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Job descriptions make paralegals a profit center

A Phoenix firm realized its paralegal force was not paying for itself in billings. Instead, the group was not only unsupervised but was being given a lot of non-billable work assignments,.

In response, the firm set billing requirements, drew up a paralegal job description, and, to encourage its paralegals to exceed the minimum, developed an objective bonus system. Along with all that, it threw in some morale building-perks.

The result has been a productive and 100 per cent profitable paralegal team that sees practically no turnover.

The 30-attorney firm focuses on civil litigation, and insurance defence and has 11 paralegals.

A partner as supervisor

First came a supervisor, and to emphasize the authority of that position, the firm gave the job to a partner.

His job includes hiring, assigning paralegals to attorneys and supervising the workloads.

But perhaps the most important responsibility is to bridge the gap between paralegals and attorneys, and mostly that`s a matter of approaching the attorneys about changing assignments when they give non-billable work to the paralegals.

The firm needed a decision person for that because it`s common for attorneys to assign non-billable work to paralegals and a paralegal is not in a position to confront an attorney and say, “This work isn`t billable.”

Going to the supervisor, however, the paralegal can say, for example, “Àttorney A wants me to run an errand for Client B, but I can`t bill the time. How do I respond without sounding unco-operative?”

The supervisor partner then goes to the attorney and explains the situation and tells the attorney to use a clerical staffer for the job.

And on the other side of the coin, the attorneys can go to the supervisor when they have problems with paralegal performance or attitude.

That approach eliminates a lot of conflict because the supervisor`s job is to smooth things out, not lower the boom.

A list of what`s billable

To make it clear to everybody just what is and isn’t billable, the firm drew up a paralegal job description that, along with the qualification requirements, lists the specific legal items the paralegals are supposed to do, all of which are billable.

Defining the billable tasks is crucial to the firm because it sets out exactly what the paralegals are supposed to be doing. The tasks include these:

-Locate and interview potential expert witnesses.

-Select and prepare documents for witnesses.

-Research opposing experts and obtain literature about them.

-Keep the attorney informed on the witnesses and exhibits for disclosure statements, interrogatories and requests.

-Obtain written statements from witnesses.

-Summarize documents.

-Identify documents that need to be brought to the attorney`s attention.

-File subpoenas.

-Respond to discovery requests.

-Review records to identify discovery items, witnesses and information that may be used as evidence.

-Help with trial preparation.

-Assist at trial with documents and exhibits and organize the witnesses and the testimony.

Hours to bill, bonuses to earn

Then the firm set an hourly billing requirement for its paralegals – a minimum of 135 hours a month – along with a bonus plan for those who exceed it.

The bonuses are given quarterly and are based on the individual`s monthly average for the quarter. There are two bonus levels. The first is for a monthly average of 145 to 149 hours during the quarter. It brings a $750 bonus. The second is for 155 hours and beyond and it carries a $900 bonus.

What if somebody fails to meet the minimum?

The administrator and the supervisor meet with that paralegal to find out what has happened and how to correct the situation.

If the attorney hasn`t assigned enough billable work, for example, they take that up with the attorney, although it is the paralegal`s responsibility to let the supervisor know when they need more work.

If the paralegal has been out sick or on vacation, the situation is excused.

But if the fault lies with the paralegal, the firm allows only 30 days for that person to get back on track or face disciplinary action as well as the possibility of no raise at the end of the year.

That system is attractive because it`s objective. The money is based on the actual hours billed, not on anybody`s opinion of someone’s work.

Also the bonuses are continuing incentive because they are paid quarterly. The paralegals don`t have to wait until the end of the year to get the payout.

A few priceless perks

In addition to all that, the firm offers its paralegals a few perks, the greatest of which is a flexible work schedule.

The paralegals have to put in a 40-hour week, but as long as they meet the minimum billable hour requirements, they can pick their own hours.

They have to tell the office when they will be out, but the firm does not monitor their comings and goings.

Another perk is secretarial support, which many firms have now discontinued for their paralegals.

More still, the firm gives the paralegals up to three months` paid time off for illness.

The outcome of it all is high morale and low turnover, mainly because the firm has elevated the paralegal program to a level of partner involvement and it recognizes the professional nature of the paralegal position.

Related reading:

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