If you laid all our laws end to end, there would be no end. -- Arthur 'Bugs' Baer
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Legal Assistants, The Next Generation: The Legal Assistant Firm
By Judith Bandel
The use of legal assistants on a freelance basis has increased substantially in recent years. California legal assistants set the pace for freelancing back in the 1980's and now several of those early freelancers have formed companies to provide their services and to provide employment for lesser experienced legal assistants. While more and more attorneys in New York City take advantage of the financial benefits paralegals provide, many New York paralegals have sought the rewards of providing their services on a freelance basis. With many firms reevaluating their practices, merging, dissolving, or attorneys going solo, it was only a matter of time before the paralegal profession in New York would see its ultimate growth potential: the Legal Assistant Firm.
What is a Legal Assistant Firm?
Simply put, a Legal Assistant Firm is a consulting firm, not just a paralegal firm. It is similar in structure to that of a law firm, except that it is managed by paralegals with attorneys as clients. It provides any attorney, whether a solo practitioner, an attorney in a small or medium size firm with the services of a legal assistant on many levels not just the traditional legal assistant-type functions. A legal assistant firm is just that: a firm, not a temporary employment agency for legal assistants and the advantages for both legal assistant and attorney alike abound. An attorney always has a legal assistant available when he needs one, not when he can get one from an agency; and there is never any question of a legal assistants qualifications.
An example of this type of firm in New York is Paralegal Consultant Associates ("PCA"), founded in 1988 and specializing in Corporate, Securities, Contract, Entertainment and Litigation areas of law as well as providing non-traditional legal assistant services. Because PCA is managed by legal assistants, it only provides its services to attorneys. With questions of unauthorized practice of law cropping up everywhere, it is not enough just to say you work for an attorney, but a freelance legal assistant must subscribe to an even higher standard of ethics than those legal assistants working in law firms. Recent advertising on TV about people learning to prepare and complete legal documents for lay people, without attorney assistance or fees, makes it clear that legal assistant must work only for attorneys.
Agency vs. Legal Assistant Firm
Paralegal Consultant Associates, for example, is not a temporary employment agency but is a multidimensional legal consulting firm. There are distinctive differences between the two. A law firm utilizing an employment agency not only pays the hourly rate for a legal assistant, but also pays a middle man or agency fee. Since Paralegal Consultant Associates is a consulting firm, an attorney pays only for the work performed. The freedom this type of structure allows a legal assistant, besides the obvious, is that they can work for an hourly rate or a flat rate. A flat rate fee structure can be less costly and better value for attorneys primarily because they know how much the project is going to cost before it is undertaken. There are some types of projects where an hourly rate is more appropriate because there is no accurate way of knowing how long the project will take to complete. The beauty of a legal assistant working with an attorney in this manner is that the attorney provides his client with high quality legal services while maintaining reasonable fees and securing a profit and in today's economic climate, keeping costs down is mandatory.
Another difference is that if an attorney goes to an agency and particularly if they don't have an ongoing relationship with that agency for paralegal work, the likelihood of their getting someone with the kind of qualifications they need are dramatically reduced. Of course agencies screen their applicants, they may even have been a paralegal themselves, but many times, they really don't understand the needs of an attorney due to any number of factors, including mis-communication or lack of understanding of a specific specialty of law. Since a legal assistant firm is not an agency, and does not employ temporary help, when an attorney retains a legal assistant firm, his needs can be specifically tailored with the right person from the beginning; he works with someone that has the experience needed.
Financial Rewards for Legal Assistant and Attorney
Any paralegal working for an employment agency as a freelance legal assistant will tell you that the financial rewards for legal assistants do not equal the demands of the assignment or the level of responsibility. Many will also freelance as word processors if they have the experience and skill because hourly rates are much better. A legal assistant firm, however, can pay a paralegal a rate closer to what the assignment is actually worth, even if they work for a legal assistant firm on a contract basis. This provides the incentive to work better and provide quality work. A legal assistant firm can also provide an internal structure which affords a legal assistant a greater chance for upward mobility and to grow with the firm in way that they could never achieve by working in a law firm.
