An insider’s look at the role of paralegal managers.
Are you considering a promotion to a paralegal manager position? Maybe you have just accepted a promotion within your firm and are thinking: What next? The transition from paralegal to paralegal manager might seem easy and logical at first glance, however, the skills you relied on for your success as a paralegal are only part of the equation for success as a paralegal manager.
Paralegal managers have different styles and approaches. Some managers continue to work as paralegals in addition to managing a group or department of paralegals. These are referred to as “working” managers. I began my career as a working paralegal manager. The variety of job titles used by law firms and corporations to identify their managers of paralegals can be confusing: paralegal coordinator, director of legal assistants, legal assistant coordinator, manager of paralegal services, corporate paralegal coordinator, senior paralegal … and the list goes on. Regardless of what you are called or whether you are still working as a paralegal, if you have direct responsibility for the overall performance of a group of paralegals, then welcome to the world of legal assistant management.
The duties of a paralegal manager fall into several categories, depending on how the firm views the role of the manager. Your position, or the one you are considering, might involve responsibilities in any or all of the following areas. Speaking from experience, it’s usually a good idea to clarify the firm’s expectations in each of these areas before accepting your new responsibilities. Since my duties over the years have covered almost all areas of paralegal management, I will provide a brief description of the responsibilities associated with each.
Recruiting and Hiring: This includes developing recruiting strategies to hire the best candidates, preparing recruiting materials, conducting employment interviews, making offers of employment, negotiating salaries, explaining employee benefits and coordinating new employee orientation.
Training and Professional Development: Training doesn’t end with new employee orientation. Responsibilities in this area include developing meaningful continuing legal education for your department (using firm attorneys, outside resources and yourself as trainers, as appropriate), evaluating and approving requests to attend outside CLE courses, conducting individual coaching sessions to address performance issues as they arise, and providing learning resources such as books, manuals and tapes that address relevant legal topics.
Workflow Coordination: Firms vary greatly on how much involvement they expect from paralegal managers in this area. For some managers, this is their primary duty. In this case, each new paralegal project is sent to the manager who then identifies a paralegal to handle the task based on expertise and experience. Presumably, past performance and matching the right personalities plays into the equation as well. This is often referred to as the “paralegal pool” concept in staffing. In other firms, paralegals are permanently assigned to teams or practice groups. The group then assumes the responsibility for keeping the work flowing to their assigned paralegals. In this instance, the paralegal manager might step in only when additional help is needed at peak times by temporarily assigning paralegals from slower areas to help out in the interim.
Productivity and Profitability: Paralegals, if utilized properly, can be significant contributors to the firm’s bottom line. Firms vary on how much emphasis they place on the profitability of their paralegals. Most consider it important. This means managers must exercise keen judgment in hiring the right people, at the right time and take an active role in motivating their staff to work productively and efficiently. Managing in this area requires a solid grasp of financial and management reporting tools, tracking of billable hours, billing rates, realization rates, employee costs versus revenue and so forth. Your firm might provide reports to you for use in achieving your objectives or you might be expected to develop your own. A solid grasp of Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet applications is crucial to perform these duties.
Performance and Review: Most paralegal managers coordinate all aspects of the evaluation and salary review process for their staff. This might mean designing evaluation forms, tracking with whom paralegals worked to obtain evaluation feedback, assembling evaluation forms and data, making salary recommendations based on current salary survey data, and conducting evaluation conferences. In addition to an annual review, you might be involved in addressing performance issues throughout the year, including issuing warnings for poor performance, and even conducting terminations of employment.
General Administration of Paralegal Department: This category is for all the extras that are required to run an effective paralegal department, and includes diverse duties and responsibilities such as conducting training sessions for attorneys on paralegal utilization, coordinating and conducting department meetings and social events, making recommendations on the hiring of temporary workers, project assistants, or other nonattorney professionals (i.e., nurse consultants, investigators, lobbyists, etc.), participating at firm management meetings, enforcing office policies and procedures, and generally educating your organization on the unique role paralegals play in providing legal services and where they fit into the management structure of your firm.
