Lawyers know in general what paralegals are, but are you utilizing the full potential of your paralegal? In this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast from the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, host Rocky Dhir talks to Tiffany Haas and Johanna Schroeder about how paralegals can be invaluable to attorneys. They discuss how you can find the right paralegal for you, what paralegals are looking for in attorneys, and how you can retain good paralegals in your practice.
Tiffany Haas works at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Professional Education where she developed the Paralegal Certificate Program.
Johanna Schroeder is the director of executive search at F-O-R-T-U-N-E Personnel Consultants of Houston.
State Bar of Texas Podcast
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2018: The Purpose of Paralegals
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice with your host Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hello, this is Rocky Dhir. I love learning new things and sometimes we get a chance to learn things kind of like a fire hose, and that’s going on right now. I’m coming to you from the State Bar of Texas Podcast in partnership with the Legal Talk Network, and I get the honor and privilege of being here in Houston, Texas for the 2018 State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting.
And I have been learning something very new today. All right, so I am going to share this with you. I have a couple of ladies with me, as my guest today. They are from the University of Texas Paralegal Program. Now, if you’re not familiar with that, we are going to learn a bit more about it. And if you are a practicing lawyer, you are going to learn a few tips about effective use of paralegals and how to use them as real force multipliers in your practice.
So, I want you two to sit back and welcome, we’ve got Tiffany Haas.
Tiffany Haas: Hello.
Rocky Dhir: Everybody say hi to Tiffany as she can’t hear you but just say hi back, and come on, it’s polite people.
Tiffany Haas: Hi.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, there you go.
Johanna Schroeder: Hi Tiffany.
Rocky Dhir: There you go. And Tiffany apparently has taught me that the last name Haas is German. It’s German for rabbit.
Tiffany Haas: That’s what I have heard.
Rocky Dhir: That’s what her in-laws tell her and so she’s sticking with the family story.
Tiffany Haas: Correct.
Rocky Dhir: Right? And then we’ve got Johanna Schroeder.
Johanna Schroeder: Yes. Hi.
Rocky Dhir: Johanna welcome, and Jo, right? We get to call you Jo?
Johanna Schroeder: If you’d like. Sure.
Rocky Dhir: Ms. Schroeder, fine, look at this.
Johanna Schroeder: All right, there you go.
Rocky Dhir: Look at this Fräulein. So, anyway, we are going to be talking a bit about paralegals, and I think it’s kind of this black box that most attorneys don’t really know a whole lot about, would you guys agree?
Tiffany Haas: Correct.
Johanna Schroeder: I think I would agree and part of that I believe is because of all the classes that attorneys take and whatever law school they go to whether it’s UT or not, there’s no class on how to use a paralegal. There’s no class on how to manage your law practice.
Rocky Dhir: Can one of you tell us a bit about the difference between say a paralegal, a legal assistant, legal secretary, because sometimes all of those terms kind of get used interchangeably.
Johanna Schroeder: Well, first of all it’s kind of important to understand the history of the paralegal profession. Originally attorneys worked alone, and then they realized they couldn’t do it all alone. They could be much more effective and they needed someone to help them to do some of the more administrative things. So they brought in what we now refer to as a legal secretary or a legal assistant. Those terms are almost interchangeable now.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Johanna Schroeder: Past that, and I would say probably about 20 years ago that late 90s, there started to be a differentiation between legal secretaries and what we now refer to as paralegals. So, a legal secretary essentially will do non-billable work and a paralegal will do billable work. So, the non-billable work, it may be scheduling calendaring —
Tiffany Haas: Clerical.
Johanna Schroeder: Yeah, you would definitely — although there’s been a lot of pressure to move them more toward a paralegal function. The paralegals typically, they will do drafting. Now we do e-filing, we used to file everything by paper.
Rocky Dhir: Uh-huh.