A Legal Assistant Firm provides an attorney with a staff of experienced paralegals without the expenditure involved in hiring a full time staff a paralegal staff at an attorney's command. Overhead, salaries, benefits and other incentive costs are eliminated.
For example, Paralegal Consultant Associates works under the adage "you get what you pay for." Their fee structure reflects experience, not high profit. Most, if not all, of their fees are flat rate not hourly fees and can be passed directly through to the attorney's client. Hence, their fees are fully reimbursable. They offer three types of retainer rates based upon an attorneys need for a legal assistant; provide promotional discounts which gives clients an opportunity to try new services; and they will work within an attorney budget constraints where necessary. An attorney pays for experience; an experienced legal assistant isn't going to waste time; they get the job done and out the door.
Computerization: A Leg Up
In order to keep costs down and quality of work high, Paralegal Consultant Associates developed The PCA Method. The PCA Method is an ongoing developmental database program designed to allow a legal assistant to take virtually all the necessary information they need over the telephone and process both the simple and complex assignments before they have completed the telephone conversation. The program is designed so that it frees the legal assistants time to spend on assignments requiring their specialized talents.
The PCA Method is tied into virtually all the computerized services Paralegal Consultant Associates provides. PCA's main concern is providing services at reasonable rates, by cutting out time billed for proofreading, word processing, and revisions. A project can be tracked for the length of time it takes to complete utilizing The PCA Method and ultimately, if an hourly rate is charged for the assignment, it could be changed to a flat rate.
Not all services are tied into The PCA Method . Because The PCA Method is an ongoing developmental database program, Paralegal Consultant Associates looks for ways to incorporate more and more work. This makes it a flexible program and one that incorporates many popular word processing, information management and research programs currently available on the market. There will always be assignments that can not incorporate the use of a database, but if there's a way to incorporate it, it can be done.
Other Services Legal Assistant Firms Can Provide
In addition to the functions which legal assistants provide, a legal assistant can also provide non-traditional legal assistant services, including development of and/or troubleshooting established legal assistant programs in law firms, increasing workflow and output, support staff management, project management, general consulting, financial printing, desktop publishing, computer reconfiguration, in-house training seminars, and developing computerized or manual form and precedent files.
Paralegal Department Development/Troubleshooting. Firms who are interested in developing paralegal departments can find the assistance of a legal assistant firm useful in that they can tailor the development of a paralegal department specifically to the needs of a firm, while maintaining the flexibility a well-run department needs in order to grow as the firm grows. Existing departments can also benefit from utilizing the services of a legal assistant firm in the restructuring and utilization methods they employ.
Project Management. Many times, the larger law firms will receive an assignment from a client which will require dealing with massive amounts of documents. With firms in transition or down-sizing, a legal assistant firm can assist these firms by providing the staff and supervision needed to handle these types of projects, without disturbing the legal staff of a firm or uprooting legal assistants employed by the firm by transferring them to a large project, which could ultimately sacrifice quality for the sake of one large project. A law firm could save substantial amounts of money associated with highering additional staff including benefits and secretarial help by using a legal assistant firm for large projects.
Financial Printing. Solo practitioners and the smaller law firms which have need of financial printers often can turn to a legal assistant firm for assistance with their financial printing needs. Although they may not handle the offset, binding and mailing of documents, legal assistant firms can provide printing capabilities, at more reasonable cost than financial printers. They also can provide the added benefit of an experienced securities legal assistant where necessary to assist in the preparation of registration statements, prospectus', and other securities oriented documents which require the use of a financial printer.
