How commonly do law departments employ paralegals? A more precise question looks at typical ratios of lawyers to paralegals. In US law departments, according to recent benchmark data from 228 law departments that reported paralegals, the median ratio is 2.66 lawyers for every paralegal. The average, however, stands higher: 3.57 lawyers per paralegal.
That ratio of lawyers to paralegals varies significantly in other parts of the world. From the same global benchmark survey, 43 Canadian law departments reported a median of three lawyers for each paralegal and an average of 3.72. From 47 law departments in the United Kingdom and Ireland (the UK) came the same median but a higher average of 4.06. Finally, from 81 law departments based in Europe, the median remained the same as that of the UK and Canada, but the average increased significantly to 4.83.
In other words, based on data from large numbers of law departments in four regions, US departments report the most paralegals in proportion to lawyers. The other three - Canada, the UK, and Continental Europe - all disclose the same median proportion but the average ratio increases steadily. Canadian law departments average 4.2 percent more lawyers per paralegal than the US, the UK has 13.7 percent more, and Europe has 35 percent more lawyers per paralegal than the US.
The benchmark metrics cited above actually understate the ratio of how many lawyers there are for every paralegal. The reason is that 116 of the legal departments in the General Counsel Metrics survey reported no paralegals. For some or even many of them, especially the small law departments, that may be true. But for others, especially several large law departments - the group totaled 1,162 lawyers - I suspect that either the person responding to the survey did not know the number of paralegals or paralegals were lumped into Other Legal Staff. Because of this uncertainty about some of the data, it is certain that the overall ratios of lawyers per paralegals is considerably higher than the ratios cited above, which were calculated for law departments that reported at least one paralegal.
Why are calculations like the ones above useful to General Counsel? One reason is that they give directional guidance to a General Counsel as to normal distributions of lawyers and paralegals. If a department deviates significantly, the GC might want to give further thought to the balance. A second reason is that the differences among regions reflect differences in management sensitivity to delegation. Put bluntly, Europe is lawyer heavy as compared to the typical structure in the United States. Over time, I believe law departments will shift toward more use of para-professionals.
Third, and potentially most importantly, the follow-on inquiry should be whether total legal spending as a percentage of revenue correlates in any way to the ratios of lawyers and paralegals. It seems quite plausible that within industries there is a sweet spot where the ratio of lawyers and paralegals achieves the optimal output.