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Changing Roles and Staffing Models for Paralegals and Other Legal Support Professionals
In this episode of The Robert Half Legal Report, attorney Charles Volkert, senior district president of Robert Half Legal, and Carl Morrison, certified paralegal at Foran Glennon in Las Vegas, Nev., and NALS board member, examine the changing roles of paralegals and other support professionals in today’s legal workplace. They discuss the expanding skill set and expertise required of paralegals, legal assistants and legal secretaries and new legal staffing models being deployed. They also share insights on how legal support personnel can strengthen their capabilities to be successful in the evolving legal environment.View transcript
Robert Half Legal Report
Changing Roles and Staffing Models for Paralegals and Other Legal Support Professionals
Intro: Welcome to the Robert Half Legal Report, where we discuss current issues impacting the legal profession relating to hiring, staff management, and more. With leading experts in the field, Robert Half Legal provides lawyers, paralegals and support staff, to law firms and corporate legal departments on a project and full-time basis. The Robert Half Legal Report is here on the Legal Talk Network.
Charles Volkert: Hello everyone and welcome. I am Charles Volkert, Senior District President of Robert Half Legal and the host of our program today. Our guest is Carl Morrison, a certified paralegal with the Law Firm of Foran Glennon in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he specializes in civil litigation and concentrates in the areas of general insurance defense, as well as complex litigation matters. He is a board member of NALS… the Association of legal professionals. He is also an adjunct professor, lecturer, and author.
Carl and I will be discussing how roles and staffing models for paralegals and other legal support professionals are changing in today’s legal world.
It’s great to have you join us today Carl.
Carl Morrison: Thank you Chad so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Charles Volkert: Excellent. Well, let’s go ahead and dive into the questions. I definitely want to get your expert feedback for our audience. Maybe we could start Carl, as I have been thinking about the questions, it’s certainly a good time to be a paralegal. As the legal professional evolves, paralegal jobs are changing in response, and it’s more important than ever to be aware of how industry developments are impacting your career.
So you have been working within the legal profession for more than 20 years Carl, can you describe the most significant changes in your duties and responsibilities as a paralegal during that time and what has triggered these changes?
Carl Morrison: Well, Chad, I will tell you one of the most significant changes that I have witnessed and colleagues that I work with have witnessed of course is technology. Since the beginning of my career I have witnessed the immense changes and evolution of technology, from simple DOS-based software and systems and large desktop computers to laptops and the myriad of software that’s available for law offices and legal corporate departments that are available today.
As such, I found that in order to remain relevant I have had to learn of course the new software that comes out and the changes in technology and making sure that I stay abreast of those computer trends as it applies to the legal industry, and of course doing that by attending continuing education seminars, webinars and things of that nature.
Now, I always instruct my students and when I mentor an up-and-coming paralegal that if you want to advance in your career, you have got to stay on top of the technology, and advances that are occurring in this area at a really rapid rate.
Another area that dovetails into technology is of course E-discovery. As technology advances, so does the realm of E-discovery. With ruling such as Zubulake back in 2000 that set the trend and continues to set and deal with electronic discovery and the continuing changes in the rules of civil procedure a paralegal has to stay on top of these changes, and one of the best way of course is to attend continuing education opportunities and be active in a National Paralegal Association such as NALS.
I have also found that since 2008 with the economic changes that’s affected most law firms, more and more paralegals have had to take on additional duties that may have been once preformed by an administrative assistant or legal secretary, but also those tasks that are performed by those first year associates.
Charles Volkert: That’s great feedback Carl. And let me, maybe a follow-up question along the same lines, with law offices maintaining more efficient legal support teams than ever before, hiring managers are looking for paralegals who are capable of handling additional work responsibilities. And what we are hearing is much of that work could even be what first year associates in the past were doing. Do you see that in the areas of litigation for your practice and firm?
Carl Morrison: Yeah, I do see that. Of course, from a personal experience I have witnessed firsthand that I am sitting at counsel table. I may not be truly a second chair, but the associate may be second chair, but I am right there providing the support in the courtroom other than maintaining the exhibits and things of that nature.
