How To Run a Law Firm | Who To Hire: Paralegals

paralegal, business assistant

This multi-part series explores how to run a law firm and the integral roles that make law firms successful. In this article, we look at the role of the paralegal. We explore why paralegals are essential to legal practices, standard educational requirements, key attributes to look for in a candidate, salary ranges, and interview and hiring tips.

paralegal, business assistant

What Is a Paralegal?

A paralegal is a person who has been educated in subsidiary legal matters but is not fully qualified as a lawyer. Paralegals are high-valued members of legal teams who have extensive knowledge of the law but are not allowed to practice in court or hold themselves out as a lawyer. They assist lawyers in various legal capacities. They may work in private law firms or the public sector and specialize in particular legal niches, similar to attorneys. However, unlike attorneys, paralegals cannot offer legal services independently in most U.S. jurisdictions.

The Difference Between Lawyers and Paralegals

In the U.S., a lawyer has earned a law degree, usually a three-year Juris doctorate, after receiving their bachelor’s degree. Then, the lawyer is licensed by a bar association following a passing score on their chosen state’s bar exam. This qualifies the lawyer to practice law in the jurisdiction governed by their bar association. 

Paralegals, on the other hand, have significantly less legal training. Paralegals often hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a field like paralegal studies. They sometimes also hold a master’s degree or state-level certifications.

The most significant difference between lawyers and paralegals is that lawyers can offer legal advice, appear as counsel in court, sign court documents as representatives, and set fees. In most American states, a paralegal who attempts to offer the preceding services could be found violating the unauthorized practice of law statutes in their state. 

Why Paralegals Are Important

Paralegals are an integral part of any law firm’s legal team. They can skillfully take on various tasks around the firm to free the lawyers up to focus on more challenging projects. Due to different factors, such as education and training, attorneys bill at a significantly higher rate than paralegals. For example, if your attorney bills at $250 per hour and your paralegal bills at $50 per hour, it makes sense to transfer appropriate tasks from your attorneys to your paralegals. This efficient transfer of costs and time can have several beneficial results for your firm, including:

  • The firm’s costs are reduced
  • The firm’s clients can appreciate increased communication with your firm via your paralegal
  • Your firm may choose to bill paralegal time separately to your clients at lower rates
  • Your firm could choose to either lower legal fees or enjoy a higher profit margin
  • You can include paralegals in your firm’s pro bono activities

Additionally, when mundane and administrative tasks are shifted away from your attorneys and onto paralegals, the firm’s attorneys can handle more cases more efficiently.

What Paralegals Do

Paralegals work under the authority of an attorney. The attorney frequently shoulders the legal liability of the paralegal, protecting the paralegal somewhat from legal errors. Often, paralegals are hired to handle a wide variety of tasks for the lawyers or the legal team they work for. You can delegate many tasks in a law firm to the paralegal team. These tasks often include administration, research, legal writing, documentation, trial-related, and niche legal duties. Examples include:

Administrative Tasks:

  • Providing clients with quotes
  • Answering phone calls and emails
  • Maintaining attorney schedules
  • Calling clients
  • Scheduling interviews, meetings, hearings, and trials

Research Tasks:

  • Interviewing clients and witnesses
  • Searching for cases through online legal databases like Westlaw, LexisNexis, Fastcase, Casemaker, and Google Scholar
  • Searching through older legal libraries that may have resources not found online
  • Conducting research on laws and regulations
  • Investigating case facts
  • Acquiring affidavits and formal statements to be used as evidence in court

Legal Writing Tasks:

  • Writing reports to prepare for trial
  • Drafting correspondence and legal documents, like contracts and mortgages
  • Analyzing and summarizing legal documents or prior cases

Documentation and Organizational Tasks:

  • Organizing and presenting information
  • Organizing case-related information in computer databases
  • Maintain reference files
  • Electronic database management

Trial-Related Tasks:

  • Help lawyers during trials
  • Review litigation material 
  • Collect and organize evidence for hearings
  • Prepare trial documents

Niche Industry Tasks:

Some paralegals are generalists, but those specializing in a specific industry could be entrusted with entirely different tasks. Examples of niche industries in which paralegals specialize include:

  • Personal injury
  • Immigration
  • Real estate
  • Litigation
  • Intellectual property
  • Family law
  • Bankruptcy
  • Banking and finance
  • Estate planning
  • Criminal defense
  • Corporations

Standard Paralegal Training and Education

Unlike lawyers, there are multiple roads to becoming a paralegal. The following are educational and training options for students seeking to become paralegals:

  • Two-year associate’s degree programs at community colleges and four-year institutions
  • Four-year bachelor’s degree programs at colleges and universities
  • Certificate programs at universities, colleges, business schools, and proprietary schools
  • Internships 

Two-Year Paralegal Associate’s Degree Programs

The courses involved in an associate’s paralegal degree combine general education, core legal courses, legal specialty courses, and electives. An Associate in Arts (AA) degree in paralegal studies should provide graduates with the necessary skills to work as generalist paralegals. 

