Asked & Answered: Teresa Garber on Planning for the Future of Legal Support Professionals

 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
Teresa M. Garber is president of NALS of Michigan, the association for legal professionals, and a legal assistant at Varnum LLP in Grand Rapids for three trial attorneys. She believes the days of billable rates as we knew them are gone, and instead, clients are looking for expert legal service at a good price. She talked to The Legal News about the changing culture in the typical law office today.
Mathis: What changes are happening now in law offices that affect the immediate future of legal support professionals?
Garber: The stereotypical roles are changing. The term legal secretary is being replaced with legal assistant, and they do more than just type, answer phones, and keep up on filing. They are being asked to be experts in their area of practice, know court rules and procedures—sometimes better than attorneys—and be versed in different areas of technology. Legal assistants are being tasked with drafting some documents, proofreading, conducting UCC searches, even client intake. 
Paralegals are becoming more and more document managers. They are being asked to understand different types of document management software—such as Summation, Relativity—in order to manage documents online instead of dealing with boxes and boxes of paper. Paralegals are using these documents to build timelines and search for smoking guns. 
Mathis: You say it’s a “dog-eat-dog” world out there. Is that as sobering as it sounds?
Garber: It is daunting. Thanks to the recession, many people who lost their jobs several years ago went back to school, and paralegal studies was a popular major. However, there are so many people competing against each other for not a lot of jobs. You have to be willing to make some sacrifices, such as where you live and work, or accept other positions in law offices to get your foot in the door. You also need to demonstrate why you are better than someone else. Law firms want people who can take initiative and do not need a lot of micromanaging. In a nutshell, they’re looking for experience.
Mathis: Is technology putting legal support professionals out of work?
Garber: Not necessarily, but it is changing how they operate. Stories you hear in the news about layoffs of legal support professionals are due to overstaffing. Law firms were growing at a fantastic rate until the recession. All law firms took a hit, no matter how large or small. One of the first responses was to look at how technology could reduce overhead.
What you are seeing is legal support staff being asked to take on more roles. For example, you may have someone who does a lot of electronic billing for an attorney’s clients. That person may work as a legal assistant, but now also works in the accounting department preparing all electronic billing for the firm. You may have an assistant who is considered the technology guru of the department. That person may become a trainer to the entire firm as well. 
Also, you are seeing the roles of legal assistant and paralegal merging. Paralegals need to be prepared to do typing and copying and filing, and legal assistants need to understand how to do people searches and drafting some documents and managing paper. The powers that be like to tell support staff that technology makes their jobs easier. While that is somewhat true, technology actually creates an opportunity for staff to take on more work. If you can’t keep up and adapt, your time with that firm may be limited.
Mathis: What would you say to an attorney today who needs to hire a paralegal or legal assistant?
Garber: Do not think that you can do without good legal support staff. Yes, technology has made things easier to access, but there is still a lot legal support staff can provide. Paralegals can manage cases that are very document intensive or interview witnesses for cases that have dozens. Legal assistants can proofread and provide insight into various courts. 
I work for an attorney who has been practicing for only a couple of years, and he wasn’t sure what to do with me when he started at my firm. Now, he keeps me hopping. He has me proofreading and organizing documents and doing court filings. He recognized the value of using legal support professionals. It frees him up to do other billable work, and clients love the lower billable rate that legal support staff provides.
Mathis: What would you say to someone considering going to college to become a paralegal? Is it still a good time to do so? Some studies show there are law school graduates stepping into that role because they can’t find work as lawyers.
Garber: Law firms are looking for experience, be it from attorneys or legal support staff. You must be willing to consider moving to a different market if necessary. Also, just having a bachelor’s degree is not enough. I suggest that all paralegal students join a professional organization such as NALS, be active members of that association, and obtain a nationally recognized certification. Also, paralegals should not look at the term legal secretary as a four-letter word. You gain valuable insight and experience as a legal secretary/assistant. It gives you a chance to shine in your firm and maybe be promoted. 
Mathis: What are the most common complaints you hear from legal support professionals about their bosses?
Garber: Lack of communication is the biggest. You see attorneys talking to each other, but not providing any information to their support staff. While we certainly do not need to know each and every movement of your day, we need to know your schedule because someone who outranks you is always looking for you, and that attorney does not like hearing “I don't know.” 
We also need to know the status of your cases. A lot gets missed with e-mail. However, there have been plenty of times when a senior attorney asks me something on a case, and I simply do not have the answer. When that happens, it’s not me who gets yelled at.
Mathis: Turnabout is fair play. What are the most common complaints you hear from attorneys about their support staff?
Garber: Lack of initiative. Attorneys want their staff to be active in their work and to take initiative to learn more about the case and think ahead about what needs to be done. It shows the staff cares about their job and their role in the attorney’s success. They also want professional staff that put the firm first while they are at work. They want experts whom they can rely on and who don’t necessarily believe that as soon as the lunch bell or 5:00 whistle blows that it’s time to leave. Attorneys want us to care.
Mathis: Why do you encourage legal professionals to get involved in NALS?
Garber: NALS provides CLE at all levels of the association (national, state, and local). We offer ABA-recognized certifications: the PLS (Professional Legal Secretary) and PP (Professional Paralegal), as well as a Specialty Certificate for the areas of litigation/civil law, corporate law, and estate planning/family law. The networking is excellent. NALS members are quick to assist other members with everything from finding locations to hold depositions to explaining court procedures in their area. Our membership is comprised of legal assistants and paralegals, which, to me, demonstrates we are all on the same team and promoting the same interests: providing top-notch professional development to all in the legal support community.
Mathis: What will be some of the highlights of the NALS of Michigan 53rd annual Meeting and Education Conference on Mackinac Island May 1-4? How do members sign up?
Garber: There will be plenty of opportunity for networking with other NALS members, vendors, and speakers. May 2 is a CLE day, and we will be offering tracks on immigration, litigation, ethics, and more. May 3 is our business meeting. We will be voting for the 2014-2015 officers. It is a great way to see how our association works. Also, we will be recognizing those who have recently achieved their NALS certifications. A registration form is available on our Web site: