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Exactly Who's in that Law Office?

Have you ever passed by a law firm or legal office and wondered, "Who exactly is in there?" Or, maybe you've decided to hire an attorney to settle a legal problem. You may be surprised that, more often than not, there are people other than a single attorney at work in that legal office.

The Players

Depending on the size of the law practice, there may a one or two or even dozens of people you'll see in a law office. You may not see them in every single office across the country, but more often than not you'll see at least one of these key players:

Lawyers

Of course, there's a lawyer in a law firm or office. But, there may be more than just the one you've talked to on the telephone and decided to hire. For example:

  • In a small law firm, your attorney may have one or more "partners." They're attorneys, too, with their own clients. They may practice the same type of law as your attorney, or something completely different. It may look as though the partners work alone, and for the most part they do, but they also help and give each other advice when it's needed
  • In a larger firm, you may see signs on doors that say "partner" or "senior partner." Usually, these are the attorneys that have been with the law firm for several years. If your attorney doesn't have a sign on his door, he's probably an "associate" attorney - someone who's working his way up to "partner" status

The attorney is your problem-solver. She's the one who decides how best to handle your case, who to sue, how much money to sue for, and dozens of other things related to your case.

Legal Assistants

Legal assistants or "paralegals" are the ones who make the law office work. In fact, their work is so valued and appreciated that March 26 is national "Legal Assistants Day." Most state and local bar associations celebrate that Day or have their own day of appreciation set-aside.

Legal assistants perform dozens of jobs and tasks so your attorney can work more efficiently on your case - and at a lower cost to you! For instance, if your attorney charges $100 per hour, do you want to pay for the time he spends typing a letter or walking to the courthouse to file a document?

There's no way to list every task a paralegal may be asked to do, but some of them include:

  • Interviewing you to get all of the facts of your case
  • Draft legal documents connected to your case, such as complaints, motions, and contracts
  • Perform research on your case to help the attorney determine the best way to handle your case, who to file the lawsuit against, and what to sue for exactly, such as money damages for a personal injury, or to have some property returned to you, for example
  • File documents at the courthouse
  • Take notes at trial and make sure your attorney has everything she needs with her in court
  • Keep your file organized and up-to-date with legal documents filed by the other side and other documents connected to the case
  • Keep you up-to-date on the status of your case, either by writing you letters or talking to you on the phone

Paralegals aren't attorneys, so they can't give you legal advice, set the amount of legal fees you'll be charged, or represent you in court. In many states they must have special education and training. Also, while a legal assistant might draft a legal document or letter connected to your case, it's almost always reviewed by your attorney to make sure it's accurate.

Secretary or Receptionist

Your attorney may have a secretary or receptionist to answer the telephone, take care of in-coming and out-going mail, schedule appointments and meetings and keep the attorney on that schedule. In some law offices, a paralegal may take on these duties in addition to his other tasks.

Clerks

Some legal offices hire law school students for part of the year - usually during the summer law school break. These "clerks" do a lot of the same things as paralegals. They're in the law office to "learn the ropes" of practicing law, usually with the hopes of landing a job at that law office after they graduate from school.

Like paralegals, clerks are paid by the law office or firm - not directly by you in the form of attorney's fees. This way you don't get charged "attorney rates" for work done on your case by a clerk.

As you can see, many times when you hire an attorney you're actually hiring a team of people to help with your legal problem. 

Questions For Your Attorney

  • If you don't have a paralegal, will you charge me your full-rate for doing work normally performed by a paralegal?
  • Are things I discuss with your paralegal are protected by the attorney-client privilege?
  • Your new paralegal used to work for the law firm that represented my wife in our divorce. Can I trust her?
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