Johanna Schroeder: We do a lot of e-filing whether it’s intellectual property, whether it’s litigation, everything is e-filing now. So, a paralegal will do drafting, client interface, depositions, reviewing agreements, there’s a broad array that corporate and securities, they’ll help file SEC filings, help draft responses to office actions for patents and intellectual property law. They really are that step between the administrative function and the high-level legal advice that attorneys do.
Rocky Dhir: All right, so Johanna, are you a paralegal?
Johanna Schroeder: I am not.
Rocky Dhir: You are not?
Johanna Schroeder: I am not, no, I have been working with paralegals for about 15 years and I am a Board member for the UT Paralegal Program.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, and then Tiffany, you are an attorney.
Tiffany Haas: I am an attorney and I have a mother that’s a paralegal, and as a baby attorney when I started practicing law I had a paralegal that had been working for about 30 years and so she just kind of took me in as a baby lawyer and actually taught me how the system worked and from day one realized how important a good paralegal is.
Rocky Dhir: We talked about what paralegals can do, let’s maybe talk about the line between a paralegal and an attorney.
Tiffany Haas: Okay.
Rocky Dhir: So when does the paralegal cross the line into doing attorney work or what are some of the functions that attorneys should not be relying on their paralegals for?
Tiffany Haas: A paralegal cannot practice law. They have to have their work delegated to them by an attorney and everything that they draft or put together has to be reviewed and approved by an attorney, and as you get — the relationship gets stronger a lot of times the review may be just a quick read over emotion that the paralegals done a hundred times and just a signature on the bottom.
But a paralegal cannot sign the document, it has to be signed and pretty much authorized by the attorney before it is filed or sent on.
Rocky Dhir: So, in the litigation context it might be easy to sort of envision that the paralegal obviously cannot argue in court whereas the attorney can?
Tiffany Haas: Correct.
Rocky Dhir: Say in the transactional context, whether it’s an SEC filing or its patent work or what have you, it sounds like, and correct me if I’m wrong but it sounds like the paralegal can pretty much do all the work but then the attorney is simply the one who reviews it and signs it?
Johanna Schroeder: Well, I wouldn’t say it does all the work necessarily. There may be some lucky attorneys out there.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Johanna Schroeder: But many times what you will find, especially let’s take intellectual property.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Johanna Schroeder: The filing of a patent has so many different parts; there’s office actions, there’s responses, there’s putting shells together. A lot of this preliminary work will be done by a paralegal and the way things are filed with the USPTO right now, the attorneys, they basically have a signature. They file under the attorneys’ Bar license. And once you have a paralegal that you have trained and worked with well enough and you know that their attention to detail and they know exactly how things need to be done, they probably don’t need to review as much.
But the lines with transactional work especially paralegals can do a lot more, they can do a lot in transactional work because of how we are e-filing now and because the attorney is able to actually be more productive if they make use of a paralegal and take the time to get a paralegal educated and train them and acclimate them to how they want things done. They can actually do more work.
Rocky Dhir: Let’s assume now that an attorney says, sign me up, this is great, this is exactly what I want, I want somebody to help me with all those things you just said. So, they say, everything Johanna just said that’s what I want.
All right, how do you go about attracting the right kind of paralegal? How do you recruit?
Johanna Schroeder: I think the first thing you need to know is what do I want as an attorney.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Johanna Schroeder: What do I really want? Am I going to be able to let go of certain pieces and let someone else do it?
Rocky Dhir: That’s the control issue, right? Like control over our work, right?
Johanna Schroeder: Right, attorneys are good attorneys because they want to maintain focus and control over the case, but the easiest thing I think to piece out are those functions that are putting documents together because no matter what the practice area. There are some documents that are not boilerplate but you have shells, you have documents that you simply need to go through and change all of your pertinent information that is pertinent to that case each time, and that takes a lot of time even with word processing that we have now with computer literacy with attorneys and paralegals now that we have, that’s going to take time. And so, if you can get them to help you put those documents together and they can do it over-and-over again.
Now, when you mentioned, litigation, paralegals also attend trial. They may not be arguing the case because that’s the attorney’s job.
Rocky Dhir: Sure, of course.
