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Paralegals Nine, Attorneys One, Sacramento Car Accident Law Firm

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Paralegals — Nine; Attorneys — One

by Rebecca Morrow

(Legal Assistant Today, March/April 1996, reprinted with permission)

At Ed Smith’s firm, paralegals make flying solo a breeze.

When Ed Smith started practicing law in 1983, he had no idea that one day his law offices would be staffed with nine paralegals and no other lawyers.

“I wish I could say it was a grand plan. But it wasn’t,” says the personal injury attorney, who practices in Sacramento, CA, under The Law Offices of Edward A. Smith. “It just evolved that way.

“Basically, the first attorney I ever worked for told me that you should never hire anybody until the day before your nervous breakdown. I thought it was really good advice and have pretty much followed it ever since.”

The use of nine legal assistants — five of whom are full-time — clearly defies any industry benchmarks on attorney to paralegal ratios. Asked the reason behind his innovative arrangement, Smith simply says that he always felt paralegals were capable of doing many tasks currently performed by attorneys.

“I’ve always had the feeling that a lot of things that lawyers do are basically the result of a monopoly. They really don’t require lawyers to do them,” he says. “I’m in the system, and I have to play by the rules, but why, for example, should lawyers spend a lot of their time reviewing and summarizing depositions? Some people think it’s critical, but I don’t think it’s critical at all. It’s something that a well-trained paralegal can do a very excellent job on.”

Early Staffing

Smith’s first hire took place in 1984, when he employed Debbie Ferguson (now Ferguson-Doss), a then-recent graduate from California State University, Sacramento.

“It made my life a lot easier,” says Smith. “Instead of having to do everything myself — which is the case with most sole practitioners — I was able to delegate many things that weren’t maximizing the use of my time, like filing papers in court.”

From her early days as the sole legal assistant to her evolution as the firm’s key paralegal trainer, Ferguson-Doss has embraced her role at the small firm — as well as Smith’s approach to firm management. “Because I have more experience, I have this additional duty of managing, but our goal is to have everyone on equal footing,” she says. “My goal is to make sure that the staff obtains the training they need to get their jobs done and to attain their own individual goals.”

Everyone at the firm, in fact, lists their personal goals — and their ideas about what they want to achieve by working for Smith — on a board for all to see. “That is really the primary focus for me,” says Ferguson-Doss. “Helping them so they can help themselves and assist me when I need help, and so I can assist them when they need help. It’s really unusual. It’s not a traditional law firm at all.”

Growth and Advancing Technology

Smith’s next hire was Greg Munsill, a two-year college graduate with a penchant for computers.

“I didn’t really have much use for computers and didn’t see how they could help me,” says Smith. “Up until 1987, I was doing everything on little index cards. But Greg kept pushing. He dragged me kicking and screaming into the world of computers.”

Smith wouldn’t buy a computer for himself at first, but he purchased one for Munsill. “Then I started playing around on his and began to see that they were tremendously helpful,” he says. “I got one (for myself), and now we have 11 in the office and they are all networked.”

And today, largely due to Munsill’s urging, everything that can be computerized at the firm is — making life easier and more productive for everyone. “We’re transitioning now from a DOS network to a Novell network, and we’re right in the middle of a transition to ‘Groupware,’ a Novell WordPerfect/Windows program,” says Smith.

Substantive Work At Its Finest

The duties performed by Smith’s legal assistants are enviable. “For the four of us that have been here a while, we do, to a large extent, what associate attorneys are doing in other offices,” says Munsill, “with the exception of those functions which actually require that someone be an attorney.” Preparing demands, pleadings, law and motion materials and briefs is par for the course, he says.

Which is not to say that Smith readily turned over piles of substantive work to his paralegals from the first day Ferguson-Doss walked through the door. “When he first hired me, I really had to convince him to give me work,” she says. “But on the flip side, once I got it, I sometimes couldn’t do what he had given me.”

Frustrations surfacing on both sides, Ferguson-Doss — already a college graduate — went back to school at the University of California, Davis, to earn her paralegal certificate. And Smith, overcoming the fears that hold back many attorneys from fully utilizing their paralegals, began to rely on her more and more.

For Kurt McCrum, one of  the few paralegals that came to Smith’s firm from another office, the transition from his old firm to this one has been dramatic. His past employer — also a sole practitioner, but one who handled large-ticket personal injury cases for injured railroad workers — basically did everything, says McCrum. “Here the paralegal has responsibility for preparing things for Mr. Smith’s review and modification,” he says. “Over there, the sole practitioner would pretty much take care of everything and I would act more in the capacity of a typist than anything else.

“Here,” he adds, “the responsibility is to prepare whatever is necessary and then get the attorney’s approval and suggestions. There’s a lot more responsibility and challenge.”

