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Here's How Legal Technology Expertise Can Make or Break Your Career

Computer mossIn a perfect world, all paralegals know everything about legal technology.  As you and I know, there’s no perfect world. However, not knowing enough about technology or believing you do, is the best way to bust your career. Trust me. I have 20+ years of experience managing, educating and staffing thousands of paralegals. (OK, I can admit to having more years of experience but then I have to search around for fancy anti-aging creams.)

Legal technology does not stop at litigation. It extends to every specialty whether you are in litigation, corporate, real estate, immigration, personal injury, or any practice area including the latest hybrid: the paralegal/legal secretary. No matter if your firm does not partake in the latest technology, it is incumbent upon you to stay up-to-date. Why? Try to get a new job or advance with outdated skills. Not going to happen. Guaranteed.

Since paralegals are expected to follow attorneys, you must be familiar with ABA Model Rule 1.1 on Competence with Comment 8:

“To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.”

Let’s start with practice management. A knowledgeable paralegal must know which software to use for file storage, evidence organization, billing, accounting, research and calendaring. It is critical to understand and utilize MyCase, Clio, SharePoint, Outlook and the cloud. These are just the basics.

There are new opportunities utilizing technology in eDiscovery, Project Management (not legal project management), Information Governance, Compliance, Knowledge Management, Law Firm Pricing, Litigation Support Project Management, Human Resources, Library Resources, Competitive Intelligence, Forensics, Law Firm Accounting, Cyber Security and more where you can leverage your paralegal background.

eDiscovery and Litigation Support Project Management are the hottest areas paying some of the highest salaries and offering challenging and upwardly mobile career opportunities.  It is not unusual to see salaries for Senior Litigation Support Project Managers in the upper $150,000 at major law firms or at Top Tier Legal Support Providers.  Salaries can range from $80-$100,000 or $50,000 - $75,000 for junior level project managers.

According to Marnie Carter, a high-profile San Francisco Paralegal Administrator from major law firms and in-house legal departments, “Litigation support professionals average salaries that often exceed the top ten percent of paralegal salaries. Roles in information governance, compliance, and cyber security also present previously nonexistent opportunities to ambitious paralegals with an understanding of legal technology.”

Carter has hired and supervised hundreds of paralegals. “Paralegals can broaden earnings potential and career opportunities with legal technology skills and are breaking through prior salary and career limits with the aid of technology knowledge. There are new opportunities to specialize in e-Discovery that equates to an increase in value to employers and an ability to command higher salaries. Legal project management is emerging for paralegals. Firms, companies and service providers are hiring project managers with legal expertise to manage litigation more efficiently and at a lower cost," she says.

"Paralegals who combine their legal knowledge with advanced technical skills are finding litigation support roles at much higher salaries. Litigation support professionals average salaries that often exceed the top ten percent of paralegal salaries. Roles in information governance, compliance, and cyber security also present previously nonexistent opportunities to ambitious paralegals with an understanding of legal technology.”

What does it take to get into the field? Vincent Garcez, a former Los Angeles paralegal, now a Litigation Support Manager in DC, has an interesting career history: “I got into legal technology when I was recruited for Lockheed Martin as a contractor for the Department of Justice (DOJ). They partnered me with several senior eDiscovery project managers to assist with trial matters. I immersed myself with senior project managers as they took me under their wings. They taught me the foundations of eDiscovery and opened a new sect not taught in paralegal school. Taking this new leap into the eDiscovery field not only excelled my career but allowed me to learn something new.”

I’ve witnessed paralegals give in to their firm’s philosophy of “We just don’t do that here.” Career opportunists beware!” This is the biggest career buster of all! While you think that you’re not going to make a move any time soon, do you know what’s going on in the Executive Committee? Chances are excellent, you do not. One week you’re good, the next, managing partners decide to merge, purge or otherwise scourge as in lay-offs. You can’t get a decent raise. You’ve realized you’ve capped out. The firm’s cash-flow isn’t fluid. The firm lost its best client/rainmaker. Who knew??? A host of unanticipated reasons arise and suddenly, without warning, you need to move on and your skills are out-of-date.

Think ahead! What do you do if your firm does not reinforce continuing education or stay up-to-date in the latest technology?

According to Carter, “An understanding of legal technology is critical to a paralegal's career regardless of the work performed. Recent amendments to the FRCP, State and local rules outline expectations that attorneys know more about eDiscovery than ever before. This means paralegals must know more about ESI eDiscovery. Paralegals need to understand how to manage electronic information timely and efficiently.  

Cost is one of the biggest obstacles. Clients analyze bills to reduce costs and look for opportunities to leverage flat fee and volume pricing. Paralegals with knowledge of a variety of technological tools and processes and who efficiently utilize technology in a defensible manner, thereby reducing firm and client cost burden, are indispensable.”