In-house Seminars. While many paralegal schools have developed continuing education courses, there are times in-house training is necessary. A legal assistant firm can effectively work with a law firm and paralegal educators to develop in-house seminars designed to meet the specific needs of a firm. A legal assistant firm also provides a firm with seminars on effective utilization of legal assistants and other management-type seminars.
Form and Precedent Files. Many firms who have converted to WordPerfect have effectively utilized the macro capabilities of that program in terms of their form files. A legal assistant firm can provide assistance to the solo practitioner in developing a forms database within their word processing program which allows them to access their forms to either fill in the blanks or highlight areas which may need specialized revisions. Precedent files can be maintained similarly.
Expanding the Paralegal's Role
With the inevitable licensing and/or certification of legal assistants, whether on a national or state-by-state basis, legal assistants still face the challenge of expanding the roles they play in the legal profession. Many paralegals are encouraged by the possibility of licensing because they see it as gaining professional recognition. Some paralegals have held the belief that there had to be other alternatives for career legal assistants who have more than 5 or 10 years experience than becoming legal assistant supervisors in law firms or going to law or business school. Career-oriented legal assistants often become Senior Legal Assistants in the larger law firms, but where do you go from there? Supervisory positions are scarce; besides, today's trend is to make do when a senior legal assistant leaves or offer salaries below what the position is actually worth. Law firms may not be willing pay the kind of salaries that senior legal assistant positions should demand in quantity. A paralegal thinking about moving on or considering freelancing realizes that one of the things you can never do in a law firm is become a partner, thus the financial rewards of freelancing increase. A legal assistant firm's internal structure can provide advancement so that a legal assistant can become a principal and/ or director of the firm. This increases the desire to grow professionally and more importantly, provides another career alternative. When licensing comes, in whatever form it takes, and since this kind of career alternative demands the highest ethical standards among legal assistants, it will provide the standard by which such licensing of paralegals can be based.
Although this concept of a Legal Assistant Firm is new, many highly experienced legal assistants will see it as the ultimate challenge. The practice of law is undergoing change and it is not unlikely that the legal profession will be redefined significantly in the next decade and into the twenty-first century. As long as an attorney has the need for a legal assistant, more highly experienced legal assistants will consider going this route. Firms like PCA are the beginning of this process and are providing a minimal amount of the potential services a legal assistant firm can provide and are making a difference not only in the way in which paralegals can grow pro@?fessionally, but also leading the way for legal assistants profitably to start their own practices and provide attorneys with the services of highly experienced legal assistants at reasonable rates. A profession which began in the late 1960's is approaching the end of the century reaching the next generation the Legal Assistant Firm has arrived.
TIPS: So You Want to Freelance
Here's a typical scenario: you've been at your job for five years or better and your tired of the routine. You need more challenging work; the job market is slow and the salaries available are less than what your getting now. Someone told you that the freelance market is picking up and you should try your hand at it. But where do you start?
Before you take the plunge, there are a few important factors to be considered:
1. Don't quit your job right away. Even if you get freelance assignments, don't consider leaving your fulltime position until you have enough clients to meet your expenses.
2. Always make sure you work for an attorney. Unauthorized practice of law cases have dramatically increased; you don't need to become another statistic.
3. If you do quit your job to pursue a fulltime freelancing career, make sure you have funds to pay your bills for at least six months. If you're relying on current business to get you through the rough times, rethink your strategy. Lean times are LEAN times. Don't leave yourself with bill collectors knocking at your door when you have no cash flow coming in.
4. If you're considering a partnership with another freelance paralegal, formulate a business plan first before you begin working together. You may be friends when you start working together, but you could easily become mortal enemies if each of you has a different agenda. A business plan will help both of you formulate the type of business and marketing strategy both of you want and help you focus on the important issues.
If you need help in drafting a business plan, PCA can assist you.
