Is there tension between paralegal lifers and future lawyers?

Argument.two menThe Grindstone published a pretty good article about paralegals yesterday.  It was a little about the differences in paralegal environments, responsibilities, billable hours and the joys of the job.  Although it was a bit of a hodgepodge piece, they quoted Linda McGrath-Cruz and me, so I thought what the heck, I'll share it with you:

On the USA show Suits the character of Rachel Zane (pictured above) is supposed to be an ace paralegal. She is so good, they gave her her own office (something even the first year associates don’t get.) She is complimented all the time on her great work and is in high demand by some of the partners at this fancy New York law firm but she is not personally satisfied. Her goal was always to be a lawyer but she hasn’t been able to pass the LSATs. Are some paralegals never satisfied with being a paralegal? And can they get along with those who are?

It is a pretty good time to be a paralegal. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts 28% growth in the paralegal industry over the next decade while the plight of lawyers continues to get worse and worse. According to a job description from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, modern-day paralegals can do almost anything lawyers can do, except setting legal fees, presenting cases in court and giving legal advice. Paralegals are no longer legal secretaries. That term has truly become obsolete. But though career wise more opportunities are opening up for paralegals, there is a secret battle occurring between people who have chosen being a paralegal as their profession and those who look at the job as merely a stepping stone on their way to becoming a full fledged lawyer. The way they approach and do their work is different as is their relationships with the lawyers they work with everyday. We decided to talk to some paralegals and lawyers about this battle that makes for a rather tense work environment.

It has really been in the last 30 years that we have seen the most change for paralegals. When Christine Springer started working as a paralegal in 1988 she told the Phoenix Business Journal, “I was working with a lot of old-timers — attorneys who wanted me to fetch coffee for them. They didn’t know what to do with me. It took lawyers forever to figure out how to delegate.”

Today’s paralegals are schooled in the areas of family, criminal, tort and insurance law, as well as civil litigation, alternative dispute resolution and legal analysis. Entry-level positions typically pay $10 to $15 per hour, but some seasoned paralegals can earn as much as $90,000 a year. Though the paralegal job has no formal education requirements, many people, especially those who make it their career, may consider pursuing two to three paralegal education programs. People who have made this their career put a lot of time and money into it. This is why they may not like it when a younger person comes in and views the job as a way to make money while they attend law school or to help them get into a better law school.

Chere Estrin, Editor-in-Chief, KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals wrote:

“There is a tremendous difference in paralegal opportunities depending upon education and size of firm. In some of the law boutiques and smaller firms, paralegals have responsibilities from “womb to tomb,” so to speak. They draft documents, attend trial, prepare closing documents, prepare settlement agreements, do client intakes, attend trial, and conduct some legal research (always a touchy area with attorneys). Generally speaking, these paralegals have a much broader scope of duties; they are not the document jockeys that some people make them out to be. In fact, many more-seasoned paralegals in firms of all sizes are actually doing what was deemed first- and second-year associate work prior to the recessions in 2001 and 2008. I know many, many paralegals who actually train first-year associates. It’s the big secret that law firms carry and associates will not talk about.

Paralegals have created a hierarchy and paralegals without much education don’t tend to get too far. They tend to do routine and repetitious assignments in firms that are not necessarily rated the highest.”

Linda McGrath-Cruz told The Grindstone:

“I am 35 years old and a career paralegal. I know from day one that I wanted to be a paralegal and for me it was never a stepping stone in the path to becoming a lawyer. There is a definite difference in “paralegals” who are simply using the job as a stepping stone. They generally don’t want to invest time in becoming great at their job… it is transitional and quite obvious.”

Illinois attorney Mary Flynn told us:

“The career paralegals were very dedicated, and had excellent work skills. The younger ones regret not going to law school but do nothing about it other than blame their mothers for steering them to the paralegal fields. Most of them have a very poor work ethic, which led me to employ law clerks rather than paralegals when I was in private practice.”

This could definitely lead to some tension. But some younger paralegals or paralegals on their way to law school do actually work quite hard but they may not do it in the style old school paralegals are used to. They may have a more intimate relationship with the lawyer they are working for or work on a different schedule. They may prefer to work all nighters to get those billable hours in. On the blog Superlegal Fun about one woman’s personal work adventures as a paralegal, she broke down how the billable hours work at her firm:

“My law firm requires huge billables. Here is the math:


Yearly: 1800 hours
Monthly: 150 hours
Daily: 7.5 hours

Now, those requirements don’t seem terribly difficult to achieve, except you need to also consider the following:

About 15% of my cases are contingent cases, so those do not count. I spend about 20 hours per month on those cases.

Administrative tasks end up costing me about 20 hours per month. Which include 2 hour case review meetings every week or every other week.

So now, I really have to bill 190 hours per month (2280 per year, or 9.5 per day).

My salary is based on 8 hours per day, meaning that the firm needs to pay me, and I have to work 1.5 hours extra every day to meet the minimum requirements (which is approximately 16.5 hours extra per pay period).

Now, if I were to exceed the requirements, I would increase my bonus that much more. If I cut back on 0.2 administrative hours each day (12 minutes), I could increase my billable hours by 4 hours each month or take a half day off each month without cutting into my billables.”

It is well known that pressure to produce billable hours increases the temptation to keep hours or income up by overworking files, overstating the amount of work actually performed, or failing to complete work in the most efficient manner. That is why paralegal associations have created strong codes of ethics addressing these issues. For example, NFPA Ethical Consideration 1.2(c) requires paralegals to “ensure that all timekeeping and billing records prepared by the paralegal are thorough, accurate, honest and complete.” But how paralegals compile these hours may provide a whole set of problems.

We are not accusing younger paralegals of being rule breakers to get ahead but that they may have a different work style completely then people who are paralegals as their chosen profession.

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