Charles Volkert: And maybe that takes us to an additional topic and we would love your insight, could you outline for our listeners how this change in workflow technology that you have described has changed hiring and staffing models for your law firm, your colleagues’ law firms in and around the hiring of paralegals and legal support professionals?
Carl Morrison: Of course. Chad, just like I have been saying, technology has greatly advanced over the 20-plus years that I have been working in this industry, and great strides have occurred that’s improved the efficiency and the workflow in the law office, but as they say, the tool is only as good as the person who is using that tool.
So I have witnessed and speaking with others that those first year attorneys coming out of law school, well, now we are dealing with a generation of individuals who have been raised around computers, and from a hiring standpoint and from a managerial standpoint, of course the administrative support, those first year attorneys are now doing most of the typing of their own documents. So really gone are the days of straight dictation. So, staffing models are different now than they were even ten short years ago.
I have seen how the staffing model at one time was one paralegal to two to three attorneys and one secretary to about the same ratio, two to three attorneys. Nowadays you see in offices across the country, small and large, of course, that you have got one secretary to six or eight attorneys now and one paralegal to maybe four, five, even six attorneys. So I believe that the evolution of technology has played a large part in the responsibility for that staffing model change.
Charles Volkert: Well Carl, we are seeing the same things and on the other hand we also are experiencing more and more clients coming to us looking for paralegals that are highly skilled in client communication, solution-oriented legal advice and research versus maybe 5, 10, certainly 15 years ago much more of a writing and driving of research. Is that what you are seeing, has that been an evolution for your career as well as other paralegals that you know?
Carl Morrison: I have seen that and others that I have spoken with also see that same thing, where there’s more of a true engagement with the client in the services that we provide. It’s not just in the background as it used to be, especially for the area of law that I work in, insurance defense and in litigation. Typically, paralegal may sit kind of in the background and do a lot of the driving of what you just said, the factual investigation, the writing, such like that. Now there’s more of the attorneys are bringing in their paralegals into meetings with the client and using that judgment and analytical ability that paralegals are schooled in and educated more than maybe what they have done 5, 10 short years ago.
Charles Volkert: That’s great. And so, with that in mind and this changing fast-paced legal environment, how have you expanded your skill sets and gained knowledge in that area and what are you recommending again to those paralegals that you are either teaching in the classroom setting or mentoring in other firms?
Carl Morrison: Well, I am a voracious learner and love to learn, so I always want to learn something new. I always want to keep my mind fresh and keep going forward. One way that I have been expanded on my skill set has, of course to become involved in a local and National Paralegal Associations. Doing so, I have that access to that continuing education that allows me to continue to learn. Associations like NALS or the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and NFPA, National Federation of Paralegal Associations. And of course we all pride ourselves on providing that top-notch legal education on trends in the industry.
Another way that I have expanded on my skill set is to branch into other areas of law within the law firms I have worked for. Previously before I moved to Las Vegas I worked for the largest firm in Oklahoma, and because of my reputation I was afforded the opportunity to work with attorneys in areas of law that were new and exciting to me that I had not previously worked in. I saw it as an opportunity to add to my ever-growing and evolving set of skills.
And I would recommend to paralegals, if there is an area that you don’t currently work in and maybe have an interest in that area, take that leap. Ask the attorneys in your firm, hey, is there a task or project that I could help you with in this new area because I am eager to learn and add to my skills?
Of course as I said earlier, staying on top of the trends in technology and learning new software, hardware, and procedures, making sure that I am remaining relevant in my job and in the industry.
But it’s not just the paralegals that need to have this level of skill set, it’s important in the support role, legal secretary role, paralegal assistant role, records assistant, all the legal support professionals need to keep current when it comes to these trends as well, and it’s not only in technology, but it’s also soft skills such as leadership, time management, team player, creative problem solving and being able to work under pressure.
In all areas of law there’s a level of pressure and litigation tends to be a little bit more heavy on the pressure side, but we all have to work on it. So in the legal support professionals role we have to make sure that we are staying on top of and improving on our soft skills in order to continue to grow and be relevant.