And Now, For My Next Magical Trick or How I Avoided Reinventing the Wheel
Anyone who works in areas in which information is duplicated will tell you: AVOID REINVENTING THE WHEEL. Seldom do they tell you how to accomplish that. Here are some tricks to keep in mind:
1. If you are working on an ongoing project, make a point of holding onto your research for future use. The more information you have at hand to help you the next time, the better.
2. If you need to write a memo, keep a copy. You should keep copies of memos you write in any case, but if you don't already do so, start a file of memos for yourself.
3. If you work in the Blue Sky area, you probably need to know the basic
requirements for the various filings in each State. Prepare a memo listing
all the information you need for each State and refer to it often. Keep the
memo updated so that your information is accurate.
An Opinionated View
To License or Not to License That is the Question! Or is it? By Judith Bandel
Hamlet was a prince who couldn't make up his mind. Since the inception of the paralegal profession there have been those who believed some form of licensing and/or certification should be required. Each time a bar association looks into the issue, it has been determined that the subject was premature. National and local professional associations have taken positions against it on the basis that it was premature and if done, should be accomplished by a broad base group including lawyers, paralegals, educators and consumers.
Other national and local associations have subscribed to and provided a certification exam, which, at first glance, seems a good idea to some. Upon closer examination, such an exam does not truly meet the needs of licensing or certifying a profession.
All the discussion, debate, bills pending in state legislatures, bar association committees to study the question of licensing, whether for or against it, continually point to one thing: the profession is looking for something to hang standards on. Creating and maintaining standards in a profession does not mean, however, that the task is to license or certify.
The paralegal profession has expanded and grown because it has not been subject to licensing or certification. Those of us who have reached beyond the traditional legal assistant positions in law firms, corporations or public sector areas understand this, otherwise we wouldn't be where we are today.
There is, inherently, suspect among those who do not believe in some form of licensing. Hence, the years of struggling to establish a definition of what a paralegal / legal assistant and the plethera of other names given to those who perform countless different and varying tasks in our profession. Suspect is a very dangerous term in a free society; it can and often does lead to fear, which can take the form of blacklisting and loss of reputation and livelihood to innocent victims.
Desire for recognition does not necessarily breed the proper response. For many,this desire means a license. Simply put, a piece of paper which one can hang on a wall that says a body or group has legitimized the recipient because they have fulfilled the necessary requirements in order to receive that piece of paper. Whose standards did they follow? How old are those standards? What outside influences affected those standards? Was there really a necessity for those standards in the first place? How much fear was behind those standards?
Others desire for recognition stem from the reputation they build for themselves; the quality of the work equals the quality of the reward.
It isn't so much that we should be licensed, it's who fears us if we are not. Certainly, there are attorneys who firmly believe (no matter how much money you may generate for them or not) that legal assistants do, and have the increasing potential to, perform more and more tasks/projects which will effect their practice of law. We can therefore, be considered a threat - a threat that can change the very fabric of the practice of law. Of course, the lawyer will say you don't want to be licensed; from an attorneys perspective, it will restrict the type and kind of work you do. Afterall, providing legal advice is what three years of law school is about. But what, you say, about the people who can't afford legal services. Lawyers are just too expensive for the majority of lay people.
And what about those advertisements that have been so prominent late at night about lay people being able to prepare legal documents for other lay people. Aren't they encroaching on those of us who have spent money to go to school to become legal assistants? Yes they are and this is something that our profession needs to deal with and deal with soon.
What is the answer? One thing we do know is that licensing, certification,
legislation or any form of restrictions on the growth potential of our
profession is not the answer. We believe that one way to increase
professional recognition is to insure, no, demand, high standards of
education. Perhaps ABA approval and the process a paralegal program goes
through in order to obtain that approval is not enough. Before you can
receive professional recognition you have to have a good foundation. Our
foundation is in education and we should look to that area before we seek to
reap the rewards, recognition and benefits that go with it.
from material by Paralegal Consultant Associates
160 West 71 Street, Suite 5-P
New York, New York 10023-3901
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