Published in New Hampshire Bar News (March 16, 2016)
In today’s law firm environment, 85 percent of paralegals spend time performing clerical and secretarial tasks on a weekly basis. Time spent on these tasks is not the best use of their knowledge and skills, and it affects the firm’s profitability.
Although the roles and responsibilities of paralegals differ from small to large firms, it is important to provide your paralegals with appropriate assignments and to distinguish paralegals from legal secretaries. Many mid-to large-size firms call their legal secretaries legal assistants, not realizing that by today’s definition, legal assistants are considered paralegals. On the other hand, many small law firms hire legal secretaries and give them work that should be performed by paralegals. In either case, firms must be careful not to overlap the roles and responsibilities. It is important to get this balance right.
Appropriate assignments make for happier staff and improved workflow. More importantly, your bottom line will improve when paralegals are better utilized. In firms of all sizes, legal secretaries are increasingly given the job title “legal assistant,” even though they do not perform substantive legal work and are not qualified by education to do so.
In today’s practice, many medium and large firms require their paralegals to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in any field with a paralegal certificate from a national certification program. If not certified when hired, firms require that their paralegals become certified within one to two years of hire. The most widely used national certification program is administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants - Paralegals (NALA), the oldest and largest paralegal association in the US. The NALA Certified Paralegal (CP) examination is a two-day exam, requiring paralegals to demonstrate knowledge and expertise in five sections: communications, ethics, legal research, judgment and analytical ability, and substantive law. The latter has four subparts: the American Legal System, Civil Litigation, Contracts, and Business Organizations.
Once certified, paralegals must earn 10 continuing legal education (CLE) credits per year, one of which is ethics, in order to maintain their CP credential. This certification system is similar to an attorney taking the bar exam and maintaining his or her required CLE credits for licensure to practice law. It is important to note that to qualify to take the CP exam, paralegals must have a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in any field with paralegal experience, or graduation from an accredited paralegal program. Certified Paralegals can further their knowledge and specialize in a specific practice area by taking the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) examination in a substantive law area of their choice. As of July 15, 2015, there were 18,413 certified paralegals in the US, of which 3,601 were Advanced Certified Paralegals, according to NALA.
Paralegals have become the backbone of law firms as they perform substantive legal tasks that would have previously been performed by an attorney, such as drafting various legal documents, managing assigned matters, communicating directly with clients, and assisting in filings with various authorities. Attorneys and paralegals are bound by the same code of ethics and utilization rules. Although attorneys can lose their licenses, paralegals can lose their certification credentials if they do not obey the ethical standards.
Increasingly, there is a need to further define the roles and responsibilities of a paralegal to include the required education standards used in the legal industry. Law firms that require their paralegals to be highly educated and certified and that analyze the profitability of their legal professionals find that paralegals are a firm’s profit center.
When firms compare revenues with costs of partners, senior attorneys, associates, and paralegals, they find that paralegals have high profit margins. Whether your firm charges for paralegals based on hourly rates, fixed fees, or contingency fees, it is most likely that the highly educated and certified paralegals are the most profitable. Through increasing paralegals’ roles and responsibilities by assigning tasks that might have been given to associates under the direct supervision of a senior attorney or partner, you reduce your firm’s investment and free up associates to work on other matters.
Anikó Bouley is an advanced certified paralegal and works in the Corporate Department of McLane Middleton. She is the 2007 recipient of the NH Bar Association’s Paralegal Professionalism Award.