Johanna Schroeder: But, they may be the exhibit custodian. They are going to keep that attorney organized. They are going to follow the case. They probably will have prepped every single witness that’s going to be called that day. They will have helped with depositions, there’s just such a gamut.
Tiffany Haas: I think what’s interesting is that everybody has different needs, and so, it is almost, you have to find the perfect fit between the attorney and the paralegal and maybe an attorney that’s using a paralegal for the first time won’t necessarily give their paralegal a whole bunch of work, but we’ll start them off with like minimal motions that aren’t very difficult, but as they develop that relationship and the attorney can trust the paralegal, then the duties become greater and greater, and then they can rely on that paralegal more-and-more. And you do see in industry, there are attorneys out there that can’t do anything without their paralegal and like taking them to trial.
My mother is a paralegal and her boss would go to trial and he’d be talking to a witness on the stand and my mother would pull out a deposition and highlight something and show it to him to help with a question —
Rocky Dhir: Cross-examine —
Tiffany Haas: Yeah.
Johanna Schroeder: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: We have talked a bit about knowing what you want out of a paralegal, if you’re a practicing attorney; what are the things paralegals are looking for in the right kind of job, the ones that have been graduating from your program?
Johanna Schroeder: The interesting thing is that the ones graduating from our program have a sort of an array of backgrounds. We have those who are just out of undergrad and those are Millennials, they are highly technically capable, they are very much looking to increase their knowledge base, they are voracious, they want to learn, and in delegation with those folks what you may be able to do is get them interested in more of the database functions of law with technical presentations in the courtroom, because they have grown up around technology much more so than any lawyer who’s been practicing more than 15 years.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Johanna Schroeder: Secondarily, we have people who have come in from a different career, someone who may have been a teacher or someone who may have been in the military, someone who may have had a different career before and then they’ve been out in the workforce 5 years, 10 years and they want to change.
Tiffany Haas: And one interesting thing is that we have people that have been influenced by outside factors. We have several students in the in-class program that are interested in immigration law because what’s going on in the world today. We have people that have been a part of divorces and have decided they are interested in family law so they come and take our program, so they can be a paralegal on family law. So, there’s just many different factors that influence why people come in and take the program.
Rocky Dhir: Now how long is the progress, what, five months?
Johanna Schroeder: Five months, correct.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. So, if it’s a five-month program there’s — I’m assuming that in five months they can’t learn everything there is to know about the law. So, what is the training that an attorney would need to put their paralegals through? Because you mentioned, Johanna, earlier about training, so as the attorney what’s the onus on the attorney in terms of training that paralegal out?
Tiffany Haas: Well, in law firms, in litigation it’s different. There’s not just a one fit for everyone. The paralegals that come out of our program are going to know how to draft a motion, but there’s the formatting issues and specific language that attorneys are going to have to guide.
Johanna Schroeder: So they more have to acclimate them to their own style.
Tiffany Haas: Yeah, correct.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Johanna Schroeder: We give them a toolbox that has the basics and even beyond the basics I think that they get exposure to case law, they get exposure to legal writing and research, they get exposure to contracts.
Tiffany Haas: Contracts, torts.
Johanna Schroeder: Torts, but in order to have your paralegal become your right hand, eventually you do have to invest a little bit of communication into them as to what you want. We will definitely give them the toolbox they need to walk in and be able to help your practice, for sure.
Rocky Dhir: Now, here’s one problem that I would foresee. Okay, so now I got this right hand and then the right hand decides to leave me. So, let’s talk a little bit about retaining these paralegals. Are there certain mistakes that attorneys make when it comes to retention? Are there best practices in that regard? Can you guys give some kind of guidance?
Johanna Schroeder: Yeah, I think again, that’s a layered question. I’ve sort of over the years found a 7 year, 14 and 21 year kind of itch, and the paralegal coming straight in the door is still learning, and they’re still very excited about what they’re doing, and right around five to seven years they realize, hey, there are other practices of law or there are other things that I could be doing, and that’s a critical point in which as an attorney, as a law firm, as a corporate legal department we need to make sure we’re giving them enough to stay intellectually challenged and to feel like their career is progressing.
