By: Johnathan Bell
DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOUR PARALEGAL CERTIFICATE OR PARALEGAL PRACTICE JUST BECAME A BIT MORE VALUABLE?
On December 4, 2019, the ABA issued a formal opinion that directly affects the value of your work. The ABA, in Formal Opinion 489, indicated that clients are not property and when an attorney moves from one firm to another or even out on their own, the old firm must allow the client to choose whether he goes with the attorney, stays with the firm, or finds new representation altogether. Further, the former firm cannot withhold resources from the client either. The ethics rules do not allow non-competition clauses in partnership or employment agreements.
How does this affect your value to a firm or attorney?
Attorneys will be encouraged to start their own firms much more frequently than before. Departing attorneys won't necessarily have to start from scratch and can afford to hire skilled paralegals when they start their new firm.
Attorneys will have the ability to negotiate higher pay to remain with the current firm. In order to keep key associates, firms will have to pay their associates more if they cannot prevent the associates from leaving with existing clients. This will directly affect the paralegals as law firms will seek to be more reliant upon paralegals than associates, due to the risks associated with their departure and the increased expense. Further, since key paralegals can exit with an attorney, compensation may increase for top paralegals as well. Either way, firms will want to keep their key personnel happier, especially their top paralegals.
Law firms will be more dependent upon paralegals for client support. One strategy to keep your clients from leaving with a key associate is to have your top paralegals work with those clients through a principal or partner. The principal or partner will need greater paralegal support to avoid relying upon associates as a client contact.
Independent paralegals have an added marketing advantage.
While it is a very delicate conversation and I do not recommend you state this directly, an independent paralegal can't walk out the door with the firm's clients. Hence, as you negotiate your relationship with a firm, this is important to know and important that its communicated, albeit, delicately.
So, celebrate the small wins. If you decide to share this ruling, tread lightly and don't upset anyone. While it helps you in some ways, it could potentially undermine the stability of a firm. Additionally, there are often raw feelings when associates leave and start their own firms. Partners may feel that the associates are stealing their clients, while the associates feel that they have earned the trust and business of those clients. Plus, since many associates make between $60K - $120K per year (about $30 - $60 per hour) and have tremendous law school debt to manage, it is very easy for them to look at the billing rates of $225 - $325 per hour as a significant pay raise. You have to find the right place and the right time to share this information if you decide to share it at all. Many attorneys are not yet aware of this opinion.
More importantly, however, just be great at what you do! Become an expert in your space and know your worth. Your value will continue to increase exponentially.
About the Author:
Johnathan Bell is an independent Foreclosure Defense and Bankruptcy paralegal serving multiple attorneys and law firms in New York and Connecticut. He is a member of the New York City Paralegal Association, and he believes paralegals are the backbone of the legal profession. Sometimes he thinks he is funny and could have made a living as a stand-up comedian. His wife disagrees.