Standard legal specialty courses offered in these paralegal programs include:

  • Torts
  • Contracts
  • Criminal law
  • Business law
  • Litigation
  • Estate planning
  • Corporate law
  • Real estate
  • Family law

Four-Year Paralegal Bachelor’s Degree Programs

These bachelor’s degree programs may offer a major or minor in paralegal studies. They typically combine courses in general education, electives, and legal specialty courses. If a student started their studies in a community college, typically, they would transfer to a college or university to complete the last two years of the four-year paralegal bachelor’s degree program.

A four-year program generally grants students a solid liberal arts education and specialized legal training in more than one area. This provides graduates with the necessary education to choose from employment opportunities in several legal settings. These four-year paralegal programs can lead to bachelor’s degrees in many related disciplines, including:

  • Criminal justice
  • Political science
  • Human services
  • Legal studies
  • Business
  • Paralegal studies

The four-year program’s strong liberal arts educational base can improve a student’s writing, research, and critical thinking abilities, all of which are desired qualities in a paralegal.

Certificate Programs

Many colleges, universities, and other schools offer non-degree certificate programs. Some of these programs offer academic credit, and others do not. Usually, these programs focus exclusively on legal specialty training. Applicants for these programs are often required to have completed at least one year of college before gaining admission, while other programs only admit college graduates. Certificate programs can be offered full-time or part-time and can last from a few months up to two years. 

Internships

Many paralegal programs and degrees include an internship component as part of the student’s training. This allows the student to gain practical experience while utilizing the skills they have learned throughout their education. Internships can be conducted in private law firms, attorney general offices, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.

Certified Paralegal Examinations

California is the only U.S. state that regulates paralegals. Currently, there is no mandatory certification or examination for U.S. paralegals. However, there are several professional certifications available.

A few paralegal associations sponsor certification examinations to grant the title of a certified paralegal. 

One example is the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). NALA sponsors a certification examination for paralegals to become Certified Paralegals (CPs).

What To Look for in a Candidate

When you decide to hire a paralegal, there are a few qualities you should look for. According to the American Bar Association, these are the top five skills to look for when hiring a paralegal:

  • Ability to multitask
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Willingness to learn
  • Expertise in organization
  • Ability to anticipate issues

These skills are difficult or even impossible to teach. If you find a paralegal that exhibits all of these qualities, hold on to them tight. They will prove to be an indispensable member of your team.

Salary Range for Paralegals

The average salary of a paralegal can vary, just like the salaries of lawyers in the U.S.. The average paralegal salary is around $60,000, with the lowest 10% earning up to $47,000 and the top 10% making over $75,000.

Of course, location, education, and experience can shake up the salary range significantly. Since the pandemic, remote and virtual paralegal services have boomed. This development has made it easier for firms to find the paralegal who is the best fit for their firm’s specialties. 

Interview and Hiring Process

Once you have decided to hire a paralegal to assist with your office’s legal and administrative tasks, you must plan the interview and hiring process.

Here are six quick tips to help you organize: 

  1. Arrange interviews with promising candidates. If you have a human resources department, work closely with them throughout the hiring process.
  2. Develop your interview questions. These should be a mix of questions targeting the candidates’ hard skills, behavioral tendencies, and soft skills. Be clear on the role and any expectations and responsibilities.
  3. Narrow the selection down to your top candidates. If you need additional information, conduct another round of interviews.
  4. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of your top candidates. Determine the best candidate for your firm.
  5. Make an offer to your first choice. If your prime candidate rejects, move on to your secondary candidate, or re-start the interview process. 
  6. Once your preferred candidate accepts your terms of employment, your HR department can walk them through the onboarding, which will be similar to onboarding other staff in your firm.

When you hire the perfect paralegal for your firm, be sure to foster their professional growth and ensure the relationship is mutually beneficial. A good paralegal is worth their weight in gold, and you certainly don’t want to lose them to your competition.

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