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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 Try to get a new job or advance with outdated skills.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

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