Areas of Initiative
Unless you report to a higher level manager of paralegals (i.e., director of legal assistants in a large multioffice firm) you are likely the only go-to person in the firm for all issues related to paralegals. If your firm doesn’t come to you with questions or issues relating to paralegals, then you must take it upon yourself to proactively educate attorneys and other firm managers on the importance of involving you in discussions where paralegals are concerned. On a daily or weekly basis I interact with directors and managers in virtually all areas of the firm regarding a variety of issues. Some of these issues involve developing formal policies and procedures for paralegals in concert with other departmental procedures. Examples include:
- Human Resources: on questions of benefits, disciplinary protocol, clarification of personnel policies
- Information Technology: identifying special software needs, issuing laptop computers for special projects, developing training
- Library & Records Services: maintaining paralegal educational and reference resources, coordinating training with LexisNexis and Westlaw, developing online research resources
- Facilities & Support Services: identifying useful courier or copy outsourcing services, coordinating office space, setting up meetings and catering lunches
- Accounting & Payroll: developing meaningful, regular management reports, obtaining specialized or customized financial, payroll or productivity reports, making adjustments to billing goals or other corrections
- Attorney Recruiting & Training: for joint training projects, training of new associates on paralegal utilization
- Pro Bono: to promote the role of paralegals in the firm’s pro bono work in a meaningful way.
Clearly, it’s important to maintain a good working and networking relationship with managers and staff in every area of the firm in order to accomplish your goals as a manager and to promote your role as paralegal manager. Ideally, you should be in a dialogue with managers in these areas whenever a paralegal is affected. This enables you to better serve the needs of your paralegals and accomplish the goals the firm has set for you. Remember the goals of your legal assistant department might not always jive with the goals of another department and some negotiation might be required. This is where building good working relationships comes in handy. One of the most effective ways to do this is by attending regular firm management meetings where managers report on recent developments and ongoing issues in their area of responsibility.
In carrying out your duties and responsibilities as a manager, one group that should not be overlooked is the most obvious: paralegals. If you manage a large, diverse group of paralegals, in several geographical areas, it’s important to spend time with your paralegal staff individually and in groups as much as time permits. While I confess I could do a much better job at this, I am an advocate of the “management by walking around” principal. This simply means getting out of your office each day and being with your paralegals individually, even if only for a moment. Each person you manage is unique. One of the rewards of being a manager is an appreciation of the unique relationship you develop with each person you manage. As a manager, it’s important to cultivate a relationship with each individual you supervise so they are encouraged to come to you with problems, questions or feedback. After all, you are their dedicated resource in the firm for virtually any issue affecting their employment.
Perhaps it’s beginning to sound like there are a lot of responsibilities to juggle as a paralegal manager. It’s true, there are. But when the going gets tough and you begin to get overwhelmed, it’s good to think about your overall mission. If your firm doesn’t have a mission statement for you, it will serve you well to write one for yourself. In general terms, I view my mission as: maximizing the paralegal contribution to the firm’s business objectives and making the firm the best place for paralegals to work. Every decision I make and every initiative I begin is evaluated against this mission. It helps to have this mission to guide me when my thinking gets fuzzy as it can for all managers.
Three Key Differences
The differences between working as a paralegal and a paralegal manager are considerable. Transitioning to the role of paralegal manager means you are leaving the paralegal profession and entering a new profession: management. Most managers specialize in a particular industry or process. Paralegal managers perform many of the same duties other types of managers perform, however, they specialize in the legal service industry or more specifically, in the management of legal assistants.
In my first paralegal management job I served as the firm’s legal assistant recruiting and training coordinator and was eventually promoted to paralegal manager. In both positions I was a working manager since I still performed regular paralegal duties. My billing goal was reduced to accommodate my management responsibilities in the firm.
My job was divided almost in half: 50 percent paralegal and 50 percent manager. This arrangement required some special juggling since I continued to serve the firm’s clients in my legal work, while the firm itself was my client in my management role. Most attorneys had an appreciation for the time demands of both jobs but during busy times, they were both competing for my time and attention. I often felt like I actually held two full-time positions instead of two part-time positions.
