Legal support staff: the rise of 'the hybrid'

Sarina Sullivan
Bridgetower Media Newswires

If hybrid legal support people aren’t on your radar, chances are good they will be soon. The combo paralegal/legal secretary role that mixes administrative and legal support duties seems to be popping up more than ever — and demand for such cross-trained employees is on the upswing.

In a recent survey, 66 percent of the lawyers interviewed said blended support positions are more common today than they were just two years ago. And of the respondents’ organizations, half already employed those merged roles, and 15 percent planned to increase their hybrid hiring over the next year.

The future of support staff

What’s driving the growth of this stepped-up legal support professional? In two words: costs and clients. Using blended staff is a good way for law firms to lower bill rates, which makes clients happy.

Much of the role stems from the ongoing expansion of paralegal duties. These professionals handle administrative tasks like tracking legal time and expenses with aplomb. They now also take on additional responsibilities that were traditionally the purview of junior associates, such as research and trial preparation — and anything that no longer requires a licensed lawyer to be at the helm inherently lowers the cost to the firm and client.

Greater expectations

Of course, this means law firms and legal departments are asking for more expertise in their support staff. As a result, the hybrid role requires a larger skill set than what was needed before. Top candidates have a trifecta of competencies:

• expertise in a practice area, such as litigation, health care, contracts or real estate

• administration, especially in smaller firms where a legal support specialist takes on record-keeping and other practi­management responsibilities

• technology, such as proficiency with e-discovery and e-filing

And as always, soft skills are as important as technical skills. A blended role calls for flexibility, excellent time management, leadership, diplomacy, collaboration and problem-solving.

Hybrid hiring

Hybrid legal specialists are already in demand, and today’s economy makes recruiting them an even greater challenge. Here are some ways to find and hire the blended legal support you need.

• Competitive compensation — Top legal professionals know their worth. To attract such talent, lure them in with above-average wages. The starting midpoint salary for a hybrid paralegal/legal assistant is $50,000, according to my organization’s most recent salary guide. For a senior-level paralegal/legal assistant, the midpoint is $69,500. Don’t forget to include these professionals in your incentive and bonus plans.

• Company culture as currency — Compensation draws top candidates, but great perks can seal the deal. While some overtime is unavoidable, foster a culture of working reasonable hours and unplugging during vacations. Offer a generous amount of paid time off. Whenever practical, allow employees to work remotely. Be known as a law firm or company that cares about its people’s physical and mental well-being.

• Career development — Hybrid paralegals have to stay up to date on industry trends, regulatory issues and tech advancements. To help them remain at the top of their game, give them the continuing education they want and need. Send them to Westlaw seminars and conferences by the American Association for Paralegal Education. Offer partial or full tuition assistance as they pursue a bachelor’s degree or graduate-level paralegal certificate. Investing in your legal support staff pays big dividends.

Are distinct litigation support roles going the way of physical law firm libraries? It’s looking that way. But what will never change is the need to recruit, hire and retain the best legal talent you can afford.

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Sarina Sullivan is vice president and branch manager of Robert Half Legal’s Boston office. She oversees a team of 15 specialized staffing professionals who provide service throughout New England.
 

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