Posts Tagged ‘time’

Distinguishing Clerical and Professional Tasks

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Most paralegals are charged with file management and other “clerical” tasks. In some small offices, even the attorneys must take on such tasks. The professional paralegals handles these tasks effectively and efficiently as part of their role in the legal team. Many paralegals are also charged with tracking and billing their time.  A recent case from the Nebraska United States Bankruptcy Court posted by deals with the relationship between the performance of clerical tasks and billing of time (among other issues). Here’s what the court has to say:

In addition to the matters discussed above, there is an issue concerning a law firm charging for secretarial or administrative functions, which, traditionally, have been treated as overhead and either not charged at all, or not charged at professional or paraprofessional rates.

There has been little guidance on this issue from courts in the Eighth Circuit. Most of the case law around the country suggests that “ministerial tasks” (typing, file organization, document preparation, searching or filing documents on PACER, etc.) performed by a professional or paraprofessional should not be allowed as a separate charge because it is part of the office overhead which should already be built into counsel’s hourly rate. See In re Dimas, LLC, 357 B.R. 563, 577 (Bankr. N.D. Calif. 2006) (“Services that are clerical in nature are not properly chargeable to the bankruptcy estate. They are not in the nature of professional services and must be absorbed by the applicant’s firm as an overhead expense.”). There is some older authority, however, for the proposition that the court should look at the “sum total” of the services rendered in determining whether a specialized service was performed which benefitted the estate, even if it was a clerical task performed by a professional. In re Interstate Restaurant Sys., Inc., 61 B.R. 945, 949 (S.D. Fla. 1986).

With regard to billing for clerical work, the Supreme Court said, in a case involving the award of attorney fees under the Civil Rights Act, that:

It has frequently been recognized in the lower courts that paralegals are capable of carrying out many tasks, under the supervision of an attorney, that might otherwise be performed by a lawyer and billed at a higher rate. Such work might include, for example, factual investigation, including locating and interviewing witnesses; assistance with depositions, interrogatories, and document production; compilation of statistical and financial data; checking legal citations; and drafting correspondence. Much such work lies in a gray area of tasks that might appropriately be performed either by an attorney or a paralegal. To the extent that fee applications under § 1988 are not permitted to bill for the work of paralegals at market rates, it would not be surprising to see a greater amount of such work performed by attorneys themselves, thus increasing the overall cost of litigation. Of course, purely clerical or secretarial tasks should not be billed at a paralegal rate, regardless of who performs them. What the court in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717 (CA5 1974), said in regard to the work of attorneys is applicable by analogy to paralegals: “It is appropriate to distinguish between legal work in the strict sense, and investigation, clerical work, compilation of facts and statistics and other work which can often be accomplished by non-lawyers but which a lawyer may do because he has no other help available. Such non-legal work may command a lesser rate. Its dollar value is not enhanced just because a lawyer does it.”

Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274, 288 n.10 (1989).

Many of the time entries in this fee application for work performed by the employees identified as paralegals appear to be, functionally, clerical. File setup, scanning, setting up appointments, would be considered, according to the authority cited above, clerical in nature and not billable. I will, therefore, discount the amount claimed as paralegal time. I suggest that in the future Mr. Skrupa, and other law firms using a similar billing system, review the functions performed by the “paralegals” and bill, or not bill, accordingly.

The court thus recognizes the value of paralegal professional services, but requires that clerical task time be built into the paralegal’s hourly rate, just as it is for the other professional on the legal team – the attorney.

A clerical task remains a clerical task whether done by a file clerk, a paralegal, or an attorney. Law office might want to take this into account when structuring the office. Since clerical tasks are not separately billable by a paralegal, it might make more sense to hire a file clerk as part of the office overhead and free up the paralegal time for professional work that can be billed separately. In The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional, I discuss delegation of clerical tasks as one aspect of paralegal time management. There I attempt to assist paralegals in making the argument for hiring persons to whom clerical tasks can be delegated. This case supports that argument.

Reaching for the ‘One File’ Ideal – UPDATED

Friday, December 4th, 2009

My “One File at a Time” post is one of the most popular since I started this blog. It has drawn a larger than normal number of views over the last couple of days apparently due to a reference to it in The Paralegal Mentor‘s most recent newsletter in which Vicki Voisin questions asks “Is ‘One File at a Time’ Realistic?” in her feature article. Vicki recognizes that for a working paralegal One File at a Time is a, perhaps unreachable, ideal but advocates taking steps that will bring that ideal closer to reality. Of the ten tips she offers my favorite is:

5. Become an instant decision maker. When an assignment, a document or a file comes into your office, decide immediately how to deal with it. Never place it in the ‘put it here for now’ pile. That pile will just continue to grow.

If whatever you’ve been given to do won’t take long, take care of it right then and there. You’ve already been interrupted so you might as well complete the task before you go back to your work. If you don’t need to do it immediately, put it away, or place it in the incline file sorter.

All of her suggestions are good, so check out the article in her newsletter.

UPDATE: Vicki’s entire article is now available as a post on her blog.

Six Easy and Essential Steps for Meeting Deadlines

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

 Deadlines. Dreaded deadlines. Deadly deadlines. Damn deadlines. We could spend the day repeating the many alliterative references for deadlines. 

