How to Reduce Expensive Paralegal Overhead

The lawyer read my “Your Paralegals Are an Embarrassment” rant and is trying to make his paralegals available to less efficient practices. He’s eliminated one position and has a few others in his sights. But some tasks “require” the use of paralegals, he said.

Now, let’s be clear. I don’t hate paralegals. I know some very fine paralegals, and my practice would never have become successful had it not been for one paralegal in particular. He was amazing and contributed in a way that was beyond anything anyone would ever have expected.

But paralegals are sometimes a symptom of inefficiency. And I have come to hate inefficiency. Keep all the paralegals you like. But use technology and other approaches to rid yourself of inefficiency.

So this lawyer was asking me about paralegals. He has eliminated one position, and he’s working on others. He’s finding that some projects “require” the use of paralegals.

He’s not afraid of change. He’s leaping forward and has adopted a practice management system and document assembly. He has outsourced a few things to virtual assistants. He’s having success with his efforts. In fact, he’s dropped $90,000 in payroll expense and replaced it with a bit of technology and two virtual assistants in another country. His bottom line is up, and he’s just getting started.

When pushed on what activities he’s struggling to take away from the remaining paralegals, he mentioned two:

  • sorting documents, and
  • drafting and assembling routine discovery responses.

I took the position that very little, if anything, “requires” the use of a paralegal. In fact, it’s my contention that between the use of technology, streamlined process, and the additional attention from an attorney, the client ends up happier.

We brainstormed for a bit, and I’ll share our conclusions with you. It might be useful as you examine your practice and plan for the coming year.

Sorting Documents

First, let’s talk about sorting documents. Sometimes this is a pretty high-level task. It may require examining the documents in a search for information. However, it might simply be an exercise in organization. Sometimes, for example, we’re trying to get the bank statements in chronological order. Other times, we’re using the bank statements to hunt for assets being funneled off to a phony vendor.

Technology, of course, is one option for handling these tasks. If the function is repeated frequently, then an investment in electronic discovery software may be in order. With cloud-based products available on a per-use basis, it’s easier than ever to learn the product and put it to work. That’s something your soon-to-be-less-busy paralegal might be able to manage.

If the software is unnecessary overkill or if you’re unwilling to explore that option, then sorting documents may be a task ripe for outsourcing. By shifting the process away from your office and into the hands of others, you force yourself to analyze and document the process. That thinking helps you see the potential applications of technology. It’s only when we break things out that we start to see the repeatable, routine patterns that help us create a system.

Outsourcing is often a good interim step in replacing a human process with a technology process. Many of us realize, for the first time, the specifics of particular tasks as we organize them for the handoff. Turning the project into a step-by-step procedure shows us which pieces are simple and easy and which pieces are challenging and require judgment.

Of course, outsourcing a project takes more time—the first time—and you only realize time and cost savings when you repeat the project again and again. Outsourcing likely doesn’t make sense if a project is a one-off piece of work. That’s pretty rare in most law firms. We do many things over and over again.

The document sorting could be a problem solved by software eventually, but for now, it’s a project easily outsourced to someone outside the firm, and the firm benefits by gaining a greater understanding of the process. Once the process is dissected, analyzed, broken down, and documented, it’s likely that some or all of it will be managed by technology or assistants working for less. One way or another, savings will be realized, and quality may well improve as a result of the attention paid to the process.

Drafting and Assembling Discovery

What about the drafting of and assembling of routine discovery responses? I couldn’t have asked for a better question when he inserted the word “routine.” Routine is what technology is all about. Routine documents scream out for document assembly. We use XpressDox, but there are many options. Routine is how a great deal of office work is described because it’s the same thing over and over, year after year. That’s not always apparent to the employee doing the work, but it’s clear to those running the firm.

A document assembly product can quickly turn two positions into one. More significantly, it can make the work quick and easy for the attorney to complete without assistance. Alternatively, it makes it possible to shift the work to a less well-trained employee who can complete the task with the assistance of the software. Personally, I’m an advocate of shifting the work to the attorney since the technology takes care of the rote part of the work, placing the attorney in contact with the work product where analysis and judgment can then be applied.

The Outcome

So where does my colleague stand on getting documents sorted and the drafting of routine discovery responses? He’s doubling down on technology while outsourcing the functions until he’s got things working as he’d like. He’s going to draft procedures for each part of the process, outsource the pieces, and then automate one step at a time as time goes by.

Soon, he’ll have eliminated another position, he’ll have streamlined his process, and he’ll be delivering services to clients more efficiently, all of which will result in lower prices for his client and more profit for his business. Some tasks that “require” the use of paralegals—don’t.

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