6 Things to Look for When Hiring a Paralegal (Especially if You’re Hanging Your Own Shingle)
Law practices rise and fall on the strength of their paralegals.
Whenever smaller practices contact us to ask why they aren’t seeing the same success as their similarly sized rivals across the street, we tell them it’s usually one of two things: their marketing or their support staff… or some combination thereof.
(This may also be true in much larger firms, but the bigger the practice, the more complicated the calculus.)
No matter how big your firm, though — and no matter what kind of law you practice — a truly excellent paralegal will help you:
- Land more clients (through skilled client intake technique… more on this below)
- Handle a larger number of cases
- Keep your clients happy
- Meet deadlines
- Avoid costly errors
- Find your case’s missing link / golden precedent / smoking gun
- Maintain your sanity
- And so much more
But how do you find the right person?
In “Big Law,” they have a whole Human Resources department devoted to the task. And veteran lawyers have worked with enough paralegals over the years to know what they’re looking for.
What’s a relatively new lawyer to do, though? What should you look for when hiring a paralegal?
Below, we present The Ultimate Guide to Hiring Your First Paralegal. As you might suspect, there’s a lot to know, and it isn’t as easy as you might think.
(Don’t believe us? Put out a Help Wanted ad and see how simple the process feels! …Good help is hard to find.)
1. Figure Out What “Paralegal” Means to You… and Understand What a Paralegal Can and Can’t Do
There is no standard job description for paralegals. The Greek prefix para means “near,” “beside,” “alongside,” “resembling,” or “beyond.” That’s a pretty broad definition, and if you look inside enough law offices, you’ll find paralegals who match one interpretation more closely than another.
Here are questions to ask yourself when hiring a paralegal:
- Will your paralegal be intimately involved in letter writing? Conducting legal research? Preparing memorandums?
- Will they answer phones primarily in secretarial fashion? Or will they be more directly engaged in communicating with clients, county clerks, opposing counsel, etc.?
- Will they double as a law office manager? Or will you hire someone else in that role?
- Will they interview witnesses? Assist in preparation for depositions? Conduct investigations? (Some schools offer paralegal courses specifically in these disciplines!)
- Will they run errands for the office? If so, what kinds of errands? Will they play a role in your law firm marketing management?
- Do you need them to be a notary public? (Think that one through. Some paralegals are notaries, but most aren’t. Sure, it’s a nice perk. But do you really need it? If so, why? Are there other notaries near you?)
Your answers to these questions will determine the qualifications to look for when hiring a paralegal. They can also guide you in writing an employee policy book for your law firm (something you should absolutely do before hiring anyone), and even when posting a job listing.
Keep in mind, though, that the prefix para has also been interpreted to mean “apart from.” In other words, a paralegal is apart from the law. To that end, there are things paralegals strictly cannot do, as determined by your state’s bar.
As a general rule, paralegals can assist you in the practice of law, but they cannot practice law themselves. It’s a fine line, and your clients’ interest must never be compromised by crossing it. Be sure you know the rules for your jurisdiction inside and out before posting that help wanted ad.
2. Know What to Look for on a Résumé
We’ve already demonstrated that the word “paralegal” can mean many different things when translated literally. But it also means different things in people’s minds — including the minds of paralegals themselves.
Did you know anyone can call themselves a paralegal? While there are many certification programs out there, not all states require paralegals to be certified.
Indeed, you might receive applications from paralegals who have substantial experience but who were never formally educated, certified, or trained.
Certainly, those candidates can make fantastic paralegals (experience counts for a lot), but if you have your choice of applicants, there’s a lot to be said for someone who has attended a great certification program. To boot, you can advertise your paralegal’s credentials to prospective clients too.
Because the word “paralegal” doesn’t always mean something precise, you need to be a shrewd reviewer of résumés. Here’s what to look for when hiring a paralegal:
- At the very least, look for a certificate of completion from a paralegal course. While there are some fine paralegals who have never attended such a course, new attorneys are advised to require it when hiring. But not all paralegal courses are created equal. The internet is replete with questionable “get it quick” paralegal courses. So be sure to research the quality and scope of the issuing program. Opt for paralegals who’ve attended longer programs at a trade school, community college, university, or well-established and well-reviewed online program.
