Is the National Law Journal Predicting Doom & Gloom for Paralegals?

The National Law Journal published an article the other day entitled "Ecosystem of Legal Services Is Evolving".  It was written by Mehul Patel who was previously the Chief Marketing Officer of a major San Francisco law firm who is now the EVP of Axiom Legal, a "new" type of contract attorney provider.  Only Axiom Legal does not claim to be a contract attorney provider. In fact, they are a law firm.  The article was written as a somewhat self-promoting piece which astounded me that the NLJ published it. However, it made some important points.

Axiom Legal’s claim to fame is a very impressive website and a "new" concept.  Frankly, after over 16 years in the contract attorney business and having started one of the first paralegal temp agencies in the country, I had to laugh at loud at the marketing twist Axiom has put on its "new" concept.

Axiom has minimal physical overhead (lawyers work from home or at clients’ offices), so it can charge half as much as traditional firms.  Primarily, they charge a flat fee or yearly salary and on occasion, an hourly rate. 

This is the same thing that temporary help agencies have done for years, particularly contract attorney agencies.  Temp agencies would place a contract attorney, preferably one with major firm background and top schools at a client for a certain length of time.  The only difference was, the contract attorney agency charged primarily an hourly rate, rather than a flat fee and placed both in the law firm and in the corporate legal department.  And, as little as 6-10 years ago, companies really didn’t want a "virtual" lawyer.  They wanted the traditional law office.  So much has changed. 

Axiom apparently has selected to place primarily at in-house legal departments only, charge a flat fee instead of hourly; concentrate on the long-term temp or on an "as-needed basis" placement and claim that this is the "new" way that in-house legal departments have chosen to do business instead of hiring a law firm.  It’s just a new twist on the old contract attorney job.  Well, God Bless ’em.  They jumped from a $4.4 million company to $31.2 million in a few short years. They must be doing something right.

Now, what has that got to do with paralegals?  A lot.  In addition to mentioning (once again) that law firms are outsourcing document review work to India, the article stresses that clients today want either lower fees or more bang for their buck.  If law firms cannot deliver either, clients are turning to alternatives.

The advent of e-mails, audio and video discovery has pushed up the need for more document review work, not diminished it as one may have orginally thought.  So, the "fear" factor is that paralegal work is going to go away.  I am here to tell you that paralegal work is not going to go away.  Document review, due diligence work may go away.  But savvy paralegals need to be on top of the latest trends.  Even if it’s only the major law firms or top corporate law departments that outsource, expectations of all clients have risen. 

The best thing that you can do for yourself, your firm and your firm’s clients, is to start inching up to the associate level and start getting yourself assignments that would have previously gone to first and second year associates.  It is clear that clients do not want to pay to train young associates.  But they sure don’t seem to mind if a seasoned paralegal can do the job at a highly expert level for a lower hourly rate.

Those latest trends must push law firms to take a look at the assignment area of paralegals and for paralegals to start looking at their job descriptions and start upgrading assignments now.  If these trends hold true (and I believe they will), clients will expect low-level work to be done by the lowest cost-efficient competent level and everyone in the law firm to tackle work that cannot be delegated.