Topic: Advantages Of Using Paralegals For An Effective And Productive Legal Practice
Held on the 13th of May 2020 on the NBA Ikorodu Branch WhatsApp platform @3pm.
Compiled & Edited by:
(Branch Executive Secretary)
Q1: Who or what is a paralegal?
Justice Williams: According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc.: A paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.
This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work. Substantive shall mean work requiring recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.
The key characteristics are that the paralegal:
(i) acquired legal skills through training, education or experience
(ii) works under a lawyer’s supervision
(iii) performs tasks in legal work (subsidiary legal matters, not merely clerical or secretarial) that a lawyer would otherwise perform.
In the Nigerian context this would include staff that do administrative and legal work, litigation clerks etc
The first known use of the word “Paralegal” was in 1966. In 1968, the American Bar Association acknowledged that there were many tasks in serving a client’s need, which can be performed by a trained non-lawyer assistant working under the direction and supervision of a lawyer. Paralegals have been around in earnest only since the 1970s, when the growth of high volume law firms and the legal profession generally, caused a systematic increase in pools of administrative employees, as well as less of a need for numerous lawyers demanding high end salaries to do very basic, niche work. The industry found it to its advantage to relegate many of the work day tasks, such as filing, research, and drafting to lower salaried tier of professionals: the paralegals.
Q2: How are paralegals necessary in our justice system?
Justice Williams: They help efficiency and improve the quality of work done in the firm by their professionalism and relevant knowledge.
They [also] improve access to justice by freeing up the lawyers’ time to take up more cases and help the lawyer is preliminary interviews.
When work is carried out effectively and efficiently, it can help with reducing cost to clients, which will make clients happy and increase the client base.
We have staff who are not properly trained which results in:
• Costly errors
• Overburdened counsel
• Good case, good counsel being ruined by bad processing of a paralegal
• Delay and time wasting
I believe we know that properly trained Paralegals will improve legal service delivery….we are just reluctant to change.
Q3: With the economic realities, how do I get a paralegal I can afford?
Justice Williams: It is more cost effective to train your existing staff. A little investment in your staff will pay high dividends.
Strategies may be developed to ensure staff do not abscond after being trained but life is always about risk and balance. Motivated staff usually stay on.
Bayo Akinlade: Before I open the floor for questions, is there any other thing you may wish to add about the advantages of paralegals and what exactly it may cost lawyers to have one trained.
Justice Williams: The elephant in the room. There is the ever present fear of staff leaving employment after being trained. In the first place; that risk is there whether or not staff go for training. Secondly, it is better to take the risk and invest in improving your practice. In any event staff can sign a bond and the training may be used as incentive instead of salary increment or staff may be made to pay for a percentage of the fees. In short there are many ways to bail a cat.
The other elephant is the fear that paralegals will impersonate lawyers. Again there have been and will always be impersonators. The Bar Association has made great strides in the provision of seals. What can be done in addition is sensitizing the public that anyone who does not have a seal is not recognized as a lawyer.
I must however make bold to say lawyers themselves have a part in this problem. Some have sacrificed everything including the nobility of the profession on the altar of convenience and get their staff to sign documents for them or their clients.
You can train your existing staff and upgrade them to paralegals, thereby getting the following benefits:
•Qualified and experienced help who understand the justice system and know their place in it
•Efficiency and time management in the administration of your office
•Ethical conduct and discipline
•Good client service and client satisfaction
•Boost of staff morale
•Speedy dispensation of justice
•Better access to justice for your clients as you are freed up to do more and take on more clients
The staff morale will increase because they gain:
•Capacity building/skill acquisition
•Dignity of labour
•Increased competence and efficiency
•Professional recognition and treatment
•Networking, association with peers and colleagues
I have some questions that may help us decide whether we need Paralegal
- What is your sample day in the office?
- Do you have piles of files on your table that you have to give personal attention, which do not in fact involve critical issues?
- Do you discover that minutes of corporate meetings do not contain important discussions or resolutions or are not comprehensive or comprehensible?
- Would you rather spend valuable time attending meetings, managing affairs, networking, appearing in court, completing briefs and opinions doing core job functions, than over seeing routine documentation or administrative schedules?
- Are you doing more than legal research and opinions, solicitors’, judicial or other legal function, doubling as secretary and clerk because you have to ensure such functions are done properly?
- Do you spend precious time proof reading and correcting letters and documents, giving lessons in use of English and grammar?
- Do you need to remind your secretary to remind you of events and appointments?
- Are you missing deadlines, court dates and process timelines, important meetings, dates and events because your clerk or administrative staff somehow got it wrong?
- Are you discovering in the course of proceedings, that processes such as exhibits or attachments to letters are missing?
- Have you been faced with the discovery during court appearance that your staff took a short cut that negates the progress of your matter (such as signing a witness deposition, serving a different person)
- Are you getting late to court because you have to personally oversee the filing of necessary papers on the day of hearing?
- Are your clients unhappy because of failure to update them of give proper feedback?
- What will it be like to have all mundane and preliminary tasks properly taken care of by someone trustworthy, dedicated, disciplined, well educated and properly trained?
Q: My question is whether one can whimsically chose to answer a paralegal or is there a standard or a body that determines at what time it becomes convenient and legitimate to answer or be addressed as a paralegal?
