October 9, 2014 By: Peggy Gruenke, Law Practice Management Specialist
Like so many areas of the legal industry, the role of the paralegal has changed dramatically in recent years. Paralegals have always taken on tasks that do not require an attorney’s hand for completion, such as drafting complaints, motions, and responses. These tasks are the basic skill set that any trained paralegal should know how to complete. This skill set is not extraordinary. It’s the norm.
So where are the opportunities for paralegals to become more integral and successful? There are countless ways to add value to your firm beyond the basics. In this article, I’ll focus on basic client communication skills to help ensure a great client experience that will lead to future services or referrals and thus a more profitable practice for your lawyer.
Here are some tips to help you take it to the next level and become a real asset to your attorney’s practice.
Your role in client selection and engagement:
Client selection is so important to laying the foundation for a successful and profitable engagement. You can assist your attorney with process by working with him/her to create and implement some of the following:
- Design a client-screening questionnaire that asks basic questions of prospects. The purpose of this form is to identify any red flags before your attorney wastes time with a free consultation. For example, asking for a prospect’s phone number and full address. If they balk at giving this information then ask yourself, “Why should my attorney give away 1 hour of his time if they are not willing to give this information to you?”
- Consider creating a new client welcome packet
- Create editable client intake forms using Adobe and setup these forms based on practice area. Each type of practice area has different key information that needs to be captured during the initial client meeting.
- Create open file checklists so with every new case you are consistently completing tasks.
- Try your hand at creating a fee agreement template form in Word so for each new case you are starting with a fresh document instead of cutting and pasting, which can lead to errors.
Your role in managing cases:
I call this understanding the economics of a law firm. This is where the you can become an asset to your attorney by helping in the following areas:
- Understand how client’s fees are set and how expenses are billed.
- Understand the billing cycle – from the time hours are entered, to client being billed and money actually collected.
- Understand the importance of retainers and encourage your lawyer to request and get them. Also, learn as much as you can about trust accounting and the rules for you state. A bonus skill!
- Understand that for each billable hour, the amount actually collected is determined by how much actually got put on the bill and how much actually got collected. This is referred to as billing realization rates and collection realization rates.
- Understand the role you can play in making sure all billable time is captured, properly reviewed and discounts are minimized.
Your role in risk management
- Adopt and use good calendaring and task management processes and be the gatekeeper so appointments, deadlines, court-filing dates, statute of limitations are not missed.
- Create a system for assuring fee agreements are sent and signed copies are received and saved, along with retainers requested.
- Notice when a client relationship is headed south and be proactive in talking to your lawyer about things you are noticing.
Your role in understanding and using technology
Here lies the greatest opportunity for paralegals to add value to a law firm. This can become your competitive advantage. I think it is a save bet to say that legal technology is the most talked and written about area in the legal industry. And it can also be the topic for a whole separate article. So for this article, I want to leave you with a list of resources you can use to increase your knowledge in this area and really make a difference.
The following list of websites and blogs is a nice place to start for learning about technology in the law firm:
- Law Technology Today: http://www.lawtechnologytoday.org/
- Attorney at Work http://www.attorneyatwork.com/
- Law Practice Tips: http://www.lawpracticetipsblog.com/
- ABA Solo/Small Firm Resource Page:http://www.americanbar.org/portals/solo_home.html
- ABA Legal Technology Resource Center:http://www.americanbar.org/groups/departments_offices/legal_technology_resources.html