Looking to hire a paralegal? Here’s what you need to know.
A growing practice has its joys and challenges. The chief joy, of course, is that your growth is a sign you’re bringing in new business. You’re obviously doing something right.
The chief challenge is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. As you grow, you’ll find yourself spending more time on small details, which can take your focus away from the more complex issues in your caseload.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to add an attorney to your practice. More likely, you’ll need to hire a paralegal.
It’s not a step to take lightly. The right person can make your practice operate smoothly—or as smoothly as your clients’ daily demands allow. You can run your firm more efficiently because you can handle the more intricate aspects of your ongoing cases. And a good paralegal can help you take on even more business.
But the wrong person can actually make things harder for you. So what should you consider when looking for a paralegal?
What a paralegal can do for you
First, be clear on what paralegals do. Very simply, they help attorneys deliver their services. The best candidates have been certified through a paralegal program. They have enough legal education to know what you’re talking about when you discuss particular documents and processes.
Second, look for these traits as you interview candidates for the position:
Attention to detail
You want to focus on the higher-level, bigger-picture parts of your work. You need someone who can manage the “small stuff”—details that actually are crucial to your firm’s success. Ask the candidate for a couple of instances where he or she demonstrated that kind of care, and how it helped the law firm in a complicated matter.
Ability to juggle many tasks at once
A paralegal also must manage many things at once. After all, that’s what you do on a typical day. Regardless of your specialty, you must keep track of several complicated cases at any given moment. Having a paralegal who can manage the details of these matters and meet the deadlines you need to meet means you can keep your mind organized whenever you need to switch gears. Can the candidate multitask? Again, ask for real-life examples.
A sense of how the two of you can work together
The person you interview should have the right education and a solid resume. Those attributes are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. You need to be able to rely on this person. As you ask questions of a candidate, ask yourself this: What’s your intuition about their personality? Do you sense they are on your wavelength? This is a subjective assessment, of course. Could a level of unspoken understanding develop between the two of you?
An interest in bilingual opportunities
Interested in expanding your practice to reach Hispanic residents in your community? Hiring a paralegal who speaks Spanish as well as English could open the door to a market that needs the kind of representation you can provide. A Hispanic paralegal—or, at least, one who’s fluent in Spanish—can help you develop a broad and inclusive outreach strategy that speaks to this growing market.
What a paralegal can’t do
Paralegals are not attorneys. That point should be obvious. But during the course of a busy, often intense workday, it’s easy for the line between attorney and paralegal to blur.
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) has established “Model Standards and Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegals” that strive to firmly draw that line. For instance, NALA notes that generally speaking, “a paralegal is allowed to perform any task which is properly delegated and supervised by an attorney, as long as the attorney is ultimately responsible to the client and assumes complete professional responsibility for the work product.”
In other words, if there’s a problem with that brief or deposition, it’s your responsibility. That’s just one reason why you need to be sure you can work well in tandem with your paralegal. That person is your right-hand person. And you need to be aware of what your right hand is doing.
NALA’s model standards also say this:
“Paralegals should not: establish attorney-client relationships; set legal fees; give legal opinions or advice; or represent a client before a court, unless authorized to do so by said court; nor engage in, encourage, or contribute to any act which could constitute the unauthorized practice law.”
Before bringing on a paralegal, it’s worth getting familiar with these guidelines. It can save you and your new hire a lot of misunderstanding and even trouble.