Will your paralegal do the work on my divorce case?

Posted on Jan 18, 2021 by Katie Carter

I often get questions about the division of work between an attorney and a paralegal. Though I may be reading more into these questions than is necessary (and though, I admit, am broadly generalizing here), the sense that I get is that most people want the work in their case to be done by their attorney and their attorney only.

Hey, I get it. Your attorney is who you meet. Your attorney is who you hire. Your attorney is the “expert”. (Though I feel I have to specify here: Because of ethical rules regarding attorney communication and marketing, we can’t actually call ourselves experts – but that doesn’t stop our clients from thinking of us as experts, whether rightly or wrongly.) But you don’t necessarily mean expert anyway; you mean that we’re well versed in handling cases like yours, that we’re in and out of court, that we went to law school, that was passed the bar exam, that we have a law license. Right? This is what we do. That doesn’t require an “expert” designation.

Not everyone asks about the division of work between an attorney and a paralegal, but it is a fairly common question. And there is – generally – a tone involved that leads me to believe that the regular consumer believes that work done by a paralegal is, for whatever reason, subpar compared to work done by the attorney. They seem to want to hear that the division of labor in their particular circumstance should mean that the work is primarily relegated to the attorney and the attorney only.

I wrote last week about saving money in your divorce. I write about saving money in divorce and custody cases a lot, because it’s something that comes up in almost every single case. Everyone wonders how much a case will cost, and fears that the costs of the case will outpace their ability to pay for it. High earners, low earners – whatever – the worries are the same. And, in some cases, the costs can be high.

In any world, $300+ an hour is expensive. And it adds up fast. And when you can’t see what the total overall costs will be, that’s nerve wracking.

We do our best to be cost conscious, but the fact remains that attorneys are expensive. One of the ways we cut costs is by utilizing paralegals to do work that doesn’t require attorneys, or to do work that the attorney then needs to only review and edit, instead of draft entirely.

A good paralegal is part of an arsenal of tools that a competent attorney can employ to great effect. It can save a client money, and produce results as good as if the attorney would have done it herself. Think about it: do you need your attorney drafting cover letters? Do you need your attorney drafting general provisions in a pleading – like when the parties were married, or the names and dates of birth of the children? I’ll answer that: no, you don’t. And every .1 of an hour that the attorney spends doing things that someone who costs half (or less) per hour could have done, depletes your trust account that much faster.

While the exact division of labor between an attorney and a paralegal is something that is up to the attorney to determine, whenever a paralegal’s labor is employed, it is done specifically with the purpose of saving you money and ensuring that your bottom line (both in terms of case results and in terms of financials) is met.

I can’t speak for everyone, but our firm has a team of highly qualified paralegals with varied experience – including two paralegals from a major local large firm, a paralegal who is also licensed as an attorney in two other states, and more. They’re highly impressive, trained, professionals – and, in many cases, they know more about procedural components of cases than attorneys themselves. Most of the time, it’s paralegals calling to get matters scheduled or filed appropriately, and, since each local court has different rules about how that must be handled, it’s a lot of rules to keep in mind!

Speaking for myself, too, I learned as much about how to practice law from paralegals (who had more time and ability to help me) as I did from other attorneys (who often didn’t mind if I followed them to court, but didn’t really want to sit there with me in front of my – or their – word processors to help me learn how to draft a complaint or a final decree). They’re truly knowledgeable professionals, who can do a LOT to help keep a case running smoothly, quickly, and effectively.

A paralegal is not to be underestimated.

So, while you’re certainly within your rights to ask how a division of labor works between your attorney and her paralegal (and, in fact, should definitely do so, because the more you understand, the better the relationship will function), you should also keep in mind that a paralegal is used for your benefit, and your benefit alone. It would cost you more for the attorney to do the work, and, in many cases, it wouldn’t improve its effectiveness.

Your attorney shouldn’t be hands off, but your attorney doesn’t need to do all the work herself – in fact, that would be cost prohibitive.

It would mean that the attorney’s attention isn’t laser focused on things that need attorney attention – like preparing for court, settlement conferences, or other appearances. It would mean that things would take longer, and run less efficiently. It would mean things cost more.

So, all of this to say, keep in mind that your attorney’s workflow is designed to be productive. Ask questions. Understand. Request more or less attorney time on your projects, if desired, or if your expectations differ from the workflow that exists – but also understand what you’re asking, and how that impacts the deliverables in your case.

It’s always about cost/benefit, advantages/disadvantages, return on investment. Finding the right balance is important, and you can and should ask questions and get answers.  For me, the question is always the same: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”  In many cases, paralegals are used not only because of their technical expertise, but because utilizing their work product strategically saves money and maintains or improves the quality of the overall result.

For more information, or to discuss your case in person with an attorney, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.