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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Does Nonlawyer = Incompetent?

In my unrivaled wisdom and all-encompassing knowledge, or perhaps in my efforts to over-generalize a bigger issue, I have reduced the types of people who work as nonlawyer legal staff into three distinct groups. Please see below for details.

The Easies These are the individuals working at the law firm not for the clients or the law, but for the cushy office job. They include everyone from highschool students who come in to run documents in the afternoons or over the summer, to young adults who have not figured out their true career aspirations, to part-timers who need the job but not necessarily the money. They take jobs as runners and receptionists, secretaries and file clerks. Many times, the job is simply a paycheck for a temporary period of time, and they tend to treat it as such. They are not to be confused with the runners, receptionists, secretaries, and file clerks who take their jobs seriously and are committed and competent employees - I will address them in a moment.

The Inbetweens These employees can be divided into two subsets: those moving up and those stepping down. The employees moving up are using their legal staff position as some sort of leverage into a new area. Perhaps they intend to go to law school or want to gain legal experience to take with them to the corporate world. Whatever their purpose, they are using the job as a learning and networking tool. Since they are committed to moving up some type of ladder, these individuals will likely be competent, helpful, and smart. Those stepping down are getting ready for retirement, but have not let go of the working world yet. As experienced careermen, they enjoy the interesting legal work, but are not looking to climb any ladders. Their backgrounds tend to be diverse. They will be competent because they just are. After thirty plus years in the career world, it is in their blood to do a job and do it right.

The Career Staffers These people are serious about their jobs. They enjoy the law, working in the law, reading law, aiding attorneys in the practical application of the law, etc. They also fill many of the same positions the Easies fill: secretary, receptionist, file clerk, paralegal. The difference is, these individuals do a better job because they want to be there doing it. This is my current niche, and I know there are plenty of us out there. Because these individuals are serious about their roles in their firms, they are competent and keep themselves educated on important topics. Their goals include great client service, efficiency, and results. They are smart, loyal, and hardworking. They have standards, whether those held by the professional organizations they belong to, or those they hold within themselves. A smart lawyer will have at least one of these people by her side.

One problem I have recently faced is that the Easies have a negative effect on the perception of the Career Staffers. Just today I participated in a conversation with an attorney who was describing the lack of organizational skills of some legal staff he works with. When I asked why they are so disorganized in general, his response was something to the effect of "Well, they're nonlawyers and didn't have proper training." While I would agree that lack of training in basic organization could be a problem, the fact that these people are "nonlawyers" should have little to do with their organizational skills. (I know for a fact that they didn't offer Organizational Skills for Lawyers 101 when my Boss was in law school.) Still, the incompetence of some of the Easies (not all, of course) is giving the rest of us a bad name.

Lawyers, if your legal staff, especially your paralegals, are highly unorganized or incompetent, it has nothing to do with the lack of a law degree. Perhaps you need to figure out which group they fall into. If you need someone with motivation to do a job and do it well, don't hire an Easy. However, if you just need a body to fill up eight hours in the day, be my guest. Further, if you do not feel that you can use your paralegals for researching, analyzing and synthesizing case law, drafting motions, and corresponding with clients in a professional manner, then you have the wrong paralegals. I read somewhere that highly skilled paralegals with a certain level of experience should be able to perform associate level work under moderate supervision. If I were an attorney, which may still happen, I would want the most competent and intelligent assistant I could find.

One way to be a great leader is to surround yourself with talented people. Perhaps if more lawyers and firms hired highly skilled staff, the perception of nonlawyers as incompetent and unknowledgable wastes of firm space would shift. However, most of the responsibility lies with paralegals and other nonlawyer staff. If intelligent, competent nonlawyer legal professionals are to be the rule, we have to keep insisting on more uniform standards among ourselves, and then uphold each other to those standards.

The overall trend is a positive one, and organizations like NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) and NALS (National Association of Legal Professionals) are achieving goals step by step. One by one, state bar associations have started coming around, too. I'm optimistic that sooner, rather than later, anyone who sneers at the word "nonlawyer" or "paralegal" will be recognized by all as either insecure or out-of-place in the legal profession and that law will be seen by all of us as the team sport it truly is.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post! Thanks so much for sharing your insights into the machinations of a real, life law firm. :)