The Law Offices of Edward A. Smith handles about 80 to 100 cases per year, which breaks down to about 10 to 20 per person. The four senior paralegals in the firm take larger loads. At times the hours are long, says the group, but their opinions are valued and the work is both challenging and interesting.

“Each of us is assigned a case load of files that we do all the day-to-day work on,” says Munsill. “As we do that, we are always on the lookout for interesting facts to bring to Ed’s attention, strategies to discuss with him, and how to develop each of the cases as they move forward.”

Cases are reviewed before being taken to ensure that there is a good claim with good damages — an important strategy for a small firm. But when cases are rejected, the firm assists those individuals in helping themselves. “We have a very strong consumer program here at the office,” says Ferguson-Doss.

Earnings, Perks and Benefits

With all that Smith asks his paralegals to do, he notes that their salaries are generous once they’ve been with the firm for a little while — though not necessarily at the beginning. His two top paralegals (who have been with the firm the longest) are making more than $50,000 now. “But for the first couple of years, I’m more frugal,” he says, “because I want to see how they’re doing.”

For example, “We have a Keogh plan, but people aren’t eligible until their third year. We deliberately set it up that way because we want someone to reap the benefit who is going to be here for a while, who is really motivated to stay with the firm.”

Like many small firms, Smith’s does not offer health insurance, but he does try to offer incentive benefits. This year, for instance, the whole firm will probably go to Hawaii at firm expense.

There is also a lot of support for professional memberships and ongoing education, Smith says. He puts aside between three and five percent of payroll for out-of-firm classes, and he has purchased memberships for all of the firm’s paralegals in such organizations as the Capitol Cities Trial Lawyers Association.

“They go to the same functions, listen to the same speakers that every trial lawyer in town does,” says Smith. “I’m probably the only firm in town that has their paralegals sit in on these seminars.”

Self-development in general is encouraged and rewarded. Two of the firm’s paralegals are college graduates with legal assistant certificates, two are currently taking college courses, and another is just starting paralegal classes. “Everyone who has ever come in here in the front-desk assistant position — which at other places would just be a receptionist — has eventually ended up transitioning, at one point or another, to a full-time paralegal job,” says Munsill.

“If somebody just wants to work in a certain position, that’s okay; but the encouragement is there to move forward, to develop more skills. And that’s valuable to both the employees and the firm.”

Maximizing Resources

The firm uses several software programs, online services and a pre-formatted checklist for preparing every case. The comprehensive checklist was put together a few years ago by Smith, Ferguson-Doss and Munsill. “They have a six-page list of things that the attorneys and paralegals must work on in order to get the case postured for a reasonable recovery,” says McCrum. “It’s very, very effective.”

And if you’re a new person, he adds, “It’s ideal, because you know immediately what your job is and what you’re supposed to do.”

The checklist is not yet computerized, says Ferguson-Doss, “but we’ve received a bunch of new programs and we’re going to put it on the computer right away. We want everything on computer. Paper is just so time consuming.”

Technology-wise, the list of firm-used programs is long: “On Time” for calendaring; “Namebase” for client information management (“it keeps names, addresses and telephone numbers of thousands of clients in seamless fashion”); “Ideafisher” to help them strategize the possible themes of their cases; “Solvit,” a shareware program that Smith uses at settlement conferences or in discussions with clients to estimate the type of structured settlement possible; “Total Recall,” to quiz Smith on his mastery of medical terminology before medical depositions or treating physician interviews.

“As is often the story, the person who is initially reluctant — and then becomes a convert — is sometimes the zealot,” says Smith of his love of technology. “If you want someone who’s enthusiastic about automation, that’s me.”

One of his favorite programs is “MaxThink” — a program that allows Smith and his staff to create an intricate, organizational “tree” linking the numerous details on each personal injury case. “I basically designed the master tree and the paralegals plug into that,” says Smith. “I have (the client’s) complete medical history and their complete litigation history analyzed chronologically, date by date, doctor by doctor, ailment by ailment.”

For example, “On the top legal of the tree we can put prior medical records. Underneath that, we can put Doctor X, Hospital Y. Under Doctor X, we can put dates. Under each date, we have the history that patient gave, treatment that was given, any drugs prescribed, any ailments complained about, any lab tests that were done. It’s a very specific outline.”

The approach makes it very easy when Smith’s in arbitration or trial. “I don’t have to shuffle through 100 pages of trial notes, I have it right there at my fingertips,” he says. “I train my paralegals to use this program and go through the medical records and organize their outlines in the same way.”

Another favorite is “Catlinks,” a deposition summary program which, says Smith, can take a 100-page transcript and condense it down to 10 or 15 pages from a good paralegal summary. The paralegal scrolls through the deposition, copies and pastes important information onto a special screen and that information is used to produce the condensed summary. “If the paralegal is well-trained, knows what the issues are in the case and can spot ‘red flags’ that seem to contradict what was said earlier, that really helps out,” says Smith.