Deadlines seem to run directly opposite to our efforts to manage our work. Most of them are imposed by someone else – a court, a client, a bank, a boss. We have little or no control over them.  You can control how you manage them and plan for meeting them.

  1. Make a list of the component parts necessary to meet your goal.   
  2. Record essential time requirements on your calendar.  Record not just the dates on which you need to have accomplished the goal, but also the dates on which each essential component must be accomplished. 
  3. Make a plan for accomplishing each component on your list.   If necessary, break these tasks down into smaller components with their own plan.
  4. Record the date on which you must START each part of your plan in order to complete it on time. Build in time for the unexpected. 
  5. Establish reminders for each for each start and end date.  It’s not enough to mark the calendar. We all need “ticklers” to remind us as we go along. In fact, we sometimes become complacent about deadlines because they are on the calendar.  
  6. Review your entire calendar and integrate the new plan into the overall management of your work. Look at events before, during and after the deadline.  If the new event will chew up time you had planned to use completing a task for meeting another deadline, you may need to change one or both plans. 

Tracking Time for Non-Client and Non-paralegal Work – A Follow Up to “Paralegals: An Asset to Your Team”

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

It is, of course, necessary to keep time records for all of your billable time. There are also reasons for you to track your time that are more practical to you. They involve non-billable time, that is, time not necessarily spent on client work or time spent on non-paralegal (and therefore non-billable) tasks.

One reason is that it allows you to advocate for yourself as an asset to the legal team and the law office. Time management often entails delegating tasks that may be better handled by someone with less skill than you. This may require hiring another full or part-time staff member. Convincing your attorney or office manager that this was the right thing to do may require some initiative on your part. Tracking your time may very well give you the ammunition you need.

Really, did you get your paralegal degree to spend time filing?  That alone is enough reason for you to track the time. But we’re not done yet.

A Job Description Sheet that includes estimates of the amount of time you spend doing particular tasks is a good starting point for time management. From that point you can move on to making plans and schedules to structure and manage time in a way that makes sense given the work you do.  However, the plans and schedules should not be matter of guess work.

The guess work is quite educated because you have a good grasp of your job and what it entails. After all, you do the job day in and day out. However, really effective time management requires that you know how much time it takes to do a task. You can’t plan an allotted amount of time for filing each week if you don’t know how much time you actually spend filing each week.

Finally, it’s your time. You can gain a great deal of satisfaction from knowing how you are using it and knowing you are managing it well.

Paralegals: An Asset to Your Team

Monday, August 10th, 2009

The North Carolina Bar Association Paralegal Division has produced a nifty brochure entitled, “Paralegals: An Asset to Your Team.” In essence itemized some of the many tasks paralegals can perform as a member of the legal team. The tasks are listed separately for each area of law. For example, its Criminal Law section includes:

• Communicate with clients, court officials, attorneys, private
investigators, law enforcement officials
• Interview witnesses
• Investigate facts related to case
• Identify and interview expert witnesses
• Obtain accident reports, police reports, arrest records, SBI
reports, AIR reports, CCBI reports, driving records, tax
records, medical records and insurance information
• Draft documents and pleadings
• Schedule appointments, mediations, arbitrations and substance
abuse assessments
• Prepare subpoenas for witnesses
• Assist in preparations for trial, including preparation of exhibits
• Prepare for depositions and mediations
• Assist at trial
• Gather information for plea bargain
• Assist with post-trial briefs, motions and appeal documents
• Communicate with Parole Board and Work with parole officers

The brochure does not purport to be a complete listing, but it does make a general introductory statement that recognizes the importance of paralegals to the legal profession:

Since it began in the 1960’s, the paralegal profession has evolved into much more than a step to law school. Paralegals continue to assume a more comprehensive role in providing legal services to clients by performing a wide range of tasks that contribute to cost-effective, high-quality legal services for clients. The professional relationship  between an attorney and a paralegal can be an asset to a law firm of any size.

This brochure is not intended to be an exhaustive list of tasks a paralegal is capable of performing. Rather, it is intended to guide lawyers and paralegals in designing and implementing a team concept for providing legal services to clients more efficiently, thus increasing productivity and profit for the firm.

This is important for a couple of reasons. One is the focus on the attorney and paralegal as a team rather than just an attorney and staff. (I argue elsewhere that in order for the legal team to be complete it must include the client.) The second is the phrase “thus increasing productivity and profit for the firm. Many times both the lawyers and the paralegals lose track of the real economic contribution of the paralegal.  That contribution increases as the paralegal learns to manage time, files, dockets and clients efficiently and effectively. That contribution can also be measured and quantified. Finally the economic reality can be used to convince attorneys to treat their paralegals as professionals and to maximize the opportunities for the paralegal to do what they do best.

Professionalism Requires Time Management

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Time is the mainstay and main product of a law office. The importance of time management rests not only in its monetary value. Managing your time and helping you attorney manage time not only increases productivity and efficiency, but also increases accuracy and job satisfaction. It also reduces ethical and malpractice complaints. However, many people do not have a clear understanding of what it means to manage time. The effective, empowered paralegal knows how to organize, protect, and track time, making time theirs rather than belonging to the time demands of the job.