Personal Productivity for Lawyers
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Do you know what you should be looking for when hiring a paralegal to help out in your growing law firm?
There are a variety of ways paralegals are trained to do their jobs. You can increase your chances of hiring the right paralegal the first time by knowing what paralegals can do for you and your office.
What You Need to Know About Paralegals
Unlike becoming an attorney, there isn’t a strict educational requirement. The short answer is that anyone can just say to someone else, “I’m a paralegal.” The good news is that startling revelation happens less than you think. Most paralegals either receive on the job training (which is just as vital than any formal education program) or attend some sort of formal education program.
Generally speaking, there are four types of formal education programs. Here’s what you need to know about each type.
- Trade schools. Trade schools offer two-year degrees or certificates. These programs are quite rigorous, and there are some that have the approval of the ABA. T
- College. There are colleges that offer both two and four-year programs. Most are Associate degree or Bachelor degree programs. They include basic undergrad courses such as English, Algebra, and other courses that make up the backbone of every college degree. There are also non-elective and elective law classes such as civil law (non-elective), criminal law (non-elective), tort law (generally non-elective), legal research and writing (non-elective), investigations and interviewing (elective), law office management (generally non-elective), bankruptcy (elective), and other substantive legal courses before culminating in a final capstone project. There are also a few colleges that offer a Master’s in paralegal studies.
- Post-college certification programs. These courses provide a few courses based on different areas of law. Since they are designed for college graduates, these programs generally don’t take as long to complete.
- Certifications. The most well-known is National Association of Legal Assistant’s NALA certification program. National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) also has an excellent certification program. These programs are designed for paralegals with experience who want something extra to prove their knowledge.
Regardless of the type of program your paralegal attended, they participated in a wide variety of classes covering everything from substantive law, legal research, and law office management. These aren’t kiddie courses, either. They are highly in-depth and require a lot of devotion.
FYI on ABA Approved Courses
While it may sound great to only hire someone who attended an ABA-approved course, here’s what you need to know about that. In addition to how difficult it is to get a paralegal program approved by the ABA, there may not be one in your immediate area. Also, most paralegal programs, regardless of ABA approval, model their programs after the ABA’s guidelines for paralegal education.
Finally, there are some very talented paralegals that cannot attend an ABA approved school. Don’t let the lure of ABA approved programs cause you to miss out on someone really great.
What You Should Ask During the Interview
What you should ask during a paralegal interview will largely depend on what you need them to. If you know from the paralegal’s resume that they attended a formal educational program,
- Ask for an unofficial copy of their transcript. If the paralegal’s resume says they attended a formal educational program, ask for an unofficial copy of their transcript. It can be time-consuming to get a copy of an official transcript that you can keep. Asking for an unofficial copy will enable you to see the courses they took and the grades they received.
- Ask if they took law office management. Even if you don’t plan to use the paralegal in that capacity, the knowledge from the course is extremely beneficial. It teaches paralegals quality management and exactly how a law office should operate.
- Discuss their experience in legal research and writing. Paralegal education generally has three legal research and writing courses that are taken. Two of the courses are devoted solely to writing. Despite having the word research in the name, paralegals don’t learn much about research during that time (although if they still have their books, there are chapters devoted to both online and offline research). In those two courses, they do learn about primary and secondary sources and how to brief a case. The third course is computer-aided legal research. They learn how to perform research on either Lexis or Westlaw and also how to use a lot of free online legal research websites.
- Ask if they learned to use Lexis or Westlaw. You’ll also want to ask how comfortable they are using it. Book learning and research for classes are certainly important concepts. Yet, if you want them to help you with research, you need to make sure they are comfortable with the process.
- Ask if they have experience drafting documents without a template. Even if they don’t, they may know where to find templates online through your state court website. That’s good, too. Most paralegal programs tell the students to switch the state listed in any given exercise to their home state. This helps familiarize them with the requirements of their local jurisdiction.
- Ask to see a writing sample. This could be a copy of their capstone project (if they still have it), a sample demand letter that they drafted, or whatever else they have that is professional-level writing. This can give you a sense of their professional skills.
What Your Paralegal Can Do Once They’re Hired
Talk with your paralegal if you don’t have a copy of their transcript. Find out about their strengths and their interests. Use the following as ideas to leverage your paralegal’s skills to benefit your firm.
1. Interview Clients and Witnesses
Paralegals in a four-year college degree program (and in many two-year programs) take an entire course devoted to interviewing clients and witnesses. That course also teaches paralegals how to properly summarize the information. Clients and witnesses may also feel more relaxed speaking with a paralegal than with an attorney. Of course, it is very important to make sure that your paralegal understands how to avoid unauthorized practice of law and what constitutes giving legal advice.
2. Review and Verify Qualifications of Experts
It’s important to verify the credentials of potential expert witnesses. Using a paralegal for this task gives you more time to attend to more important matters.
Paralegals are skilled investigators. You can use your paralegal to draft a custom investigation plan including locating witnesses, taking photos of the scene (in some cases), and creating a summary for easy reference. While this should certainly be done under the supervision of an attorney, it never hurts to have a fresh set of eyes to start this process. It does more than save time. It also provides a new perspective.
4. Act as a Liaison
When a client or opposing attorney calls your office, who is the first person that they speak with? Often, it’s the paralegal. Paralegals are the first line of contact for trustees, court officials, attorneys, and client. It should remain this way. As the first point of contact, most non-lawyers feel more comfortable and open speaking with a paralegal than with an attorney (with the exception of judges).
5. Refine Office Procedures
What’s your office organization look like? Does it work for your office staff? Are there unreturned phone calls and angry clients? Give your paralegal the authority to put their experience in law office management to work. Paralegals spend a majority of their time in the office environment. They will know what’s working and what’s not. Using your paralegal to handle the administrative functions isn’t a demotion and it isn’t a poor use of their skills. It’s an integral part of the success of your law office.
The end product will be a great set of policies and procedures that you can work together on to perfect and use in the future.
It’s All About Your Law Office
Your practice is a business with specific needs. The good news is that you are not alone in managing the needs of your business. Relying on the skills of your paralegal can drastically improve your work life as a lawyer.
Use this information to move forward with hiring a paralegal. Remember, ask questions. That’s the best way that you can truly get a sense of someone and their educational background before you hire them.
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