- Some attorneys will only consider applicants with a certificate from an ABA-approved paralegal course. That’s not a bad approach; the ABA is extremely selective in approving programs, so their certificates are a badge of honor. But ABA courses can be hard to find outside of big cities, meaning many excellent job candidates simply never had access to an ABA-approved paralegal course.
- There is a difference between a certificate of completion and paralegal certification, which is available through a handful of national programs (some of them ABA-approved) and/or state bar organizations (in a handful of states). Two of the most reputable certification programs are: NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) and National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Certification from a highly regarded or bar-sanctioned program represents a higher level of achievement and is something of a gold standard, though these applicants are harder to find in some markets and may come with higher salary demands.
3. If You’re a New-ish Lawyer, Hire an Experienced Paralegal
Law school doesn’t teach you everything. In fact, it teaches very little about the practical side of practicing law. It’s all case law and theory.
In a very real sense, then, your paralegal might become your last great “professor.” (For that matter, even seasoned attorneys can learn a lot from paralegals who’ve been around the block in various fields of law.)
Hire someone who can show you the ropes. Hands-on experience is probably the single most important thing to look for when hiring a paralegal.
4. How to Conduct a Paralegal Job Interview
If you’ve only been on the hot seat side of a job interview, you might think it’s easy to ask all the questions for a change. But to get the most out of your interview, you should prepare for it. Here are some tips:
- Get a strong sense of their Westlaw or LexisNexis skills.
- Ask them to talk about a typical day in their previous law firm. Look for someone who was intimately involved in the nitty gritty.
- Request an unofficial copy of their transcript, as well as certificates or certifications. (You’ll want to review the specific courses they took, but getting an official copy from a college can take too long.)
- Request writing samples. Even though most people don’t think of paralegals as writers, someone who’s handy with a pen will serve your firm well again and again.
- Observe their communication skills. Remember: this is someone who will make the first impression of your firm for anyone who walks in the front door.
- Pay close attention to personality and rapport. You’re looking for two things here:
- Someone you can get along with, because you’ll be seeing a lot of them.
- Type A tendencies, because a self-starter will keep your law office in tip-top shape without requiring a lot of oversight or hand-holding.
Strong interview skills are among the most important things to look for when hiring a paralegal!
5. Think About Client Intake
We recently wrote about the widespread problem of law firms losing clients because of the way their paralegals answer the phone. This has as much to do with the law firm failing to properly train its support staff or put proper client intake procedures in place. But you do want to make sure you’re hiring a paralegal who will answer incoming calls from prospective clients in a way that enhances your brand and encourages them to choose your office over the three others they’ve called. As you consider your applicants, think about who you’d most want to talk to if they answered your phone call.
6. Know Where to Find Job Applicants
Once you know what to look for when hiring a paralegal, you’ll need to know where to look. Here are some suggestions:
- Contact your local trade school or community college’s alumni department or jobs placement office.
- Advertise in a local newspaper instead of an online jobs board, which typically triggers an avalanche of applications, many of them auto-generated and unqualified.
- Contact local law schools’ career placement offices. Paralegals sometimes leave their résumés on file in these offices.
- Reach out to colleagues in other law practices. They (or their paralegals) may know of excellent candidates.
- Contact a reputable staffing agency in your community.
- Use LinkedIn’s Paralegals portal for a little head hunting.
Success Is About Who You Hire. So Hire a Legal Marketing Agency with a Record of Results.
A legal assistant may be the lifeblood of daily operation, but ultimately, it’s clients who keep a law firm alive and thriving. So in addition to hiring a paralegal, find a legal marketing team that can keep clients coming through the door.
Juris Digital is a legal marketing agency that uses the internet to get bigger cases and better clients for the law firms that hire us. We work with firms of all sizes, from solo practitioners and transitioning attorneys to mid-size practices and beyond.
At Juris Digital, we are obsessed with Google and getting our clients to its top spots. We do that through content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), PPC advertising, website design, social media management, and more.
Through those disciplines, we’ve taken law firms from a negligible web presence to powerhouse placement in the search results. Even more importantly, we’ve helped to convert that traffic into real clients, which is what it’s all about.