The paralegal profession first emerged in the 1960s in response to the high cost of retaining an attorney at a time when the demand for legal services was growing. Originally, they were viewed as legal secretaries with a little extra training that allowed them to take on more substantive legal work. The profession evolved in the years since to become ever more specialized, but always with one particular goal in mind: to shift some legal work to non-lawyers as a way to reduce costs.
As a paralegal, it’s no news to you that your time will never be billed out anywhere near the hourly rate of an attorney. Of course, you didn’t spend as much time and money to get where you are, or have to grind through that boring 1L con law course that nobody ends up using anyway, right?
All of this boils down to lower staffing costs to provide legal services. Some of this is carved out to contribute to the law firm’s bottom line, while some is passed on to clients in the form of lower fees. For non-profit and public sector work, paralegals provide professional legal staffing for important services that might otherwise be outside the reach of some citizens; things like processing immigration paperwork or dealing with insurance claims. For-profit firms can increase their competitiveness in the market with a greater level of flexibility to reduce costs.
In the business world, paralegals exist to dot i’s and cross t’s in contracts and paperwork that could otherwise lead to expensive court claims. If they couldn’t provide this kind of legal work at a reasonable rate, the costs of having lawyers do it would be passed on to American consumers through higher prices on all types of goods and services.
The entire paralegal profession exists to reduce costs. But how exactly do law firms and corporations use paralegals to create greater efficiencies and save money?
Here are five of the most common ways paralegals are used to reduce legal costs.
Paralegals Can Perform Most Discovery Work
As more and more of the aspects of American life run through electronic devices, the process of legal discovery has become a much more time-consuming and dedicated process to undertake during the course of a court case. Sifting through mountains of potential evidence has always required a practiced and knowledgeable legal mind, but now that every text, e-mail, and spreadsheet entry generates a document that has to be reviewed to see if it’s relevant to a case case, the amount of work has increased enormously.
Paralegals represent the perfect compromise for performing discovery while keeping costs down. They have enough legal training and experience to identify significant points in the information they’re sifting through, but they can be billed out at a much lower cost than even the most junior attorney. Some paralegals even specialize in discovery. By becoming experts in specialized electronic discovery techniques, they can be even more efficient than the average attorney while still charging less per hour.
Paralegals Interact With Clients
Legal work requires a lot more hand-holding than a lot of lawyers like to admit. Although it’s just another day at the office for both lawyers and paralegals, every court case, every living-will draft, and every real estate transaction that comes across their desk is a major life event for the parties involved. It’s an emotionally difficult time for many of them, and although legal professionals aren’t paid to be therapists, it is critical to maintain good lines of communication and keep clients empathetically and fully informed with the process of the case. It’s even more critical for the legal team to listen to the client’s wishes.
Paralegals are often used in this vital role of client communicator and all-around legalese translator. Because they bill at a lower hourly rate, clients are not as afraid to take up time looking to them for explanations. In turn, paralegals in client relations become more attuned to the client’s wishes and interests than their lawyer might be and can help keep cases on track in accordance with those desires. This not only takes time off a lawyer’s plate, it also helps avoid costly misunderstandings that can later derail the work.
Paralegals Perform In-depth Legal Research
One interesting thing about legal precedent is that every year there is more and more of it! American jurisprudence rests on the old, mossy foundations of English common law stretching back hundreds of years… and those years keep accumulating. Every new decision adds some possible level of reasoning or interesting angle to existing case law. And each of those relevant decisions has to be parsed and considered as a possible citation for new cases.
Lawyers are responsible for building and arguing those cases, but paralegals can handle much of the legal research that will be used to support them. Like discovery work, gaining experience with research and tools like LexisNexis can allow the entire process to move more efficiently, lowering costs while getting results faster.
Paralegals Keep The Trains Running On Time
Although using paralegals to perform the grunt work of handling paperwork and research can save gobs of money simply because their services are billed out at a lower hourly rate, there is another important way that paralegals can keep costs down: by helping manage cases efficiently and effectively.
Paralegals are masters at keeping paperwork organized and making sure that calendars are synchronized and deadlines met. Missing deadlines in court cases can be catastrophic; one missed filing can derail an entire case, resulting in a default judgment against your client and, frequently, a subsequent malpractice case filed against your firm. According to an ABA Data studdy in 2020, various deadline misses form the basis of more than 20 percent of legal malpractice claims… the most common type of error cited in such suits.
Having an experienced paralegal track filing deadlines and keep paperwork flowing may be the cheapest way in the known universe to avoid expensive errors like this.
Paralegals Are Flexible Resources
It can be frustrating for paralegals to exist in a sort of legal limbo zone between legal secretaries and full-fledged lawyers, but the fact that they do occupy a middle ground also makes them valuable multi-purpose professionals capable of dealing with almost any contingency that comes up in a law office. This can keep bottlenecks from forming and ensure that the office operates efficiently even when unexpected obstacles emerge or casework becomes overwhelming.
A paralegal might find themselves doing everything from running a copy machine for hours to crank out paperwork neglected by overwhelmed secretarial staff, to burning the midnight oil poring through law books to find references for a lawyer unexpectedly held up in court.
Because they can pinch hit in either role, a paralegal represents a savings to the firm in the form of reduced staff overhead, costs that would otherwise be compounded by hiring more lawyers or more office staff, and then trying to keep them busy with tasks they can handle. A good paralegal can take on the tasks of 10 lesser trained office staff and can handle anything an attorney throws at them.
There’s no such thing as an idle paralegal.