Charles Volkert: Absolutely. And I think from a hiring perspective what our recruiters are seeing as well is, and you have touched on this Carl, sort of expanding your legal background in maybe other practice areas, in particular the increased salaries that we are seeing paralegals, legal support professionals be able to command in the marketplace as a result of some of these interpersonal skills and intangibles you are talking about, as well as being very skilled in the hot practice areas like litigation, business and corporate law, where a lot of candidates are in short supply, so to speak, and those practice areas are growing.
Are there any specific educational programs specifically in the areas of education that you wanted to highlight for our listeners in order to equip paralegals to advance their careers?
Carl Morrison: Most paralegal programs will hit what I call the major areas of law as part of the curriculum; civil litigation tends to be always a required course in a program; real estate, family law, those particular areas tend to always be part of a curriculum.
But if you see in a program and even for those that have graduated and are working and maybe have been working for a couple of years, go back to your universities, community colleges that you attended and look to see what additional courses they may be providing in the paralegal program such as E-discovery, medical records analysis, other things that you can learn and be able to apply in your respective area.
I teach students that you may be working in family law and you think, well, I will never need the skill set of analyzing medical records. Well, that’s not always true. You may have situations where you have to look at and read and review and analyze medical records that may be part of a child custody issue. So adding to and going into and looking to see what additional education is out there is highly recommended for anybody, students as well as those who have already graduated and been doing it 10 years.
Charles Volkert: Great points. And I know we have been talking a lot about the paralegal and the legal support professional, but when we are seeing some of these studies, which is two-thirds or 65% of lawyers that we have interviewed in some independent surveys talking about the blended or hybrid paralegal/legal secretary position that is growing in demand, certainly a lot more common today than it was two years ago. Can you explain the benefits of this hybrid role to the law firm and what you are seeing out there as it pertains to these hybrid positions?
Carl Morrison: Sure. Coming from a large firm in Oklahoma, we saw it the past couple of years, just like you were saying, more and more of that hybrid type role, and like I said earlier, gone are the days of that straight administrative task-based legal secretary taking dictation, drafting documents, things that the old school legal secretary did. But while most legal secretaries nowadays still have some of those administrative tasks, they are also being tasked with doing those duties that require them to be proficient in areas of technology, staying on top of the trends such as E-discovery and soft skills.
They are also doing some light — what I call the light, conducting factual information investigations and doing little light research. I like to think of the hybrid legal professional skill set to be that of a paralegal assistant or a junior paralegal. While the hybrid professional has to have the basic legal knowledge necessary, they also have to have that judgment and analytical ability as well as those legal soft skills necessary to succeed.
As to the benefits of a hybrid role, these include not only costs, and Chad, I will let you may be perhaps elaborate more on that, but it’s also provide those opportunities to those hybrid professionals to advance their careers, should they wish to really maybe become full-time paralegals or branch into the new and exciting paraprofessional roles such as what we have seen now just this past year, the Limited License Legal Technician in Washington State.
Overall in my experience and talking with members in NALS I have found that those individuals who are considered hybrids are more satisfied. The biggest challenge for those secretaries who have now crossed over into a hybrid role has been making sure they don’t cross over into performing and taking away duties that the full-time paralegal should be doing.
Those lines between the hybrid and the full-time can get a little blurred depending on the law firm that you are working with, but it’s not only up to the paraprofessional but also their employer to understand the defined roles of each and what tasks and duties each could and should be performing.
Charles Volkert: Well, I couldn’t agree more Carl. What’s interesting is this hybrid role really in and of itself is different from firm to firm based on the experience and what type of individual they are looking for. I think you have hit a lot of the high points, which is this technology, the interpersonal skill, the administrative aspect seeming to becoming more automated or being able to be handled by lawyers because of their administrative skills or software that is out there to help them. And really it’s a great platform for individuals with all of those skills to grow their career, and we are seeing higher salaries for hybrid roles that bring all of the things you talked about to the table.
What, if any, is the impact on paralegals or even the hybrid positions in and around client service, Carl, with the clients you are dealing with?
