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Business Law Today

Training for Effective Paralegal Utilization
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By Heather V. Edes
Rare is the law firm that fully leverages its paralegal team. The competitive edge gained by effective paralegal utilization justifies paying attention to how paralegal resources are used. However, even firms that recognize the value of an effective paralegal team struggle, for a variety of reasons, to maximize paralegal utilization.

First, confusion about what paralegals can and should be doing is endemic. No common understanding of a paralegal's role exists. Recognizing the panoply of paralegal responsibilities, the definition of "paralegal" adopted by the ABA broadly states that paralegals perform "specifically delegated substantive legal work," and the organization's Model Guidelines enumerate only the limited activities that paralegals are ethically prohibited from undertaking. Not surprisingly, therefore, paralegal job descriptions vary dramatically across, and within, employers.

Second, a lack of core business skills (often referred to as "soft" skills) directly impacts paralegal utilization. Even a lawyer who knows what work should be assigned to a paralegal may wrestle with weak delegation skills and fail to assign work downstream appropriately. Or, the lawyer may encounter overwhelming pressure to rack up billable hours, which—subtly or not—impacts decisions about delegation. Without opportunities to refine lawyering skills or to learn the business side of a law firm, even the best-intentioned lawyer is hampered in properly using paralegals.

Finally, some lawyers simply overlook the availability of paralegals, particularly in cultures where paralegals are not considered part of the professional team.

Fortunately, opportunities abound for training lawyers and paralegals to work together. This includes training lawyers to understand the roles and responsibilities of paralegals, helping lawyers strengthen their core business skills and training paralegals in skills and client service. Before the benefits of training can be fully realized, firms must remedy a few common but insidious practices and cultural biases. With a little effort and dedication, these challenges can be overcome and paralegal utilization will thrive.

Train Lawyers in What Paralegals Do
To use paralegals effectively, lawyers must first know what paralegals actually do. Therefore, train them in exactly that. A veteran paralegal is often the best instructor for this approach. The instructor walks the lawyers through a series of typical matters from a paralegal's perspective, demonstrating what paralegals do at each phase and why. The instructor should tie each task to responsibilities most frequently handled by lawyers and to the client's ultimate goal. In this way, the instructor not only highlights the skills and knowledge exercised by paralegals, but also provides context that is directly meaningful to the lawyers.

Another way to demonstrate what paralegals do is to pair them as faculty with the partners who teach your firm's substantive seminars, particularly those intended for more junior audiences. Assign the paralegal faculty member responsibility for particular subtopics. For example, in an overview class on asset purchase transactions, the paralegal can teach the section on how to put together a closing agenda. In a more advanced class on a new financing approach, the paralegal might highlight particular information lawyers must obtain from clients in order to complete required forms. As an additional benefit, each time a paralegal co-teaches portions of a seminar, it imbues the entire paralegal team with credibility.

While classroom training is an important technique for teaching lawyers how to work with paralegals, taking lawyers out of the classroom and providing in-context training is also very effective, particularly with new associates. Arrange for each lawyer to shadow a star paralegal for a day or two. In this approach, the lawyer literally sits side by side with the paralegal. The lawyer enters data into the computer, participates on calls, helps to maintain files and handles whatever else may be required, such as attending closings and client meetings with the paralegal instructor. "Learning by doing" in this manner is particularly effective when layered upon a classroom foundation and allows the lawyer and paralegal to develop a rapport. If done at the very inception of an associate's career, the impact is substantial and the immediate financial impact negligible.

Train Lawyers in Core Business Skills
Following the direct methods outlined above builds the foundation of effective utilization. However, for lawyers to achieve maximum results, firms must help them develop a variety of skill sets that have broad applicability, yet also apply directly to paralegal utilization.

For example, well-developed delegation skills are essential for proper paralegal utilization, but effective delegation is a major challenge for many lawyers. If your firm offers a formal delegation skills program, learning to delegate appropriately to paralegals should be an enumerated learning objective. This is an opportune time for paralegals to explain their skills and responsibilities, so include them as co-presenters for the relevant portion of the workshop. Focus on providing accurate instructions, articulating context and expectations and on developing the ability to evaluate another professional's work product.

Another learning objective in a delegation skills program should be taking responsibility for making sure work gets done at the appropriate level. Part of the reason lawyers don't learn to delegate is that they often don't understand what degree of delegation is appropriate. Help them understand that delegation is part of their job. Empower junior lawyers to propose working with paralegals as appropriate on each matter. Set expectations for efficiency during the training session, and measure associates' ability to delegate in evaluations. Many firms can point to a lawyer who had to leave because of an inability to delegate. If you have a success story in this area, encourage that person to share lessons learned as part of the training.

Similarly, teach lawyers law firm economics. Strikingly few lawyers seem to consider the economic impact their work allocation decisions will have on the firm. Share with them measures of profitability relevant to the firm and how profitable a busy paralegal can be. Help them understand opportunities lost, such as the opportunity to do higher-value work, as a result of poor utilization. Run calculations showing the impact of improper utilization on the profitability of an individual, a practice group and the firm. This is an effective exercise with lawyers at all levels.