Can’t get training? Carter says, “ASK! ASK! ASK! Many firms are highly encouraged by paralegals who are working to advance their technology knowledge. Demand is high for tech savvy paralegals. There are numerous free or low cost online webinars such as those offered the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP) and seminars, Lunch and Learn sessions offered through International Legal Technology Association,(ILTA),  International Practice Management Association, (IPMA), Women in eDiscovery, and paralegal associations.”

Garcez recommends, “Many corporations like Kcura, Lexis Nexis and other review providers have free webinars. Look at vendor websites. They post articles and advertise free seminars. You are the gatekeeper and should speak the same technical language as litigation support to ensure that the case will run smoothly."

As a litigation paralegal, Garcez says, “Relativity is arguably one of the most coveted, web-based eDiscovery mechanism that any vendor or law firm may currently use.  Its growth is exponential, with more vendor providers and enterprises demanding an extensive knowledge. As a paralegal, learning more about Relativity will accelerate your career.”

What about the hybrid position sweeping the country in smaller firms - the paralegal/legal assistant (legal secretary)? According to Chris Donaldson, President of Los Angeles based, Career Images, “This new position combines paralegal and secretarial technology skills in all specialties. The paralegal/legal assistant performs duties that are billable and non-billable.

They may have some minimum billable requirement, draft legal documents, interface with clients and perform duties that cannot be billed such as travel arrangements, scheduling depositions and calendaring. The position can pay up to $85,000 - $90,000 for someone with incredible technology skills at some boutique and mid-size law firms. “However,” says, Donaldson, “be aware these are top salaries and growth potential might be limited.”

A litigation paralegal/legal assistant should know: Adobe Professional; Best Authority; Forms Workflow; MacPac; OmniPage; Roxio; MS Word 2010 (proficient TOC/TOA user) and MS Office 2010; WorkShare Compare; Bates labeling w/Copy Desktop Pro; Win AIR Forms; calendaring w/MS Outlook and CompuLaw, AIA Forms, CAR Forms,  Groupwise E-mail, Automated Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI), LexisNexis® Research, and LexisNexis® File&ServeXpress, Concordance, Summation, Relativity, Proforma (Legal Solutions), Finereader-OCR, Carpediem, PowerPoint, Excel.

Being familiar with certain technologies can change your career path. To say that paralegals do not need to be expert legal technologists is like saying a pilot does not need to understand wind currents, just how to get from Point “A” to Point “B.” Increasingly so, our trips from Point “A” to Point “B” are involving technology and can even be driven by technology. Give yourself the continued boost you need – stay on top of legal technology, now and throughout your unceasing successful career journey. 

Chere Estrin is CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing; President & Co-Founding member of Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP, a non-profit specializing in online training for attorneys and paralegals in legal technology; CEO of an online paralegal training company, Paralegal Knowledge Institute, She is a former Paralegal Administrator at two major firms and an executive in a $5 billion corporation and a career coach at Legal Careers Rx. (view free You Tube videos on Legal CareersRx on writing dynamic resumes.) Chere has written 10 books about paralegal careers including The Paralegal Career Guide 4th Ed., and has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, ABA Journal and other prestigious publications. She is a recipient of the Los Angeles Paralegal Lifetime Achievement Award and the New York City Excellence Award. Talk to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com


Do In-House Paralegals Get More Respect?

Man looking sidewaysAretha Franklin sang to the world about it. The subject is included when employees, girlfriends, wives, husbands, boyfriends, grandmothers and pets are asked how they want to be treated. I’m talking about respect.  R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Ms. Franklin would put it.

            In my travels across the country as a paralegal educator, speaker, author and staffing expert, I noticed a difference between the temperaments of law firm and in-house legal department paralegals. 

        Was I imagining it or did most in-house paralegals seem more at peace, less stressed, easier to get along with while law firm paralegals seemed tougher, ready for battle, and a tad more defensive, a bit more caustic?  Assuming my observations were on track, what propelled this subtle but noticeable personality variation?

            After talking with literally hundreds of in-house paralegals about their work environment, I realized they may be getting more respect. Why?  What could possibly be different?

            I went to several knowledgeable sources to find out.  Marnie Carter, a seasoned San Francisco Paralegal Manager, experienced in both in-house legal departments and major law firms, filled me in. “In-house paralegals do receive more respect from attorneys and staff in-house because the law firm hierarchy does not exist. The corporate environment is a division of management versus staff. Many of the paralegals are classified as "paralegal" but the delineation between junior, mid and senior is not so structured as in the law firm.  

            The elevated treatment is due to a better understanding of the paralegal's role. Attorneys leave law school and start work in a firm without exposure or training as to the paralegal's role on a case team. This lack of understanding of a paralegal's duties, can on many occasions, lead to an under- utilization problem without the advocacy of a paralegal manager. 

            Most in-house counsel previously worked at a law firm where they received paralegal support. They understand the duties and value a paralegal brings to the team. When the attorney transitions to an in-house counsel role, they are able to better leverage the responsibilities of the paralegal as there is an understanding of paralegal.

