According to North Carolina family lawyer and practice management expert, Lee Rosen, the answer is yes.

Before my paralegal readers hit the ceiling, read Rosen’s recent post at his blog Divorce Discourse, “It’s Time to Replace Your Paralegals…with Lawyers,” carefully. He does make a good point, i.e. that law firms “can now pay an associate very, very little money.”

(Which is why when my friends from college ask me if their now grown children should go to law school, I laugh suggest they do the employment outlook research first.)

I’ll admit my first thought when I read Rosen’s post was, “Gee, I’m glad my supervising attorney since 1994 doesn’t read blogs much. Whew, close one there.”

My second thought was my other supervising attorney for the last four or so years does read blogs regularly, including Divorce Discourse, but as an associate at the time, she also probably saw Rosen’s post recommending that associates be paid on a pure commission basis only.

All of a sudden, you associates aren’t feeling so smug about Rosen’s suggestion to get rid of all the pricey paralegals, are ya?

Good Paralegals Provide Value

No doubt law firms can hire brand new or not very experienced associates for less (in some cases, a lot less) than good paralegals. Whether that lack of experience will cause client satisfaction to decrease, case work to suffer, and/or the supervising attorneys to blow their stacks remains to be seen. But I think you have to look at a law firm’s needs on an individual basis, including whether an entry-level associate, an entry-level legal assistant, or a more experienced paralegal can do the required work at a rate of pay and productivity level that makes sense, and is most economical for a law firm, as well as beneficial to its clients and reputation.

I agree with Rosen 100% that law firms should hire people who provide the most value for their paychecks. Experienced, well-trained paralegals do make money for their employers, especially when they bill by the hour, do much of the substantive paperwork in flat fee cases, and/or when they work in high demand specialty areas. They provide advanced support that lawyers need to handle existing cases, take on more business, and make more money.

Like lawyers, good paralegals are also incredibly versatile. They go to court with their attorneys, and they have great credibility with clients, many of whom are more comfortable talking to a paralegal rather than an attorney – and have better luck reaching their paralegal, because their attorney is usually in court activities with other clients. Successful paralegals are also highly analytical, helpful, and capable.

Why Should I Still Have a Job?

If my supervising attorneys have read Rosen’s post by now, and ask me on Monday to say in three or four sentences, or less (this is a blog post after all), why they shouldn’t strongly consider his advice and replace me with a brand-new, lower paid associate, I’d say:

I’ve been a key team player and contributor to this firm’s success for years, albeit behind the scenes, quietly managing cases and helping clients. Your former and current clients like me so much, they often tell referrals to call me first. I perform unique tasks that many other paralegals, and certainly many associates, don’t know how to do, and more important, that you want me to do without being prompted, while you’re doing the things you want to do – like going to court, making good case law, and working on high profile or complex pro bono cases just for the unique legal issues. A lawyer wants to do what you’re doing, not what I’m doing.

(I just re-read that, and honestly wondered if I look like an asshat, or if I should just flip my hair, and say, “I’m worth it.” )

Is it time to replace paralegals with lawyers? Don’t get mad, paralegal readers, but given the rotten economy and the bloat of new law school graduates on the market, Rosen is right. There are many lawyers out there who would be happy to have our paychecks, or even much smaller ones. It’s that bad.

Is hiring new lawyers instead of good paralegals the right decision for all firms? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s the right plan for Rosen’s family law practice model, but it’s not going to be for many law firms, especially if associate turnover rate is high, associates don’t want to perform “paralegal work” for very long (or at all), the specialty areas require extensive knowledge and experience – or you don’t have years to wait for many of the same substantive contributions you’d get from hiring a trained legal professional right now, especially one who doesn’t hope to run his or her own law firm some day.

(But do I still wonder if I’ll have a job on Monday, even with a boss who frequently tells me I’m indispensable? Well, yeah, because I’m the one who suggested he set up an RSS feed reader, and subscribe to legal expert and practice management blogs like Divorce Discourse.)

Source:  Divorce Discourse

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