Should AG hire more paralegals?

In the months since he became governor, Jerry Brown has aggressively targeted waste in an attempt to make the state government more efficient. This includes a bill he signed last month, SB 78, designed to get state departments to more efficiently manage the money they use to get legal services from the office he used to run as the state’s attorney general from 2007 until this January.

This, in turn, raises the question of how efficient an operation he left behind. Like all state agencies, the Department of Justice has sustained significant budget cuts. Over the last three fiscal years, the AG’s office has had to reduce costs by a cumulative $110 million.

But there appears to be one cost-cutting trend in the legal industry that the AG’s office has not kept up with: hiring more paralegals. These are lower-cost employees who can do much of the support work for attorneys, including some tasks that are often carried out by attorneys.

“There has been a push, and clients have forced the push, starting in the early or mid ’90s to lower the costs of their legal bills and use as many lower-level, inexpensive people as they can,” said Tom Chase, owner of Chase Legal Professionals Inc. in Folsom.

“Paralegals are definitely part of that process,” added Chase, who is not an attorney but has managed four different law firms. He also taught a course on law firm management at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge Law School from 1989 to 2004.

The legal industry was influenced by the 1992 roll-out of the “DuPont Model.” Seeking to lower their legal costs, the chemical giant increased the number of paralegals on their legal staff from six to 40, and radically changed the ratio of attorneys to paralegals, going down to two-to-one.

According to a 2009 report by Tracy Wymer, senior research director at the Pennsylvania-based staffing firm Knoll Inc., current industry ratios generally call for no more than nine attorneys to one paralegal, though four is close to the ideal for many firms – and some have as few as two attorneys for every paralegal.

The ratio of attorneys to paralegals is often more of a “cultural” issue within a firm than just a practical matter, said Wymer when reached at his office in San Francisco. It can also involve mundane considerations such as office space, since law offices must have meeting spaces and keep huge volumes of paper records around.

“I wish there were industry standards you could say you were above or below, but that’s really not the case,” Wymer said.

As of July 1, 2010, the AG’s office had 149 legal analysts or senior legal analysts, their equivalent of paralegals, and 1,122 attorneys, according to figures from state controller John Chiang’s office. This ratio of 7.5 attorneys for every paralegal would place it within industry norms, though likely on the more top-heavy end.

These figures also cover both filled and open positions, so they may not reflect the true ratio within the AG’s operation. There are also individual units of the AG’s office that have much higher ratios. In an Oct. 4 letter to the California Medical Board, senior assistant attorney general Carlos Ramirez noted that the Health Quality Enforcement Office (HQE) in Los Angeles had three supervising attorneys general, 22 deputy attorneys general – and a single paralegal, meaning the office had a ratio of 25 to one.  

According to a spokesperson for the AG’s office, the state has a hard time competing with private law firms to hire paralegals at the approved pay rates. A legal analyst for the state makes a salary of between $46,000 to $56,000. A senior legal analyst tops out at $67,400.

But, according to 2008 figures from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, this places the state well within industry norms for the profession. The national median salary for paralegals was $46,120, though most of these people worked in areas with a lower cost of living than California. Paralegals in the federal government actually had a higher median salary, $58,540, than those in corporate firms, $55,190.

A lower salary scale than the private sector is also an issue when the AG’s office needs to hire lawyers. A beginning deputy attorney general can make as little as $56,000 annually, with the top scale going up to $94,000. With a few years of experience and a couple promotions, they can move up to $126,000, according to job vacancy data listed on the AG’s website.

Attorneys also face three years of graduate-level schooling to get a degree and student debt loads that can easily top $100,000 – putting them under pressure to make money. And they must pass a bar exam that is widely considered the nation’s hardest. In 2008, 46 percent of first-time test takers failed, the highest rate in the country. Several notable people in California political history failed their first time out, including former Stanford Law School dean Kathleen Sullivan, whose name has come up in connection with U.S. Supreme Court openings under the Obama administration, and Brown himself.

By contrast, the 33 paralegal programs in California that are recognized by the American Bar Association generally take about a year for applicants who already have a bachelor’s degree. And even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics recognizes paralegals as one of the fastest-growing jobs in the country, with openings slated to grow 28 percent between 2008 and 2018, new graduates often have a hard time getting their first job, Chase said. Paralegals aren’t usually a hot commodity in the private sector until they have some experience, he said.

There are 10 job openings currently listed on the AG’s website, but only one for an attorney and none for paralegals. The agency lists three spots for criminal supervisors in the investigative branch, and two for legal secretaries – a job that sometimes has overlap with paralegals, according to Chase.

The spokesperson for the AG also said that the litigation-heavy nature of their work limits the numbers of paralegals they can use. Many law firms do most of their work outside of court—filing real estate or tax documents, or other work that does not involved the inside of a court room.

But Chase says the law firms that hire a lot of paralegals are often the same ones that do a lot of litigation. Paralegals often sit in on depositions and summarize them, or organize exhibits for trial.

It’s not that the AG’s office is expensive compared to a comparable law firm. The Department of Justice charges $170 an hour for an attorney. Private rates for attorneys with comparable education and credentials can be significantly higher. While there’s no set industry standard, rates at many firms can easily run $225 to $300, though many firms are lower – and some are higher.

The AG’s office charges state agencies $120 for an hour of a paralegal’s time. In 2004, the rate was $132 an hour for attorneys and $91 for paralegals – meaning the hourly rate for each has grown by about a third over that time.

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