Significant change is underway in the legal industry. Technology is revolutionizing legal processes, court functions, and how many attorneys and firms work and manage cases. Judge and client expectations are evolving with new technologies too. Now is the time for paralegals to adapt to a rapidly changing legal market, not only to do their best in their current positions, but potentially expand their career.
Attorneys should also encourage the paralegals they work with to advance their technology knowledge, as well seek tech savvy paralegals to assist them with their cases. Paralegals who understand the importance of legal technology in today’s legal market are an asset to your legal team.
Here are six reasons why technology is critical to your paralegal career no matter your specialty:
- Rule Changes
Electronically stored information, more commonly referred to as ESI, was first addressed in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure decades ago. The most recent significant changes to The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) regarding ESI was in 2006, and more changes are on track for adoption in December 2015. Although I won’t go through each change to the FRCP and its impact on ESI and E-Discovery, one message is clear: courts expect attorneys to know more about ESI and discovery of electronic data than ever before. Since discovery is the phase of litigation with tasks most often delegated to paralegals, paralegals must also know more about ESI and e-Discovery to assist legal teams. Numerous state jurisdictions have also adopted rules regarding ESI. Paralegals must be aware of their obligations to ethically and professionally assist attorneys under court rules.
- Ethics and Professionalism
Many legal commentators point to one ethics amendment that shifted the legal technology conversation: the American Bar Association’s 2012 amendment to Comment 8 to Model Rule 1.1. The Model Rule that influences an attorney’s duty of competence in many states, was changed to include relevant technical knowledge to an attorney’s duty to be competent in the law and its practice. ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6 has long required attorneys to keep client information confidential, including electronic data. Several states have similar rules to Model Rule 1.1 and 1.6, but some states bar associations are going further to specify exact technical skills attorneys must have (or obtain through expert consultants) to competently represent their clients.
Two states in particular have adopted opinions related to an attorney’s duty to be knowledgeable about technology. The New Hampshire Bar Association, in Advisory Opinion #2012-13/4, specifically addressed an attorney’s duty to not only have a fundamental understanding of technology, but the regulations related to cyber security when cloud computing. California’s Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2015-193, lists nine tasks attorneys should be able to complete individually, with co-counsel, or through expert consultants, to competently represent clients. More states are developing similar, specific ethical requirements that, while directed at attorneys, may potentially apply to paralegals.
NALA or NFPA certified paralegals conduct must conform to the rules of professional responsibility for attorneys in the jurisdiction where they assist attorneys. Various states have their own specific requirements for paralegal education and competency too, in addition to attorney competency requirements. Paralegals must align themselves with the proper rules directly and indirectly governing paralegal ethics and professionalism in the jurisdictions where they assist attorneys.
- ESI Explosion
The amount of electronically stored information created each day is fueling many court rule, ethics, and professional obligation changes. The rate at which the world is creating ESI is almost incomprehensible. It is estimated that the world sends 60 billion emails daily. Some estimate that nine out of ten documents created today are electronic documents. Computers today can store 40 million pages of documents, and soon electronic devices will outnumber people. Again, since many tasks delegated to paralegals concern discovery, paralegals must obtain the technical knowledge to assist with the exponential growth of electronic data possible in every case. Processing electronic data, however, can be expensive. Paralegals should also learn to manage electronic information timely and efficiently.
- Cost & Efficiency
Cost is one of the biggest legal technology obstacles to overcome. Legal technology costs are overall lower than they were a decade ago because of more flat fee pricing and competition, but processing, storing, and searching electronic data still make up the majority of case costs. Clients are in the practice of analyzing bills like never before to keep legal costs down. Clients are unwilling to pay for time spent on inefficient processes. Since no two cases are alike, knowledge of a variety of technological tools and processes is also important to apply to a variety of circumstances. Paralegals who can efficiently utilize technology in a defensible manner, thereby reducing firm and client cost burden, are indispensable.
- Employer/Client Value
If you have spent more than a week on the job in a law firm or legal department, I don’t need to tell you that attorneys are slow to change how they practice law. Rule changes, client expectations, and pervasive electronic data demand a new legal mindset. Paralegals who are act as technology ambassadors – ready to assist with electronic data efficiently and compliant with new rules – are highly valuable to all legal teams. Position yourself now with new technical skills so when the time arrives to lend your assistance, you can help with the technology learning curve.
- Career Growth and Earnings Potential
Increasing your employer/client value can also broaden your earnings potential and career opportunities. Paralegals are breaking through prior salary and career limits with the help of technology. New opportunities for litigation paralegals to specialize in e-Discovery now exist, thereby increasing their value to employers and commanding higher salaries. Legal project management is also an emerging profession for paralegals. Firms and companies are hiring project managers with legal expertise to execute manage litigation more efficiently (and at a lower cost), especially concerning e-Discovery. The greatest earnings potential, however, may exist for paralegals who combine their legal knowledge with advanced technical skills in litigation support roles. Litigation support average salaries often exceed the top ten percent of paralegal salaries. Roles in information governance, compliance, and cyber security also present previously nonexistent opportunities to ambitious paralegals with a technical aptitude.
Now that you have read how important technology is to your paralegal career, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. Do not worry, but do not delay learning about technology any longer either.
Here are some next steps you can take right now to integrate more technology in your paralegal career:
- Be proactive and create a plan. Reading legal technology position descriptions and requirements can be helpful to learn about certifications, software, and skills to set you apart.
- Learn legal technology vocabulary.
- Volunteer to work on cases involving e-Discovery, receive training, and get education.
- Critically assess your own experience for technology skills you may not realize you are applying.
- Accept vendor offers for demos and ask questions.
- Read industry blogs and sign up for free webinars on relevant topics.
- Be willing to invest your own time and money in your career, if necessary.
- Find a mentor.