Why Paralegals? An Up-to-Date Brief History

Kathy Fortin

February 14, 2017

Paralegals originated in the 1970s from needs that developed in law firms.  Lawyers traditionally did all the work and clients paid a premium for it.  With their rising hourly rates, lawyers needed assistance to contain the costs to clients.  Colleges first began offering paralegal training courses, with degree programs coming along later in the 1980s.  It was believed that well trained paralegals would provide a positive impact on client services, as well as increase the profitability for lawyers.

With the popularity of paralegals, the American Bar Association, in 1986, defined the term “legal assistant,” (used interchangeably as “paralegal”).   In 1997, with changes and growth in the profession, the ABA amended the definition as follows:

“A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

Paralegals are integral member of many law firms, both large and small.  A solo practitioner’s most valued employee is often a skilled paralegal.  Nearly every practice area can benefit from adding a paralegal to perform substantive work, from litigation and real estate to corporate work and probate work.

A common mistake that still persists is made in hiring.  Generally, large law firms have had enough experience and know exactly what position the paralegal will fill.  They recruit accordingly and are clear about what they need.  This process is challenging for small law firms without much hiring experience.  A few common mistakes are:

  • Hiring an inexperienced paralegal, with no knowledge of your practice area,
  • Hiring a paralegal to perform non-legal work that is more clerical or administrative, and
  • Hiring the wrong person, who is not a good fit for the law office.

Having worked with many small law firms, I have witnessed such mistakes create long-term problems affecting a lawyer’s professional success.  Often, remedying the mistakes is ignored, making the issues more difficult to fix later.  Hiring can be a difficult task for some lawyers. They may view it as time-consuming and, therefore, make quick decisions.  The expression, “Hire slow. Fire fast” has merit because it works!

My recommendations are:

1.   Write a Job Description before hiring.  Make notes of your exact needs (and wants).  Stick to them and do not compromise on important factors.

2.  Make your advertising clear and short.  Wording that is too detailed limits the field.  Casting a broader net sometimes brings interesting possibilities.

3.  Unless you are good at teaching and training, and willing to be patient, do not hire an inexperienced paralegal.  Lack of some experience is often a regretful error.  Do not be misguided by quantity over quality (paying a low salary to get what you do not want).

4.  A new hire in a small firm is like a big splash in a small pond.  Be attuned to chemistry and culture.  How will the person fit in the office with current employees?  Invite others in the law office to meet the candidates.  This can work successfully, as others may see strengths and weaknesses the lawyer may not.

As I wrote in a previous post, paralegals can be your right arm.  Take the necessary steps to insure you are making the best choice for you and your law office.