Carl Morrison: Nowadays clients are very savvy when it comes to the legal services and the demand — their demand for more cost-effective services that are being performed, and as such paralegals are interfacing more regularly with the clients, and the clients know what a paralegal should and shouldn’t be doing as part of the routine legal services that a law firm provides. So clients are requiring those paralegals have a certification, a nationally recognized and provided certification. It’s also important that the paralegal stay on top of those industry trends of course.
I will give you a little story here. A previous firm I worked for we had secured a major new client, a nationally recognized client, and this client as part of the firm becoming their go-to firm in the State of Oklahoma, they wanted to see the resumes of the paralegals who were going to be working with these particular partners and attorneys, and they also wanted to see, were they certified and what continuing legal education courses they had taken or hadn’t taken.
Clients see and know that it’s important that the paraprofessional role be fully schooled and educated and staying on top, because we are all a team, we all, from the secretary, to the paralegal, to the receptionist, to the attorneys, we all have one duty, and that’s to ensure that the services that we are providing to the clients are on the up and up and staying on top of the trends.
Charles Volkert: Well, it’s great Carl. I mean, real life example is always beneficial to the listeners. Well, it has been a great discussion thus far and now it’s time for a quick break.
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Charles Volkert: Welcome back to the Robert Half Legal Report. I am Chad Volkert and with us today is Carl Morrison, a certified paralegal with Foran Glennon in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Before our break we were discussing the impact paralegals are having on clients’ service levels and I would like to spend the next few minutes Carl talking about what you consider to be among the most rewarding aspects of your work as a paralegal over the last 20 years.
Carl Morrison: Well, one of the most rewarding aspects for me working in litigation is that it’s challenging. I am an adrenaline junkie and I love a challenge, so I love that almost everyday a new challenge presents itself that will allow me and allows me to expand on my growth as a professional.
Another rewarding aspect is the respect and professional recognition I receive being a paralegal. The attorneys that I have worked for and with over 20-plus years have all considered me to be an important member of the legal team, and I have sat next to nationally recognized trial lawyers at counsel table during these various trials, and them relying on me for my opinion and analysis and just being recognized as a valued member of the legal team.
Charles Volkert: That’s great. And you probably are guessing Carl that I am going to flip that question on you. So lot of rewarding things in your career, but what are some of the significant challenges that either you have faced or your colleagues as paralegals in this changing workplace of today?
Carl Morrison: Well, with the changing workplace one of the most significant challenges is the stress, the stress that goes along with the position. And it’s not just in litigation, talking with family law paralegals or real estate law paralegals, we all have and share a level of stress, some maybe a little bit more than others, but the level of stress is there.
And the paralegals are constantly facing deadlines. They are working for multiple attorneys, potentially large caseloads, as well as having to navigate that law office environment of the person — various personality types and the law office politics that go along with it. Stress is a major challenge that a paralegal faces.
And another significant challenge are the work hours, above and beyond what is the typical 40-hour workweek. You would think that with technology we would — it would help ease up some of it, but some of it now, it adds to the workweek hour. And so litigation of course can involve many long nights, long weekends, and it’s important that a paralegal recognizes the importance of maintaining a work-life balance and not to burn yourself out. Something I have to tell myself almost daily, don’t burn yourself out, don’t burn yourself out. And so that’s something that I try to impart to paralegal students as well as paralegals that I help mentor.
Charles Volkert: That’s great. I mean that work-life balance nowadays and certainly technology can help, but it can also hinder that work-life balance based on the access of information.
I think the other key item that I would love to hear your thoughts on Carl in and around this area is, you have had such a great career in litigation and in the healthcare arena, and part of it is the rewards outweighing sort of those issues or stress, and part of that is loving what you do when you wake up every morning. So as you are counseling and mentoring other paralegals, how can you help paralegals identify legal practice areas or specializations that really match their skills and interests to get them excited to get into the office everyday, any advice there?
Carl Morrison: Well, one piece of advice, pursue what interests you the most is something I tell my students. And I ask them, that’s typically a question I ask first night or first week is, what interests you about working in the legal industry? Is it criminal? Is it family? Is it, you want to help champion the person through the court system? What is it? So it involves a lot of self-reflection. You have to think and ask yourself what prompted your interest to get into the program. Start there and then build on that experience.
