A law office typically has many employees in addition to the lawyers. Knowing who these people are and what they do may help you to be a more informed client and make your lawyer's representation more efficient. Typically, the law office hierarchy can include any of the following people:
- Partners: People commonly refer to the owners of a law firm as being the "partners." Partners are usually the most experienced lawyers in a firm and, consequently, they charge the highest fees.
- Associates: Lawyers who are employed by a firm but who aren't owners are usually called "associates." Generally, associates can be very good lawyers, but they typically have less experience than the partners of the firm. Although it varies from firm to firm, associates may have to work for perhaps three to 10 years before they are considered for partnership. Given their experience, associates tend to bill at lower rates than partners.
- Contract Lawyers: A firm will sometimes hire outside lawyers as independent contractors to do part-time work. The firm will usually pay a contract lawyer on an hourly basis and then bill out his or her time at a higher rate in order to cover overhead costs and hopefully make a profit.
- "Of Counsel" Lawyers: Many firms will also develop an affiliation with one or more lawyers under an "of counsel" arrangement. Such an arrangement is oftentimes hard to define, but it usually is something more than a part-time contracting relationship. For example, a lawyer who is quasi-retired may continue a relationship with his or her firm on an "of counsel" basis rather than being a partner.
- Law Clerks: It has been a tradition for as long as there have been lawyers to have law students clerk for firms while they are going to law school. They will do legal research and otherwise assist lawyers in preparing cases and working on other law-related matters. Hiring a law clerk is one way for a firm to recruit new lawyers.
- Paralegals: A paralegal is someone who has legal training but who is not a lawyer. Paralegals can serve a very important role in a law firm by providing critical support to lawyers when they are working on cases. In many instances, paralegals can have a practical working knowledge of the law that can make them more valuable to a law firm than a new associate. They are able to work under the supervision of a lawyer on the detail work that has to be done on every case but that cannot justify the high billing rates of a lawyer. Paralegals typically bill at rates that are probably half of what a lawyer charges.
- Legal Assistants: This is really a catchall term that is sometimes used by law firms to describe anyone in a law office who assists in working on legal matters. It may include paralegals, legal secretaries, and other support staff.
- Legal Secretaries: Every lawyer is burdened with an endless barrage of administrative details and procedural requirements that are a part of practicing law. These duties and requirements can be a huge distraction for a lawyer who doesn't have a competent legal secretary to organize and assist with the day-to-day affairs of his or her practice. Part of the process of hiring a lawyer may even include an assessment of whether he or she has a good legal secretary.
- Receptionists: A firm of any size will have a legal receptionist. Commentators will tell you that the receptionist is the most important person in the office, as he or she is the firm's initial contact with the outside world.
- Investigators: Depending on the type of law they practice, some law firms will hire their own investigators who investigate background facts on a case.
- Administrative Personnel: Larger law firms will have their own administrative personnel to run the internal operations of the firm. While administrative staff generally don't charge for their services, they do constitute an overhead cost that is ultimately reflected in billing rates. Administrative staff may include accountants, bookkeepers, librarians, billing and accounts receivable personnel and human resources personnel.
- Marketing Directors: Responsible for creating a positive image for their law firms, the goal is to attract new clients and to retain existing ones.
- Other Personnel: Many law firms will have runners, part-time clerical help and other staff members to perform certain functions of the law office. The larger the law office, the more likely you will find such personnel on staff.
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