Volume 19, Number 1
January/February 2002

Using Legal Assistants in a Family Law Practice

By Allen R. Telgenhof

When I joined my present firm in 1994, I was surprised to learn that in addition to the four lawyers on staff, the firm employed a legal assistant. I had always believed that only large firms needed legal assistants, and that assistants could be useful only in complex litigation or highly specialized areas of the law. I soon discovered I was wrong.

Today, I work closely with my firm’s legal assistant, Vicki Voisin, on virtually all types of matters, including family law. Her biggest asset is practical know-how—the ability to track down the resource that holds the key to the answer, whether that resource is a person, book, or website.

Tracking it down. A matter recently crossed my desk that involved an unusual issue for our firm—division of a military pension. I turned the matter over to Vicki, who tracked down the right people and found out the terms required for governmental approval. Once those terms were received, Vicki got the military advisers to sign off on the language before the order was entered.

I could have spent hours trying to track down these same people, but Vicki is skilled in this type of problem solving—plus, her billing rate is significantly lower than mine. Meanwhile, I was able to be working (and billing) for another client.

Vicki performs certain tasks on a routine basis. For cases where government information is involved, she gathers tax statements from the county treasurer, recorded instruments from the county register of deeds, etc. Over the years, Vicki has developed a rapport with these agencies that allows us to get materials "in a pinch"—as long as we don’t ask too often, of course!

Client contact. When I know that a case will be time consuming or a client might require extra attention, I ask Vicki to sit in on one of the first meetings with the client. I introduce her and explain that she may answer many of their questions as the case moves forward. People like to have a face to go with a voice. Involving the legal assistant early on directly in the case also lets clients know that you are not "dumping" them on a subordinate but rather are utilizing an important member of your legal team.

Clients appreciate an explanation of the roles the lawyer, legal assistant, secretary, and other firm lawyers will play in their case. Some clients find it easier to approach Vicki instead of me with questions. When Vicki is able to field the questions, the result is lower costs to the client and continued productivity in the office. (Most clients decrease the number of calls to Vicki once they realize they are billed for them.) If necessary, Vicki turns the question over to me.

Organization and input. As the case moves forward, Vicki keeps the documents organized. Early on, I try to determine whether a matter will likely resolve easily, go to trial, or require a final settlement conference. I involve Vicki on the cases that are not likely to resolve early on. She organizes and combines all of the file materials. This guarantees that correspondence and documents in these more voluminous files are properly cared for.

As the file is organized, Vicki reads or at least reviews every item in the file. There is no substitute for this sort of review. We utilize this information in various ways. Vicki shares her basic impression of the case. I find that as a case moves forward, I sometimes buy into the client’s position and am less able to look at things objectively. I make sure to ask Vicki whether my client’s testimony seems truthful or how she thinks the judge will rule on a certain issue.

I find these discussions with Vicki more helpful than seeking out the input of my partners who practice family law. Vicki’s familiarity with the file gives her greater knowledge of the relevant facts. It is not practical for one of my partners to review file documents because most of our family law files are not large-dollar generators (although a complex litigation situation might benefit from two or more lawyers working a file together).

Trial support. Even though most of our cases rarely go to trial these days, if the client can afford it, I prefer to be accompanied by Vicki. She has great knowledge of the file as well as a relationship with the client. She assists with witness coordination and, on occasion, witness preparation. While I am questioning one witness, she can be in a conference room interviewing the next or locating witnesses who haven’t shown up. She also can run errands, return phone calls, and track down materials. Vicki provides peace of mind; I can focus exclusively on the task at hand while she takes care of the unexpected things that inevitably arise while at trial.

Obviously, many family law matters are small and can’t justify such additional expense. I usually tell my clients that if they want the best job my firm can provide on their trial, we should have the help of our experienced legal assistant.

How Far Is Too Far?

Some firms have the legal assistant meet with the client in the initial conference without the lawyer being present. The legal assistant and the client go through a preprinted intake form that covers the basic information needed to prosecute or defend the case. The legal assistant also utilizes form complaints for divorces and motions to reduce child support or for changes of custody. They use the information to prepare rough draft pleadings, which are reviewed and signed by a lawyer prior to filing.

The primary benefit of this type of system is that large caseloads can be managed with fewer lawyers and more legal assistants, which lowers the firm’s overhead. The client still has a contact person for questions; it just isn’t the lawyer. But contact between the lawyer and the client is a crucial element to client satisfaction. If anything goes wrong, the client is likely to blame the problem on not having had enough contact with the lawyer. Court appearances can turn into a case of the legal assistant prepping and the lawyer cramming. In an important hearing, this usually isn’t the best situation for a client. However, there is no question that such a system maximizes the potential for profits if a large caseload is maintained.

Alan R. Telgenhof is a partner in the firm of Joseph, Corcoran, Telgenhof & Snyder, P.C., in Charlevoix, Michigan, specializing in family law as well as other civil and criminal trial practice.

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