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How Law Firms And In-House Departments View Paralegals

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 168 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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As a paralegal, you may believe that it is not necessary for you to know how a law firm operates, what the various levels of responsibilities are for the attorneys, or what the functions are of each of the diverse departments that can be found in a large firm. You may want only to be able to come to work, do your job, and go home. Not so! It is very important for you to have an understanding of the mechanics of how your firm operates, how certain management decisions are made, and why. There are several reasons for this:
How Law Firms And In-House Departments View Paralegals
  • It is important for you to establish yourself in the firm “culture.” For coworkers to accept you and for management to consider you for promotions, you must learn what the various power structures are.
  • If you have a problem with workload or with a coworker, you must know the proper channels where you can air your grievances. Few things make supervisors more angry than if you ignore the chain of command and go over someone’s head.
  • When you need help with a project, it is useful to know what the resources are in the firm. Must you go to an associate attorney for help with a research project, or is the librarian available to assist you? When you have columns and columns of numbers to add up for a tax return, must you do it yourself, or is there someone in the bookkeeping department who is fast with an adding machine? Why burden your secretary with a large typing job when the word-processing department can get it out faster?
  • Perhaps you would like to make a change in an established firm policy, such as to create an annual retreat for paralegals, where none now exists. To whom would you go with such a request? The office manager? The senior partner? Is there a paralegal committee made up of some of the firm’s attorneys? If so, who are they?

Most major law firms have structures that are very similar to each other. There is a core of departments that is common to all big firms, but there will be some small differences that are unique to each firm. Large law firms handle most of the typical day-to-day functions of operating a firm by developing or instituting a department or assigning an individual to handle such duties. Medium-sized firms may decide to outsource certain fringe responsibilities while maintaining only core duties in the office. In very small firms, administrative duties may get portioned out to everyone, including the attorneys and paralegals, who will be expected to perform these duties along with their particular billing requirements. As a paralegal, it is important to know where your position falls in the organizational structure of the firm. The hierarchy among employees is nowhere more evident than within the walls of a law office.

The Hierarchy Of Lawyers And The Legal Staff

The lawyers within a law firm may typically be segmented into the following three categories:
  1. associates,
  2. partners,
  3. of counsel.

Each of these different categories of lawyers maintains certain responsibilities and duties within the structure of the law firm.


The least senior attorneys in the law firm are the associates. Associates are recent law school graduates who have convinced the partners of the firm that they are very capable of doing the legal research typically assigned to junior-level lawyers. Most associates take jobs in law firms with lofty aspirations of becoming partner in their firm of choice. The road to partnership is a long and arduous one, with many associates falling by the wayside.

Associates are recruited during the third year of law school. Often, they have worked previously at the firm as law clerks during summer breaks from school. Associates work their way up the associate ladder through a system that requires them to work in conjunction with the partners on many different tasks. The partners will instruct and guide the associate in an attempt to determine whether the associate has the ability to succeed at the firm and become partner. Due to sheer numbers, fewer and fewer associates are making partner every year. Consequently, the pressure on associates to perform, assuming they want to remain with the firm, is high, and competition for plum assignments can be fierce. Associates will normally work anywhere from six to eight years before being considered for partnership. Over the course of that time, they will be tested in every legal and social skill that may affect their involvement with the firm.


If an associate is one of the chosen few, he or she may be lucky enough to make partner. Also called members of the firm or shareholders, these senior-level lawyers have been elected by their peers to make the important decisions as to how the firm will manage itself. Each partner has a vote with regard to firm policy, opening new offices, election of fellow partners, and any number of decisions that a law firm needs to make. Typically, partners in a large firm will elect committees amongst themselves to administer procedures on myriad items, such as generating new business, overall management, technology, and the like. A partner, unlike other lawyers within the firm, receives a percentage of the firm’s net income for the year as his or her compensation, rather than a salary. A partner’s income therefore will typically fluctuate depending upon how well the firm is doing. Partners are also the lawyers who are responsible for attracting the bulk of the firm’s business. Oftentimes, a prerequisite for becoming partner is the ability to attract new clients or promote business (affectionately known as “rainmaking”). The firm will usually weigh an attorney’s business potential very heavily when deciding whether an associate should be made partner.