Developing a skill set that will transfer into another area. So I always tell students, I always tell up-and-coming paralegals, cross-training is important, especially if you are able to and have the opportunity to work in a large firm where there are a variety of areas of law to “dabble in”, ask, it demonstrates to employer that you want to remain relevant and that you are valuable to that particular company or firm.
Charles Volkert: Great advice. Maybe if we shift gears a little bit, as your career grows as a paralegal, as you take on more responsibility at the firm, many paralegals start thinking about managing a team, maybe that’s possible if they are working at a larger team, maybe others look at management a little differently if they are at a smaller or mid-size firm, but any advice on providing direction to paralegals who are looking to step into the management role of the paralegal profession?
Carl Morrison: Best piece of advice I can give is ask. Ask your supervising attorney or the attorneys to take on more responsibilities. Demonstrate to your employer that you are willing to go above and beyond what is asked of you.
I have done, and as a result of doing several years ago, I have taken on some managerial tasks in the firms that I have worked at, and it was because of at the time a paralegal supervisor at the firm that I worked for conducted initial paralegal interviewees, and unfortunately she had to travel out of town unexpectedly and they had a potential new hire coming in to interview, and she knew about my leadership skills and my talents that I had in the firm, and so she asked me to perform that cursory interview of the individual, and like I say, the rest is history.
From then on I was involved in, not only doing that first level interviewing of an individual for a paralegal position, but it branched into other legal support positions, secretarial positions, looking for a hybrid type person.
So if you wish to take on some of those managerial duties ask if you could sit in on the next interview of the next paralegal or legal secretary type position and help screen that potential applicant, demonstrate your leadership skills by sharing what you have learned from going to these CLE seminars and workshops. Do that by taking that information, sharing it with your co-workers, by providing a lunchtime in-house CLE opportunities. Lawyers love that.
If someone will — I will send someone to attend a CLE and if they will come back and share that with the rest of the team, yeah, do it, it demonstrates that you have got that leadership skill.
And if you are in a large firm with numerous paralegals and you don’t have a paralegal manager type position, ask the managing director of the firm or the head of HR to maybe attend paralegal management training or ask to shadow your HR administrator to learn valuable management skills that maybe you can be a hybrid of a paralegal that has a caseload, but maybe you are doing a little bit of managerial duties for the paralegal team.
Charles Volkert: Well, lot of the same philosophies that we provide to candidates that we interview, you mentioned, Carl, I think the key there is ask, be proactive, don’t wait for the game to come to you, but certainly drive your thoughts, your interests, your expertise to the firm.
And the other item that I would simply mention is, there’s a lot of ways to “manage” paralegals or cases, those type of items within a firm without necessarily having that title, and so I would encourage folks not necessarily to get caught up on a title in how they are impacting the firm and being seen as a leader.
Any advice Carl that you would have for individuals either trying to break into the industry as a paralegal or for paralegals that are seeking employment; unemployment is very low in most geographies, less than 2% in the legal industry, but for those that might be in transition, any advice for them?
Carl Morrison: If you are looking to get into the paralegal industry and becoming a paralegal, contact a local paralegal association. Find out who the president, vice president of your local association is and speak to the leaders about it. Invite them to lunch or a coffee after work or something like that and pick their brain, so to speak, on the advantages and disadvantages of working as a paralegal. If you can tap into a working paralegal, that will help you get a good perspective of what it’s like to work in a law firm or a corporate setting.
I tell my students the first day of class that I am going to show them the ugly side of working as a paralegal as well as the good side, because I want them to be fully informed of what it’s like to be a career paralegal, because there’s nothing worse than you thinking it’s this daisy, sunshine rainbows and you get out there and your first time that you have a ugly situation happen, you are like, whoa, wait, I wasn’t told about that. So I want to make sure that — and you want to make sure that you see both sides, the advantages and disadvantages of working as a paralegal.
And also reach out to the paralegal instructor of a paralegal program. Don’t just talk to the advisor of the program, actually go talk to a paralegal instructor. Typically they will be working attorneys or paralegals themselves and it’s great to speak to them about it.
