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The Billable Hours Dilemma
Is there a difference between the work a paralegal performs and the work a secretary performs? Yes. Although paralegals will always be required to do some secretarial work to accomplish their assignments, paralegal tasks should be clearly delineated from secretarial tasks for this simple reason - clients pay for paralegal services just like they pay for attorney services.
Among legal professionals, "billable hours" often get dubbed as a "necessary evil." But overhead and salaries must be met. Fixtures and equipment must be paid for. Benefit packages are designed to attract the best and the brightest, yet they are expensive and the burden is met by the employer. Any number of formulas may be utilized by a legal practice to determine how to meet overhead and other fixed costs while maintaining competitive billing rates for attorneys and paralegals. This determination includes both the billable rate and the number of hours attorneys and paralegals are required to bill each year. But should a paralegal be required to bill as many hours as an attorney? And should a paralegal be required or allowed to perform secretarial work?
While paralegals are certainly qualified to bill a large portion of their time to billable tasks, many factors affect or limit their ability to bill as many hours as an attorney. Furthermore, secretaries and paralegals have a myriad of views and opinions about who should be doing what. The ultimate difference depends on what your client is willing to pay for. The difference between the non-billable tasks a paralegal performs is that, short of giving legal advice, setting or negotiating fees, or representating a client in court, a paralegal generally performs the same functions as an attorney or law clerk -- drafting motions, discovery, complaints, answers, pre-trial orders, affidavits, joint orders, report letters to clients, case evaluations, medical and other summaries, shephardizing cases, legal research, and other investigative work. If an attorney's secretary is performing these tasks, they should reconsider the way duties are assigned in order to maximize billing potential. Many firms allow secretaries to perform some of these tasks, but fail to bill their time out for it. Many firms utilize a system where paralegals perform all of these functions, yet also do ALL their own secretarial work such as printing envelopes, photocopying, and metering at the postage machine. Other firms issue their paralegals a dictaphone and have the secretary transcribe the paralegal work product along with the attorney work product. In some firms, paralegals are even assigned a personal secretary.
The organizational system utilized by a firm should depend on the firm's structure, personnel and administrative culture. For instance, it may be more practical to have paralegals do simple notices of deposition and hearings simply because there is not enough manpower for the secretary to perform these tasks, or vice versa. When making job decisions, an attorney should keep in mind that consistency will cut down on strife among personnel. Bear in mind also, that whatever system of delegation is utilized, it will have a direct impact on productivity. Most paralegals are proficient enough to do their own typing while attorneys more frequently dictate or delegate their word processing needs. But the non-billable time a paralegal spends entering a set of interrogatories for instance, can quickly reduce individual productivity and overall firm profit. Paralegals who print their own envelopes, do their own photocopying, and run the meter machine, also lose billable time while performing these tasks. This may seem trivial to an attorney if he does not see the amount of work a paralegal puts out in a single day, but the higher a paralegal's output, the higher the amount of time spent in the mail room (except in instances where paralegals are dedicated to large document control cases or other mass billing projects.)
An attorney or firm should always allow a paralegal a minimum of one hour per day to perform non-billable or administrative tasks. Firms should consider increasing or decreasing those requirements based on the type of projects a paralegal is assigned. Those who spend all or a majority of their time on single client cases with large document projects can withstand higher billable hour requirements. Those who draft a multitude of motions and correspondence throughout the day, and then also do their own secretarial work, including filing, may need lower billable hour requirements.
An attorney should confer with a paralegal about these things before setting arbitrary requirements. It is difficult for attorneys to meet their billable hour requirements at times. Likewise, paralegals may struggle, particularly when two to three weeks of vacation, school programs, medical appointments, etc. are factored in. And remember that attorneys have the added benefit of travel related projects which give them ample opportunities to bill larger segments of time. If a paralegal is confined to the office, it may not be best to raise billing requirements. But there are alternatives. An attorney may bill a paralegal out at a higher rate. Billable rates range anywhere from $50.00 to $100.00 or more per hour based on experience and specialization. More experienced and/or specialized paralegals should bill out at a higher rate. Attorney review and edit time is sharply decreased with a seasoned paralegal, therefore, an attorney can justify the rate increase.
In all fairness to clients, when billing paralegals out at a higher rate, ensure that the paralegal is doing more substantive work. An attorney should use caution before charging a client $95.00 an hour to notice a deposition or hearing. On the other hand, it is quite justifiable to bill a professional out at that rate when preparing an affidavit or discovery, work alternatively done by the attorney.
There is no perfect method for billing paralegal time, but considering a client's needs and weighing them against a paralegal's limitations and the firm's structure is a good place to start. Billable hours is not a one-size fits all concept, nor should it be.
Printed in "The Mississippi Lawyer"
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