“Of Counsel”

Some attorneys are put on “of counsel” status. In days gone by, this title was used to designate a partner who had retired from “active duty” but was still available and willing to consult with the firm on difficult management decisions or complicated cases. It also was often used to show the firm had ties to someone with celebrity status, perhaps a powerful congressman or a sitting judge. The fact that the firm had such a respected person available to give advice was an effective marketing tool.

Nowadays, the term “of counsel” is being used to create all sorts of relationships between attorneys and their firms. Some attorneys have gone on to other careers, perhaps teaching or working for not-for-profit community organizations, and do not want to be full-time lawyers. If their firms do not wish to lose their expertise, these part-time lawyers can arrange to be of counsel, allowing them the freedom to pursue other careers but still maintain a contact with their firms. Another use of the of counsel designation is for lateral hiring between firms. For example, suppose your firm learns that a very well-respected and talented attorney is leaving a rival firm. Your firm wants to offer this attorney a carrot but does not want to bestow full partnership status until it knows that this new attorney will work out. Offering this attorney “of counsel” status is a convenient way to test the waters, and is more prestigious for the talented attorney than merely being hired as an associate.


The other members of the legal staff are the paralegals. In many large firms, the paralegals are supervised by a paralegal manager or paralegal coordinator. While the responsibility of the paralegals is to assist the attorneys in the preparation of the clients’ work, the paralegal coordinator or manager is responsible for administering paralegal assignments. The coordinator also structures the budget for the department and helps define the direction of the paralegal department.

Some large firms offer career paths for their paralegals, which allows the paralegals a way to advance through the ranks to more and more challenging assignments. Many paralegals in large firms have even worked their way into management positions.

Non Legal Staff

Within every large law firm, there is a considerable amount of non legal or support staff. Each member of the support staff plays an important role in the overall effectiveness of the law firm and quality of its work product. Do not be misled because the partners and associates are the big “breadwinners” in the firm. Each department and every employee has a responsibility that, if done well, will separate that particular law firm from its competition.


The most obvious members of the support staff are the secretarial pool. These integral employees are leaned on heavily by the partners, associates, and paralegals. It is true that the lawyers of today have become more computer literate, thereby taking some of the routine typing and word-processing work out of the hands of the secretary. This, however, has not diminished the role of the secretary. In fact, in many situations, it has increased the responsibilities of the secretary by allowing the secretary to have a more varied and diversified role within the firm. It is not unusual for the secretary to assist the paralegal with some of the traditional paralegal responsibilities. In the litigation area, secretaries are becoming more and more familiar with court and filing procedures to the point of handling filings from beginning to end. In the corporate arena, tasks such as black lining, previously reserved for paralegals, are many times undertaken by a secretary. Some firms have created word-processing departments, which do the bulk of the heavy typing, leaving even more time for secretaries to assist in other projects. These developments have helped many secretaries to increase their skills and enhance their importance within the firm.

Office Services Department

Another example of the importance of support staff can be found in the office services department. In many firms, the office services department’s responsibilities include the copy room or department and the mail room. Depending on the size of the firm, these departments can be one and the same. The functions of these individuals, while most often behind the scenes, are invaluable to the effective lawyering within any law firm. Additionally, the office services manager is responsible for maintenance within the firm. Whenever carpeting needs to be fixed or offices need to be painted, the office services manager is responsible for interacting with the maintenance personnel to ensure that appropriate repairs and renovations are made.

The purpose of the mail room in most firms is to distribute incoming mail, ensure that outgoing mail is collected and processed, and distribute and transmit facsimiles within the firm. The copy center in a law firm has grown in importance as the utilization of paper has overwhelmed the legal community in the last 30 years. Because many litigation matters nowadays produce hundreds of thousands of pages, and deposition transcripts and trial exhibits can measure into yards and yards of paper, effective and efficient photocopying has become increasingly important within the law firm. Corporate mergers and general agreements have become ever more complex and wordy, requiring revision after revision. This necessitates an abundance of photocopying. The manager of the copy center in a large firm is a valuable member of the law firm staff.


