One of the more difficult professional development and training challenges for general counsel involves creating ways to deploy talented people at their highest and best levels. Developing a cadre of paralegals who can perform at an attorney level is one area that may yield efficient and productive results.
To learn more about a systematic approach to finding, onboarding and developing paralegals, I spoke with Mark Roellig, EVP and general counsel of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Roellig's organization includes over 50 lawyers and 25 paralegals and other professionals, such as investigators and project managers. He recently shared his big picture view and ways to think about effective legal department function and developing talent.
Reduce outside counsel costs: Consider convergence programs, alternative fee arrangements and reassignment of work to the right firms/right lawyers. This includes bringing routine work in-house.
Manage in-house work: For in-house work, determine what should be done at what level to make the best use of lawyer and paralegal staff.
Continuously improve processes: Reviewing processes in the department can add efficiencies. Simple changes like streamlining document review steps will reduce staff time.
Our discussion then moved to how a legal department can get the most benefit from paralegals, and Roellig provided some more tips.
Hire the right paralegals
A college degree is important, and a paralegal certificate can be helpful, but experience and good character traits trump all. Roellig seeks people who, among other things, are smart, curious, high energy, good communicators, team players and have integrity. In addition, if the paralegal candidates have a business sense and financial acumen, their value to the legal team is even higher.
Onboard and invest
In addition to the basics of having a smartphone, computer and everything else they need on the first day, each new hire develops a 30/60/90 day plan—preferably before the start date. Paralegals are assigned a mentor, an experienced paralegal in a different practice area. This provides a relationship for questions and feedback.
At Mass Mutual, paralegals reside in one of the major legal teams, such as corporate, insurance, litigation or retirement services. Tools and training are provided early to help the paralegals learn the business, the company, their specific areas of responsibility and the relevant legal issues. They also need to learn to communicate effectively within the legal function and with the business people.
Roellig believes that paralegals can often do the same level of work that a 2nd to 4th year associates might do. However, for paralegals to perform at that level, the GC needs to put in the time, energy and money to train them. Internal and external seminars and on-the-job training, along with mentoring, provides the tools.
One way to take advantage of having strongly trained paralegals is to have them fill in for, and even take responsibility for, a lawyer when the team is short-staffed, or a lawyer retires or moves on. While there is no substitute for legal experience, many of the tasks lawyers do can be done by paralegals. Roellig suggests hiring one or more paralegals before there is a specific need. They cannot be expected to get up to speed without a significant amount of time and experience. Investing the time today can help them be ready when the need is there. Over time, the department may be able to operate with fewer lawyers and more paralegals, or use even less outside counsel.
Give them the right work
Paralegals at Mass Mutual have substantial responsibility. They review and manage outside counsel bills, manage discovery, produce board packages and prepare solid draft documents such as 8Ks and proxy statements for review. They are internal client facing or work with insurance agents. A team of paralegals addresses insurance agent questions without having to consult with lawyers.
Lawyer or paralegal?
When making staff decisions, consider the benefit and cost savings that paralegals can afford. And with paralegals, be prepared to invest now to save on costs later.