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The Billable Hours Dilemma

Updated on August 5, 2015
alahiker28 profile image

Ms. Parker is a senior paralegal from Alabama. She earned her Bachelor's from Millsaps College in Mississippi. She freelances on the side.


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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    • profile image

      Jjpastig 3 years ago

      Hi Misty,I am so glad that I ran across your webstie. I am in the process of starting up a similar company. I also graduated from the National Center for Paralegal Training (1998) and have been working in the field since that time. Wow! I would love to network with you and share and learn from each of our experiences in this profession. Thanks for being a role model!!! I think this is great!

    • alahiker28 profile image

      Vicki Parker 5 years ago from the Deep South

      Good question, Smokey19. And good point, Frustrated Paralegal. The whole point of the article is that there is no one-size-fits-all concept for billing hours. Attorneys don't want to see hours set so low as to stifle productivity and profitability, yet paralegals don't want to be so slammed and overwhelmed that 8 hrs of work a day has to become 10.

    • profile image

      Frustrated Paralegal 5 years ago

      I actually would think that 1000-1250 would be optimal. Since an attorney can block bill 8 or 9 hours for a deposition or a trial. Whereas a paralegal cannot do depositions, and I am basically a file clerk. Most of my time is administrative.

    • profile image

      Smokey19 5 years ago

      I would like to know the average monthly billage hours for paralegals working in a small firm of apprx 5 attorneys who specialize in estate planning, estate administration and agricultural law.

    • alahiker28 profile image

      Vicki Parker 6 years ago from the Deep South

      Secretaries in particular like to think of themselves as legal assistants : ) That's easy when across the U.S., the skill level and education required for legal assistants vary so widely. Some states require licensing, some do not. Some firms require 4 year degrees, some do not. Some require the CLA, some do not. In reality, there should be entry level legal assistants and then various types of legal assistants demonstrated by job description, title and salary. I worked for one firm who employed "Legal Aides." They basically bates labelled and indexed, but of course, they liked to call themselves legal assistants as well. Of course, they billed out at the same rate as the legal assistant.

      Thanks for your comments. I look forward to following your hubs.

    • Mcham Law profile image

      Mcham Law 6 years ago from Round Rock, Texas

      Great hub. I've had to deal with conflict between the different members of my staff and it is always difficult to get the paralegals and secretaries to understand the differences in their positions.

    • alahiker28 profile image

      Vicki Parker 7 years ago from the Deep South

      I think there is a wide degree of variance in paid paralegal internships. In my 20+ year career, I've seen relatively few of them, but I know they exist in the larger firms. The more attractive a candidate you are (i.e., grades, intellect, character, etc.) the better a position you are in to negotiate your internship, but it will also depend on the firm's needs. Knowing little about where you live, what school you went to, etc., I am limited in the advice I can give. Good luck.

    • profile image

      Paid Paralegal Internships 7 years ago

      How long do paralegal internships last in a day? are they FT or PT?

      I'm in my first semester of a paralegal certificate program at an ABA approved school. I work part time now to help support my fiancé and myself. If I am going to be taking an unpaid internship, will it most likely be part time or full time? are law offices picky on how many and what hours they have you work? I have some knowledge of motion practice, Lexis Nexis, Memo creation, and Interrogatories, and probably skill with jury instructions, and form books, by the end of the semester. Do you think law offices would consider paying, and going from intern to hire? This whole process is somewhat new to me.

    • alahiker28 profile image

      Vicki Parker 7 years ago from the Deep South

      Thank you Cyber Lawyer. I need all the advocates I can get and you have inspired me to do more.

      The Cyber World very much appreciates your contributions as well. You hardly go un-noticed! Thanks for what you do.

    • Cyber Lawyer profile image

      Cyber Lawyer 7 years ago

      Alahiker28, guess what: I just wrote a review about you. Your valuable contributions to a better understanding of the legal profession and the world beyond are much appreciated.