Paralegal Utilization: Improving Efficiency and Profitability
The effective use of paralegals can significantly boost a firm's profitability.
Proper utilization of paralegals leads to greater efficiency, larger profits
and higher billable hours, less turnover and a much more focused staff. Law
offices that add paralegals to their staff enable the associates and partners
within the firm to focus on substantive legal work and client development.
The role of a paralegal has been drastically redefined during the past two
decades. Many entities such as the American Bar Association and state and local
bar associations have published a wide range of definitions. Nevertheless,
all focus on the fact that a paralegal is a person qualified not only through
education and training but also by work experience and, more importantly, that
under the supervision of an attorney, a paralegal can perform a wide range
of tasks including specifically delegated substantive tasks, direct contact
with clients, and of course legal drafting and research.
During the past few decades, as the profession evolved, paralegals have organized
themselves in local and national associations and have created professional
guidelines, much like attorneys have. In 1974, the National Federation of Paralegal
Associations, Inc. (NFPA) was established, followed in 1975 by the National
Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. (NALA). Both organizations focus on promoting
the paralegal profession. Paralegals should join these national organizations
and, more importantly, their local organizations in order to gain the benefit
of being on the forefront of the profession with respect to new legislation,
networking with their peers and being able to call on their peers for knowledge.
Paralegals in Maryland have local organizations such as the Maryland Association
of Paralegals (MAP) and the Baltimore City Paralegal Association (BCPA). In
order for the profession to continue to grow, every paralegal needs to have
A paralegal should work under the direct supervision of an attorney who must,
of course, make reasonable efforts to ensure that the paralegal's conduct is
compatible with the professional obligations of the attorney. Rules vary by
state, but essentially, the attorney is subject to disciplinary procedures
for ethical violations committed by his/her paralegal. The unauthorized practice
of law will always be a huge issue. Paralegals, as well as attorneys, should
make sure they have a clear understanding of the Do's and Don't's, bearing
in mind that, although the attorneys are responsible for the work product of
their paralegals, the paralegals are likewise subject to disciplinary procedures.
It is the responsibility of the paralegal to know the rules on important issues
such as ethics, confidentiality and privilege.
National paralegal associations and many state courts are enacting or considering
the enactment of regulation of the paralegal profession, much like attorneys.
This type of regulation would require paralegals to take certifications exams
and, after attaining accreditation, commitment to a certain number of hours
of continued legal education each year.
To ensure that they are getting the maximum profitability from their paralegals,
attorneys should know and document the exact skill level of the paralegal;
it does not increase profitability if a paralegal is consistently assigned
tasks that are beyond the scope of his/her level of expertise. A paralegal
should be given the opportunity to participate in continuing legal education
opportunities as well as opportunities for professional development, such as
the participation in local and national professional organizations. Most firms
encourage (and some will even subsidize) continued legal education for their
paralegals. A paralegal who is treated as a professional and is allowed participation
in practice group meetings generally has greater job satisfaction, which in
turn leads to greater productivity and less turnover. In short, the economic
benefits of employing a paralegal far outweigh the additional ethical responsibility
of the supervising attorney.
There are a few practice rules a paralegal may absolutely not engage in.
A paralegal cannot give legal advice. A paralegal may not accept
case matters directly from the client. A paralegal may also not set
fees. A paralegal cannot sign pleadings or legal documents nor can he/she
represent clients in court or formal legal proceedings including, but not limited
to, formal legal proceedings such as depositions, unless statutorily or administratively
authorized to do so.
Also the paralegal's non-lawyer status must always be perfectly clear
in all oral and written communications. There are specific exceptions to the
unauthorized practice of law set forth in the Federal and Administrative Procedures
Act, U.S.C. 555(b). These exceptions pertain to the Social Security Administration,
Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection
In closing, job satisfaction for a paralegal is directly tied in to how well
the group of attorneys he/she is assigned to understands his/her skill level
and how well they know how to utilize those skills. Moreover, paralegals desiring
greater job satisfaction, and maybe in some cases even upward mobility, must
continue to educate the attorneys with whom they work as to their precise level
Dorothe Howell, ACP, is a paralegal in the litigation
department of Rosenberg | Martin | Greenberg, LLP. In addition to founding
the Baltimore City Paralegal Association, she also serves as a member of the
MSBA Special Committee on Paralegals.