In-House Hiring: Paralegal or Associate?

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By Paige Zandri
| Legal Process Management

Paralegal or Associate

When your workflow begins to overflow, or worse, if you have become the company “bottleneck,” you will likely consider how to get some help. Like many before you, you may face the inevitable dilemma of how to make a smart junior level legal hire: Should I hire a junior associate or a paralegal? First, you should know the difference, and then you can start to consider the up and downsides of each.

What’s the Difference?

Paralegals are support professionals, typically without law degrees, who require monitoring and supervision by a licensed attorney. Though some paralegals do have law degrees and perhaps even a license to practice, most do not – meaning they are not allowed to perform a long list of tasks under many states’ rules of professional ethics. Generally, though, as long as paralegals complete their work under the supervision of a licensed attorney, they can perform a good amount of substantive legal work, including document preparation, research, filing papers, managing correspondence, organizing discovery and helping attorneys prepare for trial. 

Junior associates, by definition, have graduated from law school and are licensed to practice law. Consequently, they can perform the list of prohibited legal tasks that paralegals cannot. They also may require less supervision when performing legal research or drafting memoranda or legal briefs (though this comes at a price). By contrast, junior associates may be more difficult to manage if much of the work being delegated is administrative in nature, given their newly minted law degree and license. 

Deciding Between Paralegals and Associates

When hiring a junior level employee, you will find significant variation in knowledge and experience between paralegals and associates. Some associates will have very little experience with the procedural aspects of legal practice, such as motion practice or filing deadlines, whereas experienced paralegals may know all of the minor details needed to navigate the court system. In other instances, you may find associates with tremendous legal research and writing ability as compared to paralegals who need significant oversight when it comes to written and researched legal work. When deciding what role best fits your needs, consider the following factors:

  • Salary: Without question, you will significantly reduce your legal spending by hiring an experienced paralegal as compared to a junior associate. However, based on the other factors listed below, you may still choose to hire a junior associate.
  • Greatest Need: Think about what work you can effectively delegate so as to maximize the time you spend on the most important and complex legal tasks. If you find that you are spending hours on procedural and administrative tasks as well as a few simple legal tasks, then a paralegal may be right for you. However, if you find that you have far too much legal research and writing on your plate and find the procedural aspects of practice to be manageable, you may want to hire a junior associate.
  • Capacity to Supervise: Under state rules of professional ethics, you will have heightened responsibilities to manage and supervise the work of non-licensed paralegals. Depending on experience, paralegals may also need more supervision in researching and writing substantive legal documents. Think about what kind of work you can easily supervise; otherwise you might find yourself spending more time on reviewing and revising projects than you were spending completing the work yourself.
  • Experience: The most important distinction between potential employees will not be in their title, but in their experience. A paralegal with years of experience helping to manage a trial practice will have far more practical knowledge and skills than a first-year associate and can be far more beneficial to a small company or law firm.

Beyond the obvious salary differences between paralegals and associates, you should consider what minor work occupies the time you could be spending on more important and complex work, the amount of time you are willing to spend supervising your new hire, and the experience your new hire will bring to your company or law firm. Much more so than the titles alone, these factors can help you decide whether to hire an associate or paralegal.

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