Are Paralegals an “Embarrassment”?

In addition to practicing family law in North Carolina, Lee Rosen of Divorce Discourse consults with lawyers seeking to improve and expand their law practices. I’ve been reading his blog avidly for years. You see, even though I’m an “embarrassing” paralegal and not a lawyer, I am a business owner, and Mr. Rosen’s blog posts on running and marketing a business are invaluable. I’ve made more than one alteration to my website or some other marketing or business practice based on his analyses. I frequently recommend his blog to my attorney contacts.

Over my years of reading Rosen’s blog, I’ve noticed he enjoys poking at convention, and he enjoys being controversial.

Last week, his post titled Your Paralegals Are an Embarrassment seemed calculated to do both those things.

In it he states (no doubt accurately although I haven’t crunched the data) that there is an inverse correlation between a firm’s paralegal head count and its adoption of technology. Personally, I would add secretaries, receptionists, bookkeepers, and just about any other staff position into that equation.

Rosen argues there is nothing a paralegal is doing that can’t be done by technology of some sort (a point I would argue with, but I’ll save that for future posts), and any paralegal task not supplanted by technology is better performed by the attorney him/herself.

And I agree with much of what he says . . . with some really huge caveats.

Technology

I’m the first to agree that many law firms, especially smaller ones, are years (decades in some cases) behind the times technologically. I agree wholeheartedly with Rosen that before a solo or small firm does any hiring of full time employees, they should see that they’re making use of all the computerized systems Rosen lists in his post.

But here’s the thing. Rosen appears to be suggesting that putting these systems in place will automatically replace paralegals. However, the best practice management or document management or client document access system in the world doesn’t run itself. These platforms are not plug and play. Someone needs to manage them, input data into them, and make use of the information they generate. (And don’t even get me started on the “e-discovery products” Rosen lists, something I know quite a bit about. The suggestion that a litigator can replace a paralegal by simply investing in an “e-discovery product” is risable surprising!)

Now maybe it doesn’t require a paralegal to manage and keep all these software systems updated; perhaps an admin can do it instead. But it sure as hell isn’t efficient for the lawyer to be doing it all him/herself – that is, not unless he/she doesn’t really need to practice law, and is just managing a law firm as a hobby.

Fee Model

Rosen suggests that client communication and preparing documents for trial (the two examples he cites) are better handled by the managing attorney than by a paralegal. That might make sense in a flat fee practice, as a lot of family law practices are these days. There’s no particular need to delegate tasks to the timekeeper with the lower billing rate when there’s no impact on the client’s bill.

Not so much in the hourly practices of most litigators, however. (And notwithstanding all the clamoring in the legal blogosphere in recent years about doing away with the billable hour, the fact is most litigation firms are still billing hourly.) Try telling your average corporate client that you’re going to bill them $400/hour for the time it takes you to get your trial exhibits ready, instead of billing them $150/hour for the time it takes your paralegal to do it, and see what kind of response you get. And good luck with that.

The issue ought to be not what’s best for the law firm’s bottom line, but what’s best for the client – something Rosen also talks a lot about.

Payroll

I also completely agree with Rosen that having a full-time paralegal – or secretary or IT specialist or receptionist for that matter – doesn’t make business sense for a lot of smaller firms. Ever since the beginning of the economic downturn, firms large and small alike have had to become leaner to remain competitive.

This is precisely the opportunity I foresaw when I started my virtual paralegal business in the middle of that same downturn. And I’m guessing this is the opportunity my colleagues Pamela Starr, Cathy Ribble, and many other virtual paralegals saw. In recent years law firms have been caught between the conflicting demands of getting work done on the one hand and reducing their overhead on the other. That’s exactly where virtual paralegals, virtual assistants, and virtual receptionist services come in. (To be fair, Rosen has actually advocated using virtual contractors in other posts.)

My colleagues and I all run businesses based on the very technological solutions which Rosen advocates. Our attorney clients hire us precisely so they don’t have to put an experienced senior paralegal on their payroll. They also rely on our access to and efficient use of technology to get tasks done. And those are precisely the two problems Rosen appears to be trying to solve in his post.

Wrapping Up

Finally, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Rosen has led the “fire all the paralegals” charge. Way back in 2012, he wrote It’s Time to Replace Your Paralegals . . . with Lawyers. My paralegal colleague Lynn DeVenny wrote an outstanding rebuttal to that post back then, and I commend it to you here.

2017-01-06T10:58:10+00:00

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