Michele Suzuki, an in-house paralegal at MicoVention, voiced her opinion based on her healthy experiences.  “I worked exclusively for law firms for 20 years,” she says, “and always felt that many of the lawyers treated their secretaries better than the paralegals.  I wondered sometimes if they felt like we were taking their billable hours away, perhaps feeling like they had to compete with us in a "dog-eat-dog" world.  When I switched to in-house corporate, I noticed an immediate change.  For one thing, corporate work is not a war between litigants, but rather people working together to make the corporate "machine" function effectively and efficiently.” 

            Ah.  The “for the corporate good” theory.   She may be on to something.  The usual set-up in a law firm is that each partner or team almost operates their own fiefdom whereas in a corporation, members of the team pull together for the corporate good, a critical factor missing in many law firms.        

            It isn’t always that way.  Peggy Williams, a veteran paralegal in Orlando, Florida and formerly with an in-house legal department of a national insurance company, was in disagreement.   “From my experience with working in an in-house counsel office, I receive more respect working in a traditional office. When I did work in-house, I was given traditional paralegal tasks but treated and thought of the same as a legal secretary.  The secretaries seemed to hold more rank and respect in the office.     One of the biggest differences is that we were not allowed to attend trial as a paralegal.  We were allowed to watch one day of testimony but give no assistance to the attorney.  At the firm I work for now, it is expected that I go to trial, assist in all preparation and sit at the table.”

            What about social interaction?  Personally, I recalled a terrible caste system within major firms.  Attorneys would work alongside with paralegals until 3 a.m. but rarely ask them to go to lunch. In fact, you could burn the midnight oil with attorneys but you really couldn’t eat with them.  This, in part, was due to perception.  If an attorney wanted to become a powerhouse, it was much better politically to be seen with a heavily influential partner or an up-and-coming associate rather than eat with the rank and file.  Was it the same in corporations? 

            Having more social interaction between paralegals and attorneys could be a factor of sheer numbers.  Beth King, RP, a senior paralegal at Vestas in Portland, Oregon, feels there are often more lawyers in a law firm, “so the lawyers talk more among themselves.  But, legal departments, with smaller attorney numbers, rely more on one another within the department for brainstorming and these relationships tend to build respect.  The lawyers actually get to know you better.”

            However, I still needed some verification, so I created a survey, “Do In-House Paralegals Get More Respect?”.  Over 550 respondents voiced opinions with 58.6% currently working at in-house legal departments and 75.9% having worked in both corporate legal departments and law firms.

            An overwhelming 49.5% stated in-house attorneys treated them with more respect.  Only 24.4% stated they were treated equally in both environments and a mere 14.1% said they were treated with more respect in a law firm. 

             Comments regarding how paralegals were treated by attorneys varied from: “Gained more respect with more experience”; “Experience varies from attorney to attorney; “There are varying degrees of "respect" to “There are more controls on attorneys with temper problems in-house than at a firm.”   And finally, the diplomat who stated, “As with all professions, there are people who treat you with respect; I don't find it tied to being in a law firm or an in-house legal department.”

              Given an opportunity to give advice to a job seeker, a staunch 42.7% said they would recommend an in-house legal department over a law firm or government agency.  A small 5.2% said they would advise someone to get out of the field.    

              And what do attorneys think?  I went to Kevin Cranman, General Counsel for Ericsson in Atlanta who said,  “A properly skilled paralegal with appropriate experience can compliment and support an attorney's practice - in law firm and in-house environments.  Just like any professional, the individual paralegal earns respect by doing good work efficiently. 

                Once the paralegal has proven herself, attorneys will trust that person to support projects and do sophisticated work. There is a time and place for an attorney to do 'XYZ' and paralegals do 'ABC' analysis, but a capable paralegal can provide great value to an attorney and an organization by providing good work product, handling much of the drafting and conferring with the attorney on specific issues, and permitting the attorney to leverage her/his time on projects or with clients better."

                I guess what Mr. Cranman is saying is that if you’re good, you’re good and that in and of itself should command respect.  Somehow, folks, I’m going to have to agree. 

            Chere Estrin is the CEO of Paralegal Knowledge Institute, CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing;  She is President & Co-Founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP). She has written 10 books about legal careers including the Paralegal Career Guide 4th Ed., and hundreds of articles.  Chere has been interviewed by major publications such as The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, ABA Journal and many other publications. She has been an exec in a $5 billion Fortune 1000 corporation and Paralegal Administrator in two major firms. She is a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient and New York City Paralegal Excellence award winner; Inc magazine finalist and Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Recipient.; Co-Founding member of the International Practice Management Association. Check out her career coaching at Legal CareersRX.net and You Tube Videos at Legal Careers RX.  Talk to her at chere.estrin@paralegalknowledge.com.