Volume 19, Number 1
January/February 2002

Legal Assistants

How to Recruit, Train, Supervise, and Retain the Best

By Charlsye J. Smith, Virginia Koerselman, and Patricia G. Elliott

Hiring legal assistants for your law practice makes good business sense in a lot of ways, but the one that often first catches lawyers’ attention is that they are cost effective. Legal assistants generally bill for all work except administrative tasks, and clients receive the benefit of lower legal bills. As an employer, your hardest task may be determining which of the legal assistant’s many specific skills and abilities can enhance your practice.

When hiring legal assistants, you’ll find resumes list varied qualifications. Resumes may be from high school graduates with little experience in the legal profession or from college graduates with specialized training, paralegal certificates, and certifications. Will you need someone to answer your telephone, type, and perform some legal assistant duties? Or do you need a legal assistant who performs substantive work? How much legal assistance do you need? This article explains how to recruit, train, supervise, and retain legal assistants.

First Steps

Sorting out your law practice needs should be the first step in hiring a legal assistant because, unlike lawyers, legal assistants have varied educational backgrounds, certifications, specialized training, and professional experiences. The ABA defines the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" interchangeably 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." The person that best fits your needs may use either term on a resume.

Some legal assistants work at levels that match a lawyer’s in amount and substance—client contact, drafting legal documents, maintaining the firm’s knowledge about rules changes and updates in law. Others hold dual legal assistant/secretary roles and assist more directly with typing, file updating, and performing some legal assistant duties such as summarizing depositions and preparing client correspondence. Ensuring a good fit of ability and need can eliminate potential sources of frustration for both you and the legal assistant.

The job of hiring a legal assistant does not end with recruiting the appropriate person, however. Legal assistants—regardless of experience and expertise—are required to work under the supervision of a lawyer and need training in how your practice operates. Like lawyers, legal assistants also should have access to continuing legal education to keep abreast of new law and technology, maintain certification, and avoid burnout.

You can locate potential candidates for legal assistants in a variety of traditional ways: Friends and trusted colleagues sometimes make the best referrals because they can give honest appraisals of abilities and professional commitment. At the other end of the familiarity spectrum, running an advertisement in a local or legal newspaper will bring resumes to your mailbox, but you will have to screen them, check references, and assess the applicant’s knowledge and skills on your own.

To avoid these chores, some lawyers opt to use a referral service or employment agency. Unfortunately, referrals from agencies are the most costly because they charge a fee for their services, to either the employer or the employee. Some agencies have applicants complete word processing, spelling, and other computer applications tests; however, few agencies screen legal assistants carefully enough to determine practice area specializations or legal assistant skills. Many agencies will, however, screen applicants using criteria you set out.

A bit more off the beaten path are reputable legal assistant training programs, many of which offer free placement for graduates. Check the ABA website at www.abanet.org/legalassts/ programs.html for a list of legal assistant programs that have been approved by the ABA. Some legal assistant training programs offer "lifetime" placement to graduates.

Southeastern Paralegal Institute in Dallas, Texas, for example, offers lifetime placement for graduates and holds job fairs for law firms and corporations. Placement services are free for employers and program graduates, so be sure to check with schools in your area to see whether they offer similar services. State and local legal assistant associations also sometimes offer referral services that will put people in touch with each other, but they do not vouch for the parties. Still, this service can be valuable and is usually free or low cost. Contact your state or local bar association for names of legal assistant organizations in your area or go to www.nala.org or www.paralegals.org for information from affiliate programs of national organizations.

Finally, consider "trying before buying" by participating in an internship program. Most legal assistant training programs require students to complete an internship in a law office before completing the program. Participating lawyers or firms often get to interview the prospective candidate before placement. By participating in this program you help with the education of future legal assistant professionals and gain the inside track on hiring.

Education

Like lawyers, legal assistants originally were trained in house. The growth of the profession generated many highly qualified training programs in four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, and business schools. Today, legal assistants benefit most from institutional education to learn skills and continuing legal education to keep those skills current.

When hiring a new graduate from a legal assistant training program, you will of course check how the graduate performed, but you may also want information on the program in general. You may prefer a program approved by the ABA, but keep in mind that many well-qualified programs have chosen not to seek ABA approval, possibly because of the cost, because the program lacks a full research library and so cannot pass the accreditation test, or for some other valid reason. (ABA guidelines for program approval are available at www.abanet.org/legalassts/process.html.)

Some of the major courses of study covered in legal assistant programs include litigation, development of business organizations, criminal law, and torts. The program should teach both practical and theoretical perspectives; in a litigation course, for example, students should have learned how to draft a petition, use discovery in a litigated matter, prepare a trial notebook, and so forth. All legal specialty courses cover how to draft documents or other materials related to course subject matter. In addition, most programs offer leadership opportunities for students, such as student organizations and projects in which students can participate.

Choosing the Right Person

It is important to differentiate among qualifications, previous experience, education and training, and professional credentials, because these independently and together will determine both the legal assistant’s salary and how much you can bill for the assistant’s time.

The job application, of course, should cover a release permitting you to talk to the applicant’s previous employers and other references. When speaking with former employers, ask about the applicant’s productivity and ability to work and get along with others. You may want to ask questions that give an idea of the applicant’s general work ethic: How many days did the applicant miss last year? Did the applicant arrive on time, get along with others in the office, contribute to a positive atmosphere? How many jobs has the applicant held during the past five years?

Equally important is determining the applicant’s skill and motivation. Does this applicant take responsibility for assigned work, independently take responsibility to the next level when appropriate, and work well solo and with others? What skills or training does this applicant have, and how can they benefit your practice? Ask for and inspect an applicant’s writing portfolio and samples of drafting work and consider whether they fit with your practice.

