Contributed by Laura Nelson, Paralegal Program Chair, Globe University – Green Bay
A word of caution to the attorneys in the audience: Do not underestimate the value of a paralegal! Just like everyone else in this tense and volatile economic climate, your clients are looking to pinch their pennies to save money, too. Your time is valuable – and expensive; clients know this, which is why they’re looking for more cost-effective ways to retain your services.
In her recent article entitled Firms Wave Goodbye to Billing for Research Costs, Rachel Zahorsky noted that more firms are absorbing the expenses of legal research as a cost of doing business. Why? Because clients are questioning their billing statements and demanding discounts. Clients simply want to pay less for the same high quality legal expertise.
So, is it possible that a law firm can increase its profitability while absorbing more costs? Sure. Hire a paralegal! A paralegal can simultaneously improve your firm’s efficiency while increasing your profitability. How? Well, the solution is fairly straight-forward: paralegals can perform most of the same tasks as an attorney, but they do so at lower rates and reduced salaries. The end-result is that paralegals reduce the cost of legal services to clients, thereby (presumably) attracting more clients; and since it costs less to hire a paralegal than an attorney in terms of salary and benefits, a firm can increase its productivity at a lower cost.
Paralegal is not synonymous with secretary. Whereas a secretary is generally thought to be more administrative and clerical, a paralegal is capable of far more substantive legal work. The terminology is important. The American Bar Association defines 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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
In Wisconsin, a push for licensure by paralegals encouraged the State Bar to form the State Bar’s Paralegal Practice Task Force, which met for the first time in July 1996. The Task Force undertook the examination and determination of issues surrounding the paralegal practice, including: (1) creating a definition of a paralegal; (2) creating guidelines for the education of future paralegals; and (3) establishing a Code of Ethics for paralegals. In January 2004, the Task Force concluded its study with a report of its final recommendations to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which recommendations included the following definition of a paralegal: “’Paralegal’ means an individual qualified through education and training, employed or retained to perform substantive legal work and supervised by an attorney licensed to practice law in this state, requiring a sufficient knowledge of legal concepts that, absent the paralegal, the attorney would perform the work.”
In addition, the Task Force recognized the need and importance of a standard course of paralegal study, combined with the benefits of on-going educational credits; accordingly, it recommended educational and training requirements for licensure. Among its recommendations, and in light of the fact that the profession requires more than technical competency, the Task Force set specific course standards that would ensure the development of such essential skills as legal research, legal writing, critical and analytical thinking, and the identification and resolution of ethical issues.
Although licensure is as yet not required of paralegals in the state of Wisconsin, the work of the Task Force remains relevant, especially in light of the present economy and today’s clients. Unlike the traditional “secretary,” “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, . . . interviewing clients and witnesses; [and] assisting at closings and trials.”
By hiring a paralegal, attorneys are investing in a more profitable future for their firms. Perhaps most significant in this conclusion is that paralegals generally produce revenue that is three times their salaries. After all, the qualified paralegal can produce the same legal work as an attorney (with an attorney’s supervision) but at a much lower cost to the firm. In the process, client satisfaction improves as your firm increases the efficiency and availability of your legal services.
In the end, everyone’s bottom line is met.