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One of the best ways to improve cost margins and client services is to better manage paralegals’ time. Paralegals are some of the most versatile team members at a law firm and often work well past 40 hours per week. Using their time effectively and efficiently is important to improve productivity — not to mention paralegals’ job satisfaction.
Paralegals perform much of the heavy lifting required to gather information, such as scheduling, discovery, and legal and evidentiary research. By more efficiently completing the routine aspects of these tasks, your firm can devote more time to effective billable hours and, thus, build better, longer-term client relationships.
For example, the evidentiary research process can be time-consuming and cumbersome. But law firms have access to technology-based solutions — like using software to review transcripts and stream and record depositions — that make it a little easier. Improving the efficiency of these evidence-gathering tasks means paralegals bill less time on them. Even better, attorneys have more time to analyze the evidence and build a case.
In addition to technological fixes, it may be worthwhile to outsource tasks that are not typically part of a paralegal’s expertise. Let’s face it: Paralegals are not private investigators. To earn a license in most states, a private investigator must demonstrate years of training and field experience in various investigative techniques, and that falls outside a paralegal’s job description.
Law firms often work with investigators to locate witnesses, take depositions, research public records and insurance claims, and perform digital surveillance and background checks. By outsourcing this work, it saves paralegals time, thus helping the law firm’s bottom line.
Furthermore, private investigators can often uncover evidence that paralegals can’t obtain on their own. Especially in tricky cases or incidents that involve sloppy police work, investigators can provide another layer of support by collecting extra evidence for lawyers and potentially being the difference between a “guilty” and “not guilty” verdict.
How Technology Has Already Affected Day-to-Day Legal Work
Many clients are familiar with technologies that are routine in their own industries. It’s best to implement the same or similar tech solutions in your law firm and smooth out any potential pain points before the technology becomes so commonplace that clients no longer tolerate spending their billable hours on outdated processes.
Technologies can already cut lawyers’ hours by an estimated 2.5 percent annually over the course of five years, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina, and law firms are seeing a similar shift in paralegals’ responsibilities. Natural language processing, for example, allows a machine to scan and predict what documents will be relevant to a case, helping reduce time spent on the discovery process.
The advent of time-saving software applications doesn’t necessarily translate to fewer clients or fewer billable hours, however. The legal industry can actually see an increase in jobs because law firms are able to fulfill high demand for the more strategic, valuable legal services that machines cannot perform.
The most difficult activities to automate with current technologies are those that involve managing and developing people (9 percent automation potential) or that require expert decision-making, planning, or creativity (18 percent automation potential).
Three Paralegal Tech Solutions
Law firms should consider using technology to make these three paralegal tasks more efficient and effective:
1. Document Management
Many companies offer software to digitally categorize and store legal documents, and by employing one of these applications, paralegals can improve document security and access documents faster.
Keep in mind, though, that the ease with which you store and manipulate electronic data has a downside. To keep data confidential and ensure it’s appropriately purged, you may need to negotiate the terms of your contract with a third-party software or cloud storage provider.
2. E-Discovery and E-Filing
While software applications aid the discovery process, they also reduce the effort paralegals put into court filings because a digitized solution makes it easier to organize documents for transmission.
Most document management technologies also offer e-discovery and e-filing solutions, and if you choose to outsource to a private investigator for a task like collecting evidence, the investigator typically has experience using the software — meaning a paralegal spends less time logging the evidence.
3. Project Management
Paralegals work across many departments and projects and receive ad hoc instructions from many different colleagues. Project management software can assemble all tasks in one place, as well as sort and filter by project, client, due date, and more.
Specialized law practice management software often supports task management, but even free or low-cost options — such as Toggl, Basecamp, or Jira — that have been designed for all industries can help paralegals manage and track their time. Executives can also analyze aggregated, firmwide reports to evaluate where to eliminate inefficiencies and boost productivity.
Paralegals are not always the first team members you think of when considering how to improve a law firm’s bottom line. A lot of firms focus on increasing the volume of inputs, leaning on attorneys to land higher-value clients. But there is a case to be made for decreasing the time spent on outputs.
Use technology to allow your paralegals to spend less time on clerical tasks and more time on the unique needs of each case, and you’ll likely see a rise in their effectiveness. Plus, your firm will gain a competitive edge by harnessing efficiencies in an increasingly data-heavy world.