They say that behind every good lawyer is a great paralegal, but that the great lawyer keeps her paralegal right by her side. Okay, I say this, but it is catchy and probably true. Especially in the world of solo practice attorneys and small firms, paralegals can be very necessary to the success of a practice.
Speaking from my own experience, my attorney depends on me quite regularly for all those tasks that do not require a law license. In fact, the tasks that do not require a license often outweigh those that do in our little firm. I correspond with clients, signing all letters myself except for those few that convey legal advice. I handle the bills, bringing checks to my attorney for his signature. I prepare invoices, set meetings, schedule depositions, and conduct research. I do light bookkeeping. I even clean our aquarium.
In other words, I do many of the tasks that do require an attorney’s hand for completion, such as drafting complaints, motions, and responses. While many of these tasks are specifically delegated to me throughout the life of a case, experience has led me often to prepare the next step in a case before my attorney asks for it.
Smart attorneys with smart paralegals learn to delegate cases to their paralegals for basic case management. A well-organized paralegal is an asset in collection, eviction, and small claims cases, which tend to follow one of two tracts: the default judgment or short trial tract. In my experience, because of the nature of these cases, a majority of them end with a default judgment and subsequent attempts to collect on the judgment. Most of these cases can be handled almost completely by the paralegal, with the attorney’s review and approval of the standard documents before filing.
In the future, if and when the firm expands, my attorney expects that I will manage the other non-attorney staff. Management of personnel requires a set of knowledge and skills separate from those required to acquire and maintain a law license. It is often more practical to use a paralegal office manager to manage office activity than it is to use an attorney in the same position. A paralegal, by definition, is in a unique position to bridge the legally substantive and administrative aspects of the law office when managing legal staff.
All that being said, the management that a paralegal office manager can provide is no substitute for attorney supervision of paralegal work product. Lawyers must supervise the work product of their paralegals. However, time management, personality issues, and a host of other non-legal matters that can arise in any office require a separate type of management and supervision, a type for which a paralegal office manager may be quite useful.
Whether your paralegal is your case manager, business manager, personnel supervisor, or the entire above, she can be an integral part of managing the law firm and keeping the firm pressing forward. Since hiring me two years ago, my own attorney has figured this out, much to his advantage.
Melissa Hinote is a NALA Certified Paralegal working for a solo practice attorney in a rural Alabama farm town. She blogs at Paralegalese.