Vista, CA -- (SBWIRE) -- 02/10/2014 -- "Paralegals are professionals with educations and are here solely to help attorneys," said Jesse Wagner," of Southland Law, and a lot of attorneys don't realize some of the tasks that we can do. That's why we are on a quest to educate attorneys here in California," she said.
Paralegals can serve a variety of non-traditional functions in a law firm, including: The paralegal as specialist.
"I've seen paralegals earn six-figure incomes who are experts in certain areas and work on very sophisticated matters," said Wagner.
California paralegal Ray Goldstein is a perfect example.
Goldstein, who began his paralegal career later in life at the age of 40, played a key role in the $3 billion verdict against Philip Morris in June 2001, won by Los Angeles small-firm attorney Michael J. Piuze. (Boeken v. Philip Morris, Inc., June 6, 2001.)
"Without Ray Goldstein, I was nowhere," Piuze told Lawyers Weekly USA following the verdict.
Goldstein's specialty is managing large numbers of documents - in the Boeken case, more than 27 million pages of documents - through a mastery of the database program, Microsoft Access.
"All the lawyers have it," said Goldstein, "but none of them know how to use it."
Now, said Goldstein, after working for four years, he has more than 6,000 documents in his tobacco litigation database, all linked, catalogued and indexed, which makes him an invaluable resource for lawyers who may be involved in tobacco litigation.
But his expertise using Access isn't limited to tobacco litigation. His skills are also in demand by lawyers involved in any type of complex litigation.
"I had an attorney call me the other day who had 1,300 images on a CD ROM and needed a structure to browse through them, code them and link them. I created that vessel for them," he said, so that 1,300 random images become an organized resource for litigation purposes.
Goldstein also has digital imaging and PowerPoint presentation skills, which allow the attorneys who hire him to request and receive graphs, presentations and demonstrative evidence, often needed on the fly.
His proficiency with software programs like Access and PowerPoint, and his ability to churn out work product quickly and with little lead-time makes him a hot commodity.
"If you have a case in an 'electronic courtroom,' a technology-savvy paralegal would be invaluable - much more so than having a technical consultant," said Davis, because the paralegal has both the technical and the legal skills.
"It's our job to stay on top of the technology," she added.
Phoenix attorney Russell Kolsrud, one of Davis's clients, said that he always brings a paralegal familiar with electronic evidence into the courtroom with him these days.
"They know what needs to be done and they work with me on the presentation of evidence," he said, which frees him up to focus more on the trial and on strategy rather than worrying about how to keep track of and navigate through large quantities of documents, exhibits and witnesses.
The paralegal as 'case manager.'
Jesse Wagner explained that paralegals often appear in place of an attorney at Social Security, Workers Compensation, and other administrative hearings, and in some situations even in small claims court.
"For example, in California, if a law firm you work for has a dispute [with a client] over fees, the firm could send the paralegal to small claims court in that situation," said Jesse.
The distinction, she said, is the paralegal in that scenario is acting as a representative of the firm and not representing a client, which would constitute the unauthorized practice of law.
In fact, Lori Holcomb, director of the Unlicensed Practice of Law Section of the Florida Bar, said that it is rare to see unauthorized practice of law issues with paralegals working for lawyers.
"The only time we see a big problem is when we see the tail wagging the dog," she said.
She described a case where the paralegal was "running the law office," deciding which clients to take, "calling all the shots," and earning far more income than the attorney.
"The other problem we see occasionally is where a paralegal decides, 'I can handle this case.'"
Then at some point the client contacts the attorney, who has no idea who the client is, she said.
But, Holcomb said that these examples are the exception, and, for the most part, as long as paralegals aren't giving legal advice or setting fees, and are working under the supervision of an attorney, "anything's fair game," she said.
Vero Beach, Fla., attorney Bill Stewart has taken his residential real estate practice to new heights by positioning his paralegals as "case managers" or "transaction managers" who, under his direction, build relationships with his clients by fielding numerous calls and answering a lot of the questions that jittery homebuyers often have before their closing.
"I gave them notepaper and business cards identifying them as [case managers] and the routine was if a contract was signed in the office, the [client] would be introduced to the case or transaction manager, and invited to call [that person] with questions. Or if the contract was signed outside of the office, the [client] would receive a letter from the case manager explaining her function. She would then initiate a phone call [to the client]," said Stewart.
The purpose of all of this, Stewart explained, was to build a relationship between the client and someone other than himself and to provide the client with a resource who was more accessible than he.
So when the phone rang, the client was comfortable asking the case manager when the closing was instead of insisting on talking to Stewart to answer the same or similar routine questions.
"It eased up my day," said Stewart, who admitted that his paralegals were more prepared to answer the practical questions his clients called with anyway.
And despite his flat-rate fee structure for real estate closings, Stewart said that his clients, in the end, seemed relieved that they could trust their questions to his paralegal staff because of the mistaken belief that they were paying more every time they had to get Stewart on the phone.
The paralegal as marketer.
Another innovative but often-overlooked area where paralegals can assist attorneys is marketing.
While speaking to a group at the American Bar Association's Annual Meeting this summer in San Francisco, Larsen, a San Francisco attorney, explained how she leveraged Southland's skills at speaking engagements.
Larsen said that when she speaks at various bar functions or to other groups she takes Jesse with her so that at the end of the presentation both of them can work the crowd, handing out business cards and meeting contacts.
While acknowledging that there's no substitute for face-to-face time with the attorney, Jesse and Larsen stressed that it's better to have a prospective client or referral source meet the paralegal and receive the attorney's card than to have no direct contact with the firm at all.
Shmoozing aside, Jesse and Wilbur both said that a paralegal should handle all of the planning and execution of any of the attorney's speaking engagements.
"I worked for a firm where I would do all of the PowerPoint presentations for the speaking engagements, make all the arrangements, and go and do the meet-and-greet," said Yellis.
She also said that attorneys would often tell her where they would like to get invited to speak and she would do the legwork to get the attorney in the door.
"One attorney would tell me where he wanted to go and I would get him in," she said, by spending the time to make phone calls and connecting with the right people.
How To Outsource
"I would urge any lawyer who is at the point where they need to bring someone in to consider a outsourcing paralegal from Southland," said Attorney Sean O’Connor, who also noted that the decision to hire someone full- or part-time or to hire on a contract basis should be determined simply by the volume of work.
"If you don't have enough work to keep a paralegal busy all the time, then you should hire on a contract basis," he said.
O’Connor urged attorneys considering a paralegal to find colleagues in their communities who use them and start asking questions about how they hired and what the paralegals are doing for the attorney.
Jesse Wagner said that one place to look for a contract paralegal is an outsourcing company like Southland, the benefit being that the company has already done the legwork and prescreened the paralegals, and knows what skills each of them can bring to the attorney.
Finally, most attorneys know that paralegals can and should be income-producing members of the practice, said Davis, particularly when they are hired on a contract basis, where the attorney is only paying their fee without having all of the other expenses that go along with hiring an employee. Jesse agreed.
"The key is to make sure your practice is such that a paralegal makes sense," he said. "With that said, I can hardly think of a practice where a paralegal wouldn't make sense. And for a small-firm or solo practitioner, you can bill for the time, which helps [the attorney] leverage his or her time and create better profitability."
Southland: Outsourcing Attorney Support Services
By, Jesse Wagner
380 South Melrose Drive
Vista, CA 92081