA Annual Meeting, the ABA’s policy making body, the House of Delegates, adopted the current definition of “legal assistant/paralegal”, as recommended by the Standing Committee on Legal Assistants. The current definition reads 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.”
A paralegal isn’t a secretary, process server, transcriber, courier, hospitality manager, or copy machine operator, but can often be asked to wear one or more of these hats, as well as many others.
The Value of Paralegal Work
As a law firm litigation paralegal for nearly twenty years, I was frequently asked to perform many, what I considered to be, non-paralegal tasks. I never complained about the non-paralegal tasks that were requested of me, but soon came to realize that much of the time I spent performing these tasks was often determined to be non-billable by the lawyers for whom I performed them.
Further, it was not uncommon for me to compete against secretaries, summer law clerks, and associates for what I considered to be billable paralegal tasks.
Lawyers would often ask their secretaries to perform paralegal tasks because they didn’t want their client to incur the expense of a billing paralegal to complete those tasks. Many of the secretaries were also on a career path to become a paralegal, and were anxious to prove themselves to the lawyers.
The summer law clerks knew little to nothing about the inner-workings of a law firm. So, they didn’t even know if or when they were stepping on a paralegal’s toes. They were also just anxious to prove themselves to the lawyers.
The associates were under extreme pressure to meet their annual billable hour requirements, which were typically between 2,000 and 2,400 hours. They were very quick to gobble up any billable work they could get their hands on.
To make matters worse, many lawyers, whether they had just passed the bar, or had thirty years of private practice under their belt, simply didn’t know how to properly utilize a paralegal.
Finally, a paralegal is typically not required to bring business into a law firm, so they’re really at the mercy of the lawyers for whom they work, to provide them with work.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I worked many nights, weekends and holidays in my career as a paralegal, most of it billable. But, I also suffered many months of not meeting my own billable hours target, filled with boredom and attempts at self-marketing (sending out “I need work” emails).
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While I’d like to think that some of these issues and challenges have improved since I left the profession ten years ago, I still hear many of the same complaints from current paralegals, including my wife.
My advice to today’s paralegals feeling under-utilized and unappreciated is to be proactive: educate your lawyers on how to best utilize your particular experience and skill set; anticipate upcoming tasks, and complete them before being asked; keep up with eDiscovery best practices – litigation technology is constantly changing; join your local paralegal association to learn what others in your profession are doing at their firms to promote their practice.
My message to lawyers is to learn how to properly utilize your paralegals – you might be surprised at not only what they can bring to the table, but also how profitable they can be for your firm; engage them at the onset of your cases, not two weeks before trial; recognize them as an integral part of your legal team; and, treat them as the professionals they are – in other words, show them some love.