And part of that, it may be a paralegal program, it may be an internal training program, it may be switching them to a new department within a corporation. And then at the 14 year maybe they’re looking at perhaps wanting to mentor and manage other paralegals.
Well, if you’re going to mentor or manage other paralegals, that’s another point at which you’re going to need to make sure your toolbox is full and that you actually have what you need in order to mentor and manage others.
And then at 21 years you kind of have to look and make sure that you’re catering to those paralegals who have a really deep knowledge in perhaps one practice area, and again, maybe, there may be some board on their monotony setting in and I know the practice of law, it’s never boring.
Rocky Dhir: Right. No, of course not. It’s always exciting, just like on TV.
Johanna Schroeder: Well — and almost at that point they may feel like they’re are not on autopilot or at that point they just may need something their employer to say no really, stay, I value you, I value your work, I value what you bring to this practice every day.
Rocky Dhir: So, that’s when you break out the Starbucks Gift Card?
Johanna Schroeder: That is definitely Starbucks Gift Card territory.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Well, look, it’s good to know when, that way you don’t play that card early. On like day two you get them a Starbucks Gift Card and then you’ve used up your trump card at that point, right?
Johanna Schroeder: Yeah, you may have to graduate to Amazon Gift Card at some point, but.
Rocky Dhir: Target, Target is the other big one, right?
Tiffany Haas: Target is good.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, we need —
Johanna Schroeder: But, now, seriously in retention, I think as attorneys paying for memberships in paralegal programs, sending them to CLE programs, paying for them to have a certificate education, these are all things that I think if we can make time to develop our staff. Corporations, I think sometimes are a little ahead of the game in that in developing people when looking at career paths.
Rocky Dhir: They have the resources, right?
Johanna Schroeder: Exactly. Well, it’s just a different mentality and I think that in a lot of ways law firms are being pulled into working in that space and I think that investing in them is definitely a retention tool.
Rocky Dhir: Now, we could probably talk about this all day because this is an important topic, and I think a lot of attorneys don’t really — would you agree with me, they don’t really know how to use their paralegals as effectively as they could?
Tiffany Haas: I think that’s correct.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Johanna Schroeder: I think there are a lot of different ways to use paralegals that I’ve seen effective ones and I’ve come across some ineffective ones, yeah.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, and some not so good ones.
Johanna Schroeder: Yeah.
Rocky Dhir: So, let’s say, we’ve got paralegals out there that want to or people that want to become paralegals, want to know more or there are paralegals who maybe want little guidance on what they need to do with their careers or if there are attorneys who have questions on effective paralegal management and effective use of that resource, is there a way they can get in touch with you? What did they do?
Johanna Schroeder: Sure. They can contact the program. So, Erin Stepp is someone who’s in-charge of our enrollment. My name, Johanna Schroeder, I am with a group called F-O-R-T-U-N-E here in Houston.
Tiffany, do you have a link on the website?
Tiffany Haas: Yeah, we’re available at that UT Austin Center for Professional Education website.
Johanna Schroeder: Right.
Tiffany Haas: You can search the Paralegal Program on that website.
Rocky Dhir: And they can find you, and connect with you over there?
Johanna Schroeder: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Well, good, this is a side of the law that a lot of attorneys don’t necessarily get a lot of guidance on, so I want to thank both of you for being here today.
Johanna Schroeder: Sure. We are happy.
Rocky Dhir: So, Tiffany, Johanna, pleasure to have you here.
Guys, check them out. If you have any questions, please be sure to follow up. Part of what we’re trying to do in this podcast is be able to give you guys resources and ideas to help grow your practices and become better lawyers, better practitioners, and most importantly, happier lawyers and practitioners.
So, I thought this is very helpful, and hopefully, we’ve touched a few folks out there today.
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And guys, thank you for joining us on this road of the law practice; after all, life is a journey, so thanks for tuning in.
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