Finding Your Better Half: Paralegals in the Small Law Office
More often than ever before, lawyers are choosing to practice law in small law firms or as solo practitioners. At some point, many of these small firm lawyers will also conclude that hiring a paralegal makes sense for the success of their law practices.
Identifying the right candidate to work as a paralegal in your law practice is not always easy. For some attorneys, after looking at the process of finding a paralegal and negotiating a wage and benefits package while training them to work alongside you, they may conclude it is not worth the trouble. But many small firm lawyers who have decided to take on the additional help have been pleased with their decisions and have found that adding a paralegal may have been the necessary step to operating a thriving practice for the long run.
“Having a good paralegal frees me up to be a better lawyer,” says Ann Barker, a solo practitioner who operates a family law practice in Owatonna, Minnesota. “I want to be a lawyer, not a bookkeeper. Doing it all is not very attractive to me.”
Barker also points out that for the attorney’s overall health and wellness, “Having a paralegal means you don’t have to be tied down to the law practice 24/7. You need to have a life, and taking it all on yourself will burn you out and shorten your career as a lawyer.”
If you have decided to hire a paralegal, where to find a good one can become a difficult first step. Minnesota, like every other state, does not require certification status for an individual to operate as a paralegal, so finding an individual who’s well trained may require contacting the postsecondary institutions around the state that offer educational programs and training for paralegals.
For years, programs like the ones at the Minnesota School of Business, Inver Hills Community College, Winona State University, and Hamline University have trained students in paralegal studies so they will be able to hit the ground running when they reach their new law firms.
Jeanne Kosieradzki is an attorney who serves as chair of the legal studies department at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, points out that not all paralegal studies programs are alike.
“Employers want paralegal graduates from an ABA-certified program,” says Kosieradzki. Hamline University’s paralegal studies program is ABA certified, which requires Kosieradzki to apply for certification every seven years. The certification process also requires Kosieradzki to show the ABA Hamline’s class syllabi, extensive background information about their educators, student feedback, and that they are staying current with ABA standards—especially in areas that may be hard to meet, like legal technology training.
Some lawyers, like Barker, would rather identify potential candidates for paralegal positions from an office temp agency that may already be familiar with their law practice, as well as the personality type of the attorney.
“They do the screening,” says Barker. “I pay a premium to the temp service, but then the employee is on their payroll for the first 90 days, and I don’t have to worry about the having the payroll structure set up.”
After the first 90 days are over, lawyers usually has the option of offering a position to the candidates, or letting them go—another task that the agency will take care of.
Kosieradzki also points out that lawyers in small firms may have an advantage when attempting to hire a well-qualified paralegal.
“Small law firms tend to offer more flexibility to paralegal candidates, making them attractive workplaces to the most qualified candidates,” says Kosieradzki. Owners of small law firms may get the benefit of hiring well-qualified paralegals for less pay, and in return, the employee may expect to receive more flexible work hours, or work from an office that is closer to their home.
In 2006, Minnesota CLE, Minnesota Lawyers Mutual, and the Practice Management and Marketing Section of the MSBA jointly conducted a survey of small firm lawyers, in which they were asked to report what they were currently paying their nonlawyer assistants in annual salary. The most frequent response from small firm lawyers who had hired new nonlawyer assistants was $20,000–$24,999. Nonlawyer assistants with 5 to 10 years experience were most frequently earning $25,000–$29,000, and those with 10 or more years in the industry typically earned $40,000 to $45,000 annually.
Of course, what you pay your paralegal can depend upon many variables, including the practice area you specialize in, what types of tasks and duties they take on as your assistant, or even how good they are on the phone with your clients.
The attorney’s foremost responsibility when hiring nonlawyer staff is to supervise their performance to make sure they understand the ethics associated with a law practice, and that they will always maintain the ongoing duty of client confidentiality—even well after they have left your office to work elsewhere.
Paralegals are often thought of as being the first line of defense when dealing with client matters, and their demeanor with clients will often reflect the treatment they receive from the attorneys they work for. Take time to talk to your paralegal about the frustrations they encounter and the problems they see. You’ll find that heir instincts are good ones: to look out for what’s best for your law firm, to make sure the clients are being treated fairly, and to see that the boss is happy.
Todd Scott is the Vice President of Member Services for Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company. He is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association, where he serves as Co-Chair of the Practice Management & Marketing Section, and the Nebraska State Bar Association.
© Copyright 2008, American Bar Association.