Some applicants will be Certified Legal Assistants (CLA), a designation that indicates a legal assistant is "capable of providing superior services to firms and corporations" and that "provides a credible, dependable way to measure ability." More than 11,000 legal assistants nationwide have earned the CLA or CLAS (for specialty areas) certifications. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), national surveys consistently show CLAs are better paid and better utilized. Further, the ABA has recognized the credential as marking a high level of professional achievement. Other organizations and some state bar associations also offer testing for legal assistants.

Especially if this is your first time supervising a legal assistant, be sure to review your state’s rules regarding conflicts of interest. Some states allow you to segregate the employee from conflicted files; others do not. Consider whether it would be practical in your practice to do this.

Finally, to help determine salary and billing for the legal assistant’s time, visit the online 2000 National Utilization and Compensation Survey Report, a biannual survey of more than 3,000 legal assistants, available at www.nala.org/survey_table.htm. Of course, the specifics of your law office, area of practice, and location will influence salary and billing decisions.

Training

No matter how talented or experienced, most legal assistants need a period of training to become familiar with procedures and practices in your particular office. If you practice with a group, draw up a training manual that explains office policies related to vacation, sick leave, benefits, timekeeping, suppliers, client management, etc. Include a list of service providers such as court reporters and copy shops. Some firms have a formal training program led by the office administrator, a junior attorney, or a senior legal assistant. Be sure the program sets specific individual goals and timetables for reaching them.

Solos often cannot assign training to someone else. One way to get a legal assistant started is to give him or her three to five recent files of the type that will be assigned to use as examples of the various types of documents and work product to be generated. Review firm procedures and policies, especially those that relate to how you prefer clients to be treated in general and, more specifically, those governing direct contact between clients and the legal assistant. Encourage questions and be sure you make yourself available to answer them.

It might seem that you have to spend an inordinate amount of (billable) time in the training process—and this is an accurate perception. But it is an investment that will pay valuable benefits: greater profitability and a more productive employee. After the first few months, the new employee will need increasingly less supervision; by the end of the first year, the contributions to your practice should be evident.

Supervising

Working together and maintaining clear and open lines of communication, a lawyer and legal assistant can develop a strong, ethical, and professionally productive relationship. NALA’s Model Standards suggest that lawyers who supervise legal assistants should delegate assignments that fit the legal assistant’s abilities, knowledge, training, and experience.

Lawyers must always monitor the work and the professional conduct of a legal assistant, especially when the employee is new. Once a level of trust is established, the amount of supervision needed generally lessens. However, the lawyer should review ethics rules periodically—and include the legal assistant or other office employees in this review.

Lawyers are responsible for their employees in both disciplinary and malpractice proceedings. In the majority of cases, the lawyer—not the legal assistant—receives sanctions for inadequate supervision. This might mean putting new work habits into practice, which might include reviewing documents and other work product drafted by the legal assistant; documenting reviews for evidentiary purposes; and retaining copies of draft notes with editorial changes, memos pertaining to a project, or other evidence of supervision.

Retaining Legal Assistants

Legal assistants, like lawyers, are affected by boredom, burnout, and general stresses of the legal professional. Encouraging them to stretch professionally, participate in continuing legal education, and incorporate technological advances can help. Ongoing professional training is available through bar association seminars, legal assistant seminars, courses at local colleges, and online courses such as those offered through www.nalacampus.com.

Offer legal assistants increased responsibilities where appropriate. They can benefit from client or strategy meetings and develop into key members of legal teams. For example, in civil litigation, the legal assistant might be more knowledgeable than a lawyer about courtroom technology or electronic discovery methods.

Finally, encourage legal assistants—and other staff members—to be active in professional associations. Experienced legal assistants find participation promotes growth and motivation; newcomers benefit from substantive information as well as a network of mentors and role models.

It is very common today to find lawyer-legal assistant teams that have worked well together for ten, 15, or more years. If this is what you would like for your practice, hire your legal assistant after careful consideration; train and supervise your legal assistant properly; and treat your legal assistant well. All of your effort will result in higher profits for you, not to mention pride in running an efficient, service-oriented practice.

 

Charlsye J. Smith, CLAS, is chair of the Certifying Board for the National Association of Legal Assistants. She is a doctoral candidate in technical communication and rhetoric at Texas Tech University. Virginia Koerselman is a sole practitioner in Omaha, Nebraska. She is editor of the NALA Manual for Legal Assistants and author of seven online seminars for the legal community at www.NALACampus.com. Patricia G. Elliott, CLAS, is president of the National Association of Legal Assistants. Currently with the Phoenix firm of Christian & Mariano, she works in the area of civil litigation.

 

 

Yes, They Can; No, They Can’t

Legal assistants generally are able to perform any task that is properly delegated and supervised by a lawyer, so long as the lawyer is responsible to the client and assumes complete professional responsibility for the work product. NALA’s Model Standards and Guidelines for Utilization of Legal Assistants (available at www.nala.org/stand.htm) offers the following information, based on the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 5.3:

Legal assistants should:

• Disclose their status as legal assistants at the outset of any professional relationship.

• Preserve the confidences and secrets of all clients.

• Understand the Rules of Professional Responsibility.

Legal assistants should not:

• Establish attorney-client relationships.

• Set legal fees.

• Give legal opinions or advice.

• Represent a client before a court unless authorized to do so by said court.

• Engage in, encourage, or contribute to any act that could constitute unauthorized practice of law.

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