For those paralegals that are actively seeking employment I can’t stress it enough, network, network, network. Every job I have ever had was because of the large network of paralegals and attorneys that I built over the years. And as the saying goes, it’s not what you know, but it’s who you know. Well, it is what you know, you have got to have the knowledge, the legal knowledge there too, but having that network will help you find and developing that network will help you find and provide you with the potential of landing that “perfect job” that you are seeking out there.
Charles Volkert: It’s great advice Carl. I would simply add that if you are looking to break into the industry consider all options. The more flexible you can be in the opportunities you are looking at, whether they are in the hometown where you currently live or you are willing to relocate, maybe it’s in a practice area that’s very, very busy and it’s something that you hadn’t thought about before, but keep an open mind.
And certainly for those that are seeking employment because they are currently unemployed always consider temporary contract engagements. Get your foot in the door. Show that you are continuing to focus on advancing your legal career, your legal knowledge, your skill set, and many times those temporary contract opportunities lead to full-time engagements.
So Carl, a little bit sad to say I think we are down to just our last few minutes and I would like to ask you one final question. If you had a crystal ball, what major trends do you expect in the next few years that would influence the role of paralegals and legal support professionals in the future?
Carl Morrison: Well, of course technology. Technology is always going to be that trend that will influence our roles as legal support professionals. Like we have talked about today, it’s important for the paralegals and other paraprofessionals staying on top of the trends and technology.
Another trend that I have seen and see, working it myself here, is the change in the typical brick and mortar law offices. I think we are going to see and we are already starting to see some of those law offices that are working maybe not a 100% virtually, but they are maintaining smaller office spaces and allowing the paralegals and attorneys to work from home in a limited basis, so that you still are developing that team player aspect, you are not just becoming an island of yourself, but you are still working with others. But I think we are going to start seeing some more of that traveling work office type situation.
And of course, another trend is the advent of the new legal support professionals. Washington State, the Limited License Legal Technician; Utah is in the process of working on their limited paralegal practitioner role. With the increased need for greater access to justice and individual clients seeking more cost-effective legal services for simple legal needs, I believe we are going to see the growth of this new professional role. And I kind of like to think of these roles similar to that of like a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, the greater need for people having access to simple legal services. I think we are going to see that trend.
Charles Volkert: I couldn’t agree more. I think I would add a lot of what is driving some of the potential change that you are citing is the increased growth in new practice areas or nontraditional practice areas. You mentioned E-discovery early in the program, we see that continuing to grow and the demand for legal professionals in that area, but also data privacy, security-related issues, the breaches that are happening in that area, compliance and regulatory work, the changes across the healthcare industry that require legal expertise, and even the contract management with technology and how legal plays into that, very much impacting the legal community right now. Firms as well as in-house departments are looking for paralegals that are highly skilled in those areas, and we see that as a continuing trend moving forward as well.
Well, we have reached the end of the program. It was certainly a great discussion and certainly special thanks to Carl Morrison for joining us today and offering his expertise.
Before we close I want to let the audience know how they can contact you Carl and where they can obtain more information about the legal job market.
Carl Morrison: Thank you Chad. It was great being here. My email is HYPERLINK “mailto:email@example.com” firstname.lastname@example.org, and our website is HYPERLINK “www.fgppr.com” www.fgppr.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Carl Morrison; Twitter, @cmorri3371; and Facebook of course.
And of course, check out our Association website at HYPERLINK “http://www.nals.org” www.nals.org for more information about the Association and of course about the legal support professional roles that are trending now.
Charles Volkert: Thank you so much Carl, and I know many of our listeners will most likely reach out to you to continue the dialogue independently.
Our listeners can reach me at HYPERLINK “email@example.com” firstname.lastname@example.org and you can visit the Robert Half Legal website for additional career resources, including our new Salary Guide for the legal profession at HYPERLINK “http://www.roberthalflegal.com” roberthalflegal.com.
Thanks again Carl and to our audience for listening today. Join us next time on the Robert Half Legal Report as we discuss important trends impacting legal practice management and legal careers.
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