Q. Bill, I'm a small firm practitioner with one secretary. My practice is growing and I need more help. Who should I hire? An associate or a paralegal?
A. I asked Arthur Greene, a former chair of the Law Practice Management Section and coauthor of the new ABA book Paralegals, Profitability, and the Future of Your Law Practice. After a long career as a partner in a large firm in Manchester, New Hampshire, Arthur recently decided to downsize his practice and become a partner in a two-lawyer firm. He says yours is a difficult but common question faced by many solo practitioners:
"It's true that there is substantial overlap in the substantive work that can be performed by an associate or a properly supervised paralegal. But there are some limits on paralegals that may affect your decision. For example, a paralegal cannot accept a client, set a fee, give legal advice, negotiate a deal or represent a client in court. If you need someone to perform these functions, an associate is probably the answer. On the other hand, if you need support in handling most other matters, a qualified paralegal may be the better choice. In making the decision, keep in mind that the skills of a young lawyer and the skills of a qualified paralegal may be vastly different. Paralegals usually are better organized than most lawyers, and are more thorough in case preparation. What's more, they often have better communications skills and the patience needed to communicate effectively with clients. Remember, too, that most associates will aspire to be your partner and share in the profits. A career paralegal, on the other hand, can be invaluable in providing support at a reasonable cost to clients, while returning profits for the solo practitioner."
Next, I asked David O'Brien of Legal Northwest, in Portland, Oregon. He's a specialist in the recruitment and placement of lawyers and legal staff. David pointed out that, although your decision will turn on more than money, you should keep in mind that clients are often willing to pay more for an associate's work than for a paralegal's. Therefore, it's important to know whether or not the person you eventually hire will be billing his or her time. In some cases, a veteran paralegal will command a higher salary than an associate but will not be able to bill his or her time at the same rate as even a rookie associate. That may argue in favor of hiring the associate. If timekeeping and billing are not the most important issues in your office, though, David suggests casting a wide net and postponing the decision until you've had a chance to interview a broad range of applicants, including both lawyers and paralegals. Your decision may also depend on whether you have a litigation practice, with a lot of court appearances, depositions, motions and so on, or a transactional, business-_oriented practice that involves mostly office work and document creation.
I couldn't agree more with both Arthur and David. And I have something else for you to consider, too. My longtime paralegal--who is also my sister--retired last year after working for my personal injury practice for 18 years. I had never had an associate work for me, so I thought that I would bring one on board part-time and spent several weeks interviewing aspiring trial lawyers. But after failing to find the perfect candidate, I decided to take a different approach: I established a relationship with a bright but inexperienced lawyer who wants to learn how to handle personal injury cases. (She started her own bankruptcy practice when she got out of law school two years ago.) Our plan is that she will help me with my cases, sometimes on an hourly fee basis and sometimes on a contingent fee-sharing basis. Advantages for me are that she can take depositions and handle routine court appearances-things that a paralegal would not be able to do. For her, the advantages are that she can have complete flexibility in setting her work hours and can still work on her own cases.
A point that can't be overemphasized is that the right person--someone who has good legal skills, works well with others, is well organized and has good work habits-will be invaluable to your organization, regardless of whether that person is a lawyer or a paralegal.
K. William Gibson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. A former Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, he is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice (ABA, 1997).