Almost all large firms and most medium-sized firms have their own libraries. Depending on the size of the firm, the library may require a full time librarian. The librarian is responsible for cataloguing and maintaining myriad state and federal statutes, thousands of volumes of case law, treatises, periodicals, and other legal tomes that the management of the firm believes are necessary for effective lawyering. Additionally, the librarian and his or her staff is typically responsible for the coordination of an ever-growing number of electronic databases to which the law firm subscribes, such as LEXIS or West law, to name only two.

Office Administrator

Another member of the law firm staff who bears mentioning is the office manager or office administrator. This is the individual who has day-to-day oversight of the firm. The office administrator has been selected by the partners as the person who has immediate responsibility for overseeing the entire support staff, interacting with building management regarding leasing issues and the like, and imposing office procedures of an administrative nature. The legal staff in the firm leans on the office administrator to handle the daily functioning of the firm. The support staff looks to the office administrator for guidance and assistance in doing their daily activities. A good office administrator is invaluable to a law firm. His or her responsibilities are enormous, and the strength of the firm depends on the quality of the office administrator.

Information Services Director

A relatively new member of the legal community, but an increasingly important member of the staff, is the firm technician. The Information Services Director, as that individual is sometimes called, is responsible for organizing and facilitating the use of the computers within the firm. This individual’s function is to ensure that the telephones work, that the personal computers, which are increasingly appearing on each employee’s desk, can interface with each other and, in many firms, can talk to satellite offices of the same firm halfway around the world. As these local area networks (also known as LANs) and wide area networks (WANs) are installed in law firms, these firms are hiring the necessary personnel to handle the upkeep of the networks.

Depending on the size of the firm, the number and size of these support staffs will vary. Many firms will have a docketing department that is responsible for maintaining deadlines for cases handled by the firm; other firms shift this responsibility to a paralegal. Some very large firms have their own graphics departments, which create trial exhibits, blowups, and charts. Most firms have runners and file clerks on hand, to run errands and keep the enormous amounts of documents generated or received by the firm filed away in their proper places. Many larger firms have their own accounting departments, while small firms may have bookkeepers who only come in a few days a week. In any event, it is important to be aware of which of these different departments exists within your firm. Their roles will inevitably have an impact on your responsibilities as a paralegal, and your ability to function effectively will, in many instances, depend on your awareness of these individuals and your utilization of their skills. Knowing where to find assistance when you are presented with a task is oftentimes as important as having the answer yourself.

Division Of Duties In Medium And Small-Sized Firms

The general makeup of a medium or small firm is not significantly different from that of a large firm, especially on the legal side. The major difference between the large firms and the smaller firms is in the amount and type of support staff maintained by the firm. Several departments described above may not exist in a smaller environment. Many smaller firms will, for example, share a library with another firm. This will often happen when a smaller firm takes up residence in a building that also has large firms as tenants. Similarly, smaller firms may choose to outsource their Information Services personnel and even their accounting work. Some of the functions may be handled by the lawyers and the paralegals themselves. For instance, in some smaller firms, the hiring, firing, and other personnel duties may be handled by one of the partners, while administration of the firm’s web site may be handled by one of the paralegals.

In-House Legal Departments

Traditionally, the in-house legal department of a corporation is very different from that of the law firm. While law firms will typically have a multitude of attorneys and paralegals available to tackle any case, the in-house department is usually more streamlined. In past years, the in-house attorneys have performed the function of oversight coordinators, primarily responsible for supervising the outside counsel. Over the last several years, due to numerous factors, including spiraling legal costs, in-house legal departments have grown by leaps and bounds, in many cases handling a significant number of their own cases.

Large Firm Organization:

While the organizational structured displayed is not universal, most large firms incorporate the strategy shown here. The management committee is typically made up of only senior partners, but in some firms, a Chief Financial Officer or firm Business Manager may be included on the committee.

Small Firm Organization:

Most small firms will function with one partner as the firm leader. In some cases, the responsibilities of the Managing Partner will be divided among two or three name partners.

Mid-Sized Organization:

As they grow, many mid-sized firms will begin to develop new departments akin to their larger firm brethren. While there is no specific guidelines for adding these departments, the displayed chart shows a typical midsized firm.

Corporate Legal Departments:

Since a great deal of work is delegated to outside counsel, the size of many corporate legal departments differ depending on their independent corporate culture. Typically, the structure of the department will be as described, but the number of personnel can vary widely.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 168 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.