Non-Lawyer Legal Professionals Aren’t All The Same

A great way to grow your practice while keeping costs low is by utilizing non-lawyer legal professionals. There are many tasks typically performed by attorneys that can be done by other staff.  Of course, only attorneys may give legal advice and represent individuals in court. Because of this, many small firms and solo practitioners assume the best way to expand their practice is to bring on additional attorneys. However, another strategy can be to bring on non-lawyers who can free up attorneys who will then have more availability to meet with clients and be in court.

It is important to understand the different roles that non-lawyer legal professionals can play in the legal landscape. As a paralegal, I’m often surprised by how many attorneys don’t understand what paralegals do and frequently confuse us with legal assistants and legal document assistants.  Each one of those professions is distinct. Each profession requires a different level of training and provides different kinds and levels of service to the public and attorneys.

Here is a simple breakdown:

Legal Assistants generally are trained administrative or clerical professionals who specialize in working with legal offices. They typically have general administrative or clerical training and experience. They may work in other industries and may have no formal legal training. They typically perform general administrative tasks such as answering phones, filing, mailing, billing and organizing.

Paralegals are defined by the Business Professional Code in section 6450. They are certified professionals who have met specific educational requirements and work under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Paralegals may not conduct business directly with any member of the public. They cannot set a price nor charge a fee for services to anyone but a licensed attorney. They provide case planning, development, and management, conduct legal research, interview clients, gather facts, draft and analyze legal documents, make independent decisions and recommendations to the supervising attorney, and sometimes represent clients before a state or federal administrative agency.

Legal Document Assistants are defined by the Business Professional Code in section 6400. They are registered and bonded professionals specially trained to work directly with members of the public. They provide “self-help services” to individuals who are not represented by counsel in legal matters. They complete legal documents in a ministerial manner by typing or otherwise completing the documents, provide general published factual information that has been approved by an attorney pertaining to legal procedures, rights and obligations, make published legal documents available to self-represented individuals, and file and serve legal forms and documents at the specific direction of a person who is representing themselves in a legal matter.

Before seeking out non-lawyer professionals to support your practice, I encourage you to first think carefully about the type of help you will need. Spend a little time analyzing how much time you spend on various types of tasks that aren’t billable hours.  If it is primarily clerical and administrative work, seek out a legal assistant. You may find that hiring a legal assistant to work in your office or using a virtual legal assistant or outsourcing administrative tasks like billing can make a huge difference in your availability to work directly with clients. If it is primarily legal work that is taking up your time, seek out a paralegal.  An experienced paralegal can do many of the tasks an associate attorney might do at a fraction of the cost.

Legal document assistants are unlikely to be a useful addition to your practice. Due to the very nature of their work, which is helping those who are not represented by counsel, they typically cannot be part of a law practice with attorneys. However, they can be a resource that attorneys may use to refer individuals who are not a fit for legal representation for whatever reason.  Much smaller, simpler legal matters can be handled properly and some people can handle things themselves with the assistance of a legal document assistance service.

Using non-lawyers can be a useful tool to expand your practice. However, non-lawyer legal professionals are not one size fits all.  It is important to find the right kind of assistance based on the needs of your situation.


Hope Arnold

Published in AAC, Professional