How to Hire the Ideal Paralegal or Legal Secretary

Annie Reed M.A., J.D.
June 5, 2008 — 1,236 views  

The objective of this article is to provide useful and practical tips to attorneys and law office managers on recruiting and selecting the ideal staff.

Solo practitioners, for the most part, are computer literate and have the ability to manage most of their administrative and/or secretarial tasks without having to hire a full-time employee. A common perception among solo practitioners is akin to the lone ranger – thinking that if the job is to be done right, it must be done alone and without anyone else’s help.

Small law firms operate in a remarkably similar fashion. And, just because a larger law firm has a department dedicated to hiring legal staff doesn’t mean the ideal person is recruited and selected. Notice I say “ideal” – not the “perfect” person. Perfection doesn’t exist so stop dreaming.

Take an honest and objective look at the actual daily rate of productivity and production output from your law practice. Hiring an employee, regardless of whether or not it is your first employee, is a positive step toward managing an effective practice. Skilled support staff and effective production management creates a solid foundation for growth and prosperity.

Ask yourself - (1) Who is currently producing the work? (2) What am I doing that could be delegated? (3) Where can I make changes? (4) How can I make better use of my time?

What is the difference between a legal secretary and a paralegal? Due to the fact that both positions are task-oriented, evaluate the production needs of the practice instead of being driven by the title. Basically, a legal secretary reproduces work while a paralegal composes the work and assists with legal analysis, research and writing. Both positions cover administrative tasks such as dealing with the courts, investigators, process servers, case management, and word processing.  What about certification? In California, (CA Business & Professions §6450), there are stringent requirements for hiring paralegals and the statute mandates continuing legal education for paralegals and prohibits paralegals from working directly with the public. Even if your jurisdiction does not regulate paralegals in this fashion, a condition of employment that candidates hold a certificate of completion (from a reputable and credible paralegal program) is a best practice. For legal secretaries, there are also certification programs through schools and professional organizations. What about on-the-job training without a certificate?  Again, the search for the “ideal” candidate is inclusive and all factors should be considered. But, before you hire any support staff, make sure that you understand the differences and distinctions between job titles.

Here’s a 10-step approach to recruiting for the ideal, not perfect, candidate:

Step One
Maximize your resources and seek out legal-related networking channels like bar association meetings, legal networking groups, and of course, general word-of-mouth.

Step Two
Conduct online research through your local or state bar association on current salaries for specific support staff positions. A great online resource is www.bls.gov. Talk to other law office administrators, the career development office at paralegal and legal secretary schools, or employment agencies specializing in legal staffing.

Step Three
Be creative in scheduling by offering flexible hours, 4-day work-weeks and/or externship opportunities to students interested in working in a law office.

Step Four
Consult with human resource/law office managers on how to properly write job descriptions and employee handbooks. A great online resource is www.pihra.org (Professionals in Human Resources Association).

Step Five
Read books or take continuing education courses on law office management.

Step Six
After interviewing candidates, make sure you verify and authenticate the candidate’s prior work history, references, certificates, and/or degrees. In today’s highly competitive market, people have resorted to misrepresenting and embellishing the content of their resume to gain employment. If you are not comfortable with this aspect of the process, you can hire a human resource consultant or an employee investigations firm to conduct the research.

Step Seven
When writing the job listing, make sure the tasks and duties are clearly defined. Refrain from using general phrases such as “Law office seeking litigation paralegal.” Be specific and descriptive in “what” you want. For example, “Law office seeking certified paralegal to conduct extensive legal research, draft motions, interrogatories, and prepare trial notebooks.” Remember the objective is to match the candidate’s skills with the office’s production needs.

Step Eight
Conducting an effective interview takes preparation and practice. Construct and ask open-ended questions for the purpose of eliciting the candidate’s thinking processes and of course, their abilities. For example, “Please tell me how you would handle . . .” or “Describe, in detail, the litigation process in your experience.” Refrain from asking questions that call for a “yes or no” answer as well.

Step Nine
Even if you are working with an employment agency, always administer a substantive and procedural skills and performance test to evaluate competencies. Employment agencies give the same series of tests to each candidate to get a basic feel for the candidate’s abilities, which may or may not be enough for your production expectations.

Step Ten
Make sure your office has a professional appearance.  Remember, the candidate is also interviewing you.

How about hiring a temporary paralegal or legal secretary? Firms can realize significant savings and other employee-related costs by hiring temporary workers. Many solo practitioners and large firms engage temporary help on a long-term basis commonly known as “temp-to-perm.”  This popular option is ideal if the firm has large litigation projects, going through a transition, or wants to “audition” the candidate.  If you are considering this route, choose an employment agency that specializes in legal temporary help. In addition to hiring an employment agency, law offices can also advertise temp-to-perm or straight temporary jobs directly to candidates through internet job sites, schools, state unemployment agencies, legal newspapers and other similar delivery systems.
 Hiring the ideal paralegal or legal secretary can take time. If you follow the easy steps outlined here, the process can be a rewarding and satisfying experience. After all, the workplace environment is like a family, except in this case, firms can choose their employees.

Annie Reed M.A., J.D.

Los Angeles Valley College