Beyond the disservice to the firm, emphasize the disservice to clients that improper utilization renders. To truly ingrain this sensitivity to client concerns, consider establishing a rotation, or secondment, program with clients. In this approach, a lawyer resides in a client's office for a defined period of time and works exclusively on its matters. The lawyer remains an employee of the firm but gains a client's perspective.

Finally, train lawyers to take charge of their own careers. An associate who continues to do the routine work that should be done by paralegals hampers his or her development. Rather than undertaking more challenging, "stretch" assignments, this associate does the same work over and over again and does not develop new skills. And not only substantive skills are at risk. The competing demands of practice, business development and eventually firm ownership (not to mention integration of life outside the firm) require strong management and business skills. Associates who resist opportunities to develop their delegation skills early on are less likely to develop the management skills and good habits that can help them succeed later in their careers. An associate who takes responsibility for personal development by delegating and supervising routine, familiar and less novel work better utilizes all available support resources, including paralegals.

Train Paralegals, Too
Training for effective paralegal utilization should not be limited to lawyers. In fact, to train lawyers exclusively is to neglect half of the job. Following are some suggestions for paralegal training that, when paired with the lawyer training described above, help facilitate appropriate utilization.

Train paralegals in client service. This includes not only training in "external" client service such as that described above but also, and just as importantly, training in "internal" client service. To be most effective, paralegals must cultivate the confidence of their most direct clients: the lawyers they support. A lawyer who has a positive client service experience with a paralegal who is proactive, professional and competent is likely to develop effective delegation habits over time, simply because the paralegal is helpful and effective. Help paralegals to understand the importance of always producing the best work product possible. Further, train them to look for additional steps they can take to effectively serve their clients and to make their skills and competence known to the lawyers they support.

Also train paralegals in promoting effective delegation. Training only one participant in a delegation transaction is to fail to train completely. Train paralegals in listening skills so that they can more accurately determine what the delegator's needs are. Train them to ask appropriate questions about the nature, circumstances and timing of the project and to understand and manage the delegator's expectations. Paralegals must also learn to be comfortable and proactive in identifying paralegal-level tasks that lawyers are doing and in offering their services. Empower paralegals to take responsibility for keeping their plates full and evaluate them on their ability to effectively accept delegation.

Train paralegals in the latest substantive and procedural developments. Paralegals are best equipped to provide excellent client service when they are aware of the latest developments in their practice areas. While keeping abreast of procedural changes, such as new filing requirements or forms of certificates, is at the heart of a paralegal's own professional development responsibilities, an employer should also endeavor to make available to paralegals any substantive training it makes available to its lawyers. An easy way to accomplish this, for example, is to include paralegals in any periodic department lunches, on department retreats and in department training sessions. Department heads and paralegals themselves should identify together the areas of these new developments in which paralegals can be most effective.

Beyond Training: Culture Change
This article outlines a handful of training opportunities that help promote proper paralegal utilization. But beware! As important as training is, training cannot by itself remedy poor paralegal utilization. Training initiatives that are not supported by corresponding culture change are doomed to fail. Firms must take affirmative steps to remedy the all-too-common perception that paralegals occupy a "second class citizen" status. Strong leadership on this issue promotes effective use of paralegal services.

Again, include paralegals in practice group lunches, training sessions, and retreats and meetings, not only to keep them up-to-date, but to also increase their visibility. When publicizing client victories or transactions, recognize paralegals by briefly describing their contributions (e.g., "Elizabeth managed a daunting number of exhibits and documents and organized our trial materials"). When treating a deal or trial team to dinner, invite and include paralegals.

When selecting technology tools, designate a paralegal "champion" for each new application. This will link a paralegal to each tool in a high-visibility manner, encouraging lawyers to direct work assignments involving that tool to the paralegal. Team paralegals with the technology staff to conduct the training and make the paralegals at least partially responsible for utilization rates in their practice groups.

Finally, manage expectations by strategically staffing paralegal positions. When preparing to hire a paralegal, take the time to parse carefully the position's responsibilities and the skills a new hire must command. One or two inappropriate or misunderstood hires can damage the credibility of the entire paralegal program.

Pulling It All Together
Proper paralegal utilization results when a firm's lawyers and paralegals alike are well attuned to the dynamics of a successful law firm and have the skills they need to behave in a way that promotes these dynamics. A combination of formal training programs for both groups, strong leadership and a culture that recognizes and encourages paralegals' contributions set the tone for a positive and productive utilization of paralegals firm-wide.
Additional resources are available from the Web sites for the International Paralegal Management Association (www.paralegalmanagement.org) and the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Paralegals (www.abanet.org/legalservices/paralegals/).
Edes is director of professional development at Sullivan & Worcester LLP in Boston. Her e-mail is hedes@sandw.com.

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