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For decades, the following marketing statement to graduating law school students has lured new lawyers to associate positions at high-profile firms: “We have a great associate program.” But after more than 25 years as a developing profession, how many firms and corporations have instituted “great paralegal programs”? What role do paralegal programs play in recruiting and keeping qualified paralegals and maintaining productivity and profitability? In some firms and corporations, paralegals are viewed as a distinct group. In some places, they are even regarded as professional staff. Resources and recognition are dedicated to the group. For example, there may be a specific budget for paralegal expenditures. There may be a paralegal manager who is responsible for hiring, reviews, professional development, continuing education and the like. Or that task might fall to an attorney or a committee. The program may entail regular group meetings and communications, seminars, development of skills and/or cross-training. There may be benchmarking and/or identification of skill sets and then a matching of those to the case needs or attorney needs much like firms do with attorneys by ranking them as first-years, associates and senior associates. The managers or administrators of some firms and companies establish the paralegal program and the parameters of what the program entails for the firm and for the paralegals. Houston-based Baker Botts has one of the oldest and largest formal paralegal programs in Texas. Baker Botts began a formal legal assistant program in 1974, says Donna Sanders, the firm’s legal assistant coordinator. She notes that the firm’s Texas offices have 146 employees who are part of the legal assistant/legal assistant clerk program. “We think the legal assistant program helps us attract quality individuals who contribute to the overall strength of the firm,” she says. “Our legal assistants are not only a valuable component of our legal teams, but also mentor the legal assistant clerks, who are recent college graduates with an interest in the law. In fact, a number of our legal assistant clerks have come back to the firm as associates. We believe that interaction through continuing education programs, departmental functions and other professional development activities helps to foster successful working relationships.” The paralegal program at Baker Botts is three-tiered: legal assistant clerk, legal assistant and senior legal assistant. To reach senior status, a legal assistant must excel in his or her practice area and have a designated level of tenure. Legal assistant clerk is an entry-level position for candidates with little or no experience, many of whom are recent college graduates. Annette Schlaf, the firm’s manager of legal assistants, says having a formal program provides for full utilization of paralegal tasks and affects the status of legal assistants. “Having a formal program in a law firm enhances the concept of legal assistant as a chosen profession, rather than the notion that legal assistants are lawyers-in-waiting,” says Schlaf, who is also the president-elect of the nationwide Legal Assistant Management Association. In other firms, it’s the paralegals themselves who voluntarily meet and develop a functioning paralegal group. These volunteer paralegal committees sometimes approach firm management to request paralegal-specific continuing legal education and represent the firm’s legal assistants in any issues that affect legal assistants. “Our paralegal group elects co-chairs who serve for six months,” says Whittney Lyon at Dallas-based Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr. “If any issues arise that affect our group, the co-chairs approach the management committee or section heads with our concerns.” This co-chair arrangement has existed since the firm’s inception in 1985. At Dallas-based Hughes & Luce, the paralegals organized the concept of a paralegal committee and submitted the format to management, which approved it in 1998. Ed Coultas, Hughes & Luce’s executive director, says, “This committee, elected by its peers, is very active and provides our paralegals not only with educational opportunities to improve their expertise, but also serves as a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences on how to better serve our clients.” Do paralegal programs help recruit candidates? Yes, says Anita Mitchell, a paralegal who recently joined the estate planning section of Dallas-based Jenkens & Gilchrist. “I was very impressed with the paralegal manager at Jenkens & Gilchrist,” she says. “Her professionalism, coupled with the fact that this firm has such a paralegal program, suggested to me that their attitude toward the role of paralegals was very positive, and that was a great influence on my decision to accept the position.” It is unknown whether productivity has been compared between firms that do and do not have paralegal programs. However, simply knowing paralegals and their functions frequently can be an asset to client service. Programs provide a mechanism for cohesiveness and unity within the paralegal group. Since firms and legal departments are in the “knowledge” business, expanded and shared knowledge must be an asset to productivity. At Dallas-based Jackson Walker, Shirley Ross, litigation paralegal, says, “Every year, in addition to CLE throughout the year, we have a paralegal retreat for all the paralegals to come together, meet each other and share information as well as ways we could do our jobs more effectively. We also have a lot of fun.” It’s logical that continuing education provided in paralegal programs also would increase individual and collective abilities. Specific cross-training increases productivity by full utilization and flexibility to move paralegals into areas of need as the legal market fluctuates. At J.C. Penney Co. Inc., legal administrator Pam Young has taken that step. “Specific cross-training and continued development of research skills in the legal areas of practice has created a versatile paralegal program at J.C. Penney,” she says. “The flexibility in assigning emergency projects and/or tasks among the specialized and generalist paralegals allows for more workflow efficiency to meet the business clients’ needs. This versatile approach to paralegal utilization benefits the entire organization. There is an increased availability of paralegal support for the attorneys and a strategic focus to include and develop the paralegal staff in becoming more familiar with the business organization.” Paralegals are profitable due to the fees they generate individually (or save, in a corporate setting) and because they enable lawyers to perform more profitable functions. While firms expect paralegals to be profitable (or contribute to bottom-line profits), lawyers also look to paralegals for convenience and continuity in the practice. Does being a profit center encourage firms to create and sustain paralegal programs? Clients and legal assistants profit from paralegal programs, says Lori Boaz, legal assistant coordinator at Dallas-based Thompson & Knight. “We pay attention to profitability, of course. But, more importantly, we believe legal assistants are valuable in the sense that they make attorneys’ jobs and lives more productive. Better still, they allow the firm to offer high-quality services to clients at a reasonable cost. Our legal assistant program offers stimulating and challenging work for legal assistants along with the opportunity for substantial earnings.” Michele Boerder is a legal assistant at Hughes & Luce, a law firm based in Dallas.

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