Finally, the staff makes heavy use of online tools, especially CompuServe, though Smith says he rarely uses actual legal databases because of their costs.

“Every other profession in the world has access to almost any database they want to and rarely pays more than $100 an hour,” he says. “This profession is charged ridiculous prices.”

Luckily, “most of the things that come up in my practice are medical questions, not legal questions,” he says. In one case, the firm had a diabetic client that had experienced a minor rear-end collision, causing backstrain. Over the course of the year, the client developed an ulcer on his foot and, later on, part of his foot had to be amputated. “We read a lot about diabetes and found out that people who have diabetes are much more susceptible to ulcers. Then we started tracking the physical therapy record and found out, sure enough, that this guy was limping right after the accident. When you start to limp, it’s because you have a bad back,” Smith says.

“Our theory was this affected his gait, he put more pressure on part of his foot, which caused the ulcer, which caused the amputation. Things that we needed back-up on, we were able to get through CompuServe.”

The firm got a $300,000 arbitration award in the case, largely due, says Smith, to the way they were able to tie together the records and supporting information through extensive medical research. Since their success, Smith asks his paralegals to search various Internet news groups to gather information on particular topics or cases.

“The news groups are very specific,” he says. “So I’ll have them surf the Net for information and for experts who seem to know what they are talking about.

Training Issues

With a system so heavily reliant on automation, training is critical for success. But Smith admits that it’s tough to give people as much training as he would like them to have. “Ideally, I would like to have a full-time trainer, but that hasn’t proven practical,” he says.

“Debbie takes on a lot of the training. She is very good with people and has worked out systems for teaching them different things. Greg has also been spending time on training. But time is the real killer — trying to find the time.”

Unlike his earlier days of hiring, Smith now also looks for people who already possess some on-the-job skills. “We’re getting so busy that we are trying to find people who already have some working skills so that when we bring them in, we don’t have to spend quite as much time on training,” he says.

A Firm Alliance, A Firm Reliance

Smith is unequivocal in his belief that this is a set-up that could work at other firms. In his words: Relying more on paralegals is the future.

To make it work, he says, you simply have to have people around that you trust and who trust you and who can work together. “I guess I have a pretty open office arrangement in the sense that I argue with some of my paralegals a lot,” he says. “I’m not a dictator. I make the final call, but a lot of times we are talking, discussing matters and shouting things out.”

Ferguson-Doss agrees. “The nice thing about our arrangement is that the paralegals have power in how the firm is going to be molded, because Ed listens to our viewpoints. We are constantly communicating,” she says.

The firm’s main hiring requirements: enthusiasm, optimism and what Smith calls “street smarts.”

“I want people who can work as a team,” he says. “I don’t want someone who is too theoretical; I want someone who is enthusiastic, wants to grow, and doesn’t have an attitude.”

Other hiring pluses include strong writing skills and computer skills — basically, a good balance of skills in general. “Sometimes I am looking for specific skills, because I might find that as the office grows I’m getting too many people that can do certain things but not others,” he says. “But basically, I don’t feel that everyone can do everything equally. People are going to shine in some areas and are going to be not so strong in others. What I am trying to do is match people’s strengths and have them do mostly those tasks that they’re good in.”

The bottom line for Smith and his team is finding people who thrive on the atmosphere of the firm and enjoy their style and set-up. “Life is too short. I want somebody in my office that I’m going to enjoy working with. I find that goes a lnog way,” he says. “By the time someone is in their 20s, it’s not possible to change their basic personality traits. I try to run with the strengths they have. One paralegal I have writes as well as any lawyer I know, but he’s not as strong with clients. He’s more of an introvert. He likes to write and do briefs. It would be crazy for me not to let him run with his strengths.”

Who’s the Boss?

Without a doubt, decentralized management is the modus operandi at the firm. Traditional hierarchies don’t exist here, but as far as management duties go, Ferguson-Doss handles the bulk of employee training and the motivational aspects and Smith works on strategy and case-load management. “I handle the training, the payroll, the raises for certain employees — with Ed’s assistance,” she says. “I meet with employees weekly — sometimes every other week — to go over their job skills and to discuss improvements and goals. That takes a lot of time which he just doesn’t have.”

Once again, however, she is quick to downplay any “manager” title. “There are nine of us,” she says. “We don’t have a receptionist and we don’t have secretaries. Everyone is a legal assistant, and the personal that answers the phones is a front desk assistant who also handles paralegal work.”

Today, with his top-notch team, The Law Offices of Edward A. Smith relies almost solely upon word-of-mouth referrals for new business. “When people have been with the firm for a long time, they feel like they are stakeholders, and that’s the way I want them to feel,” says Smith. “I want them to feel that they are important because they are.”

(REBECCA MORROW is the West Coast editor for the Institute of Management and Administration, located in New York City, which publishes Law Office Management and Administration Report, Compensation & Benefits for Law Offices, Partners’ Report and Controlling Law Firm Costs.)