Justice Williams: Anyone can choose to call themselves a paralegal or anything but what will determine if he is, is what skills he brings to the table
Q: Now that everything about legal practice is going virtual, lawyers and Judges are battling to learn the rope of virtual court, is it advisable for law offices to employ persons with no fundamental knowledge of technology hoping to train while working?
Justice Williams: There is nothing one cannot learn with the right attitude. In fact this is the best time to train your staff…ICT is part of the skills they should acquire. Training on the job is the best way to learn practically. If you want to employ new staff it makes sense to employ people properly trained.
Q: Will it be ethically right for a lawyer to allow his paralegal represent him in a meeting with his client?
Justice Williams: Certainly. It is part of the paralegal’s job.
Q: Bearing in mind that some paralegals can be bought over, is it advisable to let them have access to sensitive files in the office?
Justice Williams: That is why we need professionals who are guided by an association that will have input from the NBA. A professional will not be easily bought over. In any case you define how much access you want to give.
Q: Despite the affinity of the Nigerian Legal system to the Common law countries of U.K. and U.S. where the word paralegal is popular and resonates and is part and parcel of the justice delivery system, the word paralegal still appears alien to the Nigerian legal system. The Evidence Act refers to the Secretary or (Litigation) Clerk in a law firm as being within the ambit of persons with immunity from divulging privileged communication as a Counsel in chambers. Does it require legislation to bring within the immunity net other staff in a law firm such as paralegals knowing that the scope of work of paralegals in other Commonwealth countries aforementioned is wider than in our own jurisdiction in order to give legitimacy and recognition to the employment of paralegals in Nigeria.
Justice Williams: Each jurisdiction has developed paralegalism as it suits them. We can work on enacting laws that will give the profession a firm footing. However even as our laws are paralegals are covered by the description of litigation clerk etc…it is a more generic and professional title that will be adopted later.
Q: From the definition of paralegals, can law graduates who have not attended the Law School be properly engaged as paralegals? And if they desire not to go to Law School will they be recognized as so employable?
Justice Williams: Definitely law graduates can be paralegals and very employable.
We have different kinds of paralegals. Even in America; they acknowledge attorney-paralegals. New wigs usually start out as paralegals in the UK.
Q: The paralegals here are not enlightened enough to consider forming an Association of the kind mentioned above, could it be because there is no restraint as to the caliber of those employable?
Justice Williams: My Institute is a training and membership institute that will have a roll, So this has been taking care of
Q: What is the length of time for training a Paralegal staff and the cost implication.
Justice Williams: We have different levels of training depending on the trainee. Our shortest courses is one day or the two days ad hoc trainings. We also have the one month trainings. Prices are from N50k to 250k. There is a special Executive course for N500k
Q: What are the training requirements for paralegals and do we have the necessary facilities for the training of paralegals in Nigeria at the moment?
Justice Williams: There are a number of institutions that train Paralegals. Mine is the Institute of Paralegal Services (IOPS)
I have facilities and we also conduct online trainings. Minimum requirement for a Paralegal trainee is a school cert. For the other programmes…OND…HND..Bsc etc. We also accept years of experience.
Comment: My former Principal had a Law Diploma holder paralegal who was fond of presenting himself as a lawyer to new clients. And as non professionals will always do; he gave us a lot of headaches until he was laid off. The risk is BIG no doubt.
Justice Williams: Like I said it is the responsibility of the profession to identify impostors and let the public know how. Fortunately a feature on the NBA website now lets you know whether someone is enrolled in the Supreme Court or not.
Comment: May I encourage my lord to create a training programme for Lawyers in this regard.
Justice Williams: Lawyers have attended our ad hoc sessions and benefitted greatly
Comment: I think the first step is for lawyers to attend the training so as to know the expectations of a graduate paralegal from your institute my lord
Justice Williams: Yes that is the ideal and that is why we have ad hoc training programs. One firm sent a lawyer, let me post their testimony here:
The feedback is really positive. For the first time we have a compliance officer appointed. To ensure deadline for filing processes, preparing witnesses for trial, issuing fee notes, etc is met. A truly gaping hole filled. That’s our first fruit of the course they attended.
My Lord, good morning. I am truly impressed by your revolutionary effort to improve the Bar in Nigeria. I am indeed helping myself. I desire that you do not give up until all of us come to see the great support IOPS is giving to the legal profession.
Lawyers who will supervise Paralegals will benefit from attending the courses.
IOPS is a professional training institute for paralegals and administrative/support staff of the legal profession. It was registered as a company limited by guarantee in 2013. As stated in its memorandum and articles of association it is not for profit. It is expected that the organization will be funded by grants, tuition and loans (if necessary).
The purpose of the Institute is to create a cadre of professional staff to assist in accomplishing the efficient, effective and fair administration of justice.
The Institute shall promote the highest standards of professionalism, ethics, knowledge and proficiency for paralegals and support staff.
To become the authority in paralegal education; the arbiter of standards and professionalism in paralegal services.
Pursuing the cause of justice by promoting excellence in the support services of the legal profession and the administration of justice.
- To uphold the highest standards in knowledge, practice and ethics across the paralegal profession which will assist in upholding the rule of law.
- To set competency standards for paralegals who are accountable for their actions in the administration of justice.
- To introduce the use of technology and research methodologies towards improving effectiveness and efficiency of every paralegal.
- To offer certification in advanced paralegal training in conjunction with other recognized international institutes.
- To provide recognition for paralegals, carving a niche for professionals who support the administration of justice.