Regardless of whether you are a working manager or a full-time manager, there are three fundamental differences between working as a paralegal and working as a paralegal manager. The first is job focus. While it can be said paralegals, in the course of their duties, often serve as managers of information, technology, procedures and sometimes support personnel, among other tasks, the primary focus of a paralegal manager is on the management of people and processes. In both firms where I have managed, the population of my department has ranged between 75 and 115 paralegals, consultants and project assistants. When the focus is on managing such a large number of employees, there is always considerable emphasis on personnel related functions (hiring, firing, training, evaluating, etc.) and financial and business reporting.
The second key difference between a paralegal and paralegal manager position is in the goal of the two positions. Paralegals work more closely with the firm’s clients on reaching the objectives of the litigation or transaction. The paralegal’s goal is directly related to the clients’ objectives. The goal of the paralegal manager indirectly serves the firm’s clients by supporting the structure of an effective paralegal department. However, the primary goal of the paralegal manager is more closely tied to the firm’s overall business objectives. While this distinction might seem subtle at first, it colors every aspect of the job and impacts every decision you make as a paralegal manager. The question you continually ask is: “What is in the best interest of the firm?” instead of, “What is in the best interest of the client?”
The third key difference between working as a paralegal and a paralegal manager is the level of independence and personal responsibility required in the job. It’s true successful paralegals performing at high levels often work independently and must demonstrate initiative in the job. But this is all done within an ethical framework that limits the role of the paralegal and makes the attorney directly responsible to the client for the paralegals’ work. The paralegal is assisting the attorney in serving the client. For the paralegal manager, it can be said that the firm is his or her client, and while there is usually some supervisory structure in place, the paralegal manager is often charged with coming up with his or her own plans and initiatives to meet the business goals of the firm. The degree to which these efforts are successful is a direct reflection on the paralegal manager, and he or she assumes responsibility for their success or failure.
Benefits and Challenges
The benefits of working as a paralegal manager are directly related to the satisfaction that comes from performing the management duties required in the position. My greatest rewards have come from watching bright, eager, entry-level paralegals grow into highly skilled, senior-level case managers, or in observing a paralegal do a complete performance turn-around through a series of performance counseling sessions. Equally satisfying is receiving recognition from the firm for increasing productivity and profitability in my department and making a positive contribution to the firm’s bottom line. Some of the fun I have had as a paralegal manager is the creativity involved in organizing social events, conducting training sessions or focus groups, and in developing a department that has a history of traditions that fosters a very collegial and team-oriented atmosphere.
The challenges of working as a paralegal manager generally involve dealing with difficult performance or personnel issues among paralegal staff, or having to be on the ball constantly when interacting with attorneys who are among the most highly educated, profoundly intelligent and professionally aggressive professionals in the world. They are usually strong communicators with definite opinions on how things should operate in their firm.
I often joke that a legal assistant manager spends half of his or her time developing reasonable and cost-effective policies and procedures to meet the firm’s business objectives, and the other half of his or her time helping lawyers figure out how to circumvent those procedures to accomplish their individual objectives. A sense of humor is also critical in the role of being a paralegal manager.
It’s generally recognized that using paralegals on a regular basis to handle routine legal and procedural matters is more efficient and cost-effective than having lawyers perform those same tasks. Paralegal managers can develop a major profit center for a law firm by carefully managing the hiring, training, professional development and staffing of paralegals in combination with the control of overhead costs of the department. Paralegals who step into the role of paralegal manager must demonstrate an appreciation for the business operations side of the firm, including a commitment to the firm’s business objectives, along with the right people skills to motivate others to help reach the firm’s business objectives.
Resources abound to support your efforts to educate your firm on the value of a paralegal manager, and to support a new manager as they embark on a new career. I recommend getting acquainted with the Legal Assistant Management Association through its Web site at www.lamanet.org.
Taking the initiative to learn how to be a great manager is the first step to a new level of challenges and rewards in a management career that will likely be an impressive complement to your successful career as a paralegal.
Brad J.Baber, CLA is the paralegal manager for Troutman Sanders in the firm’s Atlanta office. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in Indiana and a paralegal certificate from Midlands Technical College in South Carolina. He has more than 12 years of paralegal maangement experience and formerly worked as a paralegal in the areas of bankruptcy and litigation. He has been an instructor in an American Bar Association-approved paralegal program and is a former expert columnist for LAT. He is an active member of the Legal Assistant Management Association.