Contract paralegal service offers helping hand to law firms

Jessica Elin is trying something new: a contract paralegal service business.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a while,” Elin said. “I worked as a family law paralegal and I recognized that there are a lot of sole and small practitioners out there that can’t always afford full-time staff and they get behind or their work flow changes.”

When Elin moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago in late 2012, she decided it was time to bring her idea to fruition, and saw the city as a great place to launch the business.

“Being new to the (Grand Rapids) business community, I thought that this would be a very effective and personally and professionally satisfying way for me to learn about the Grand Rapids business community and have a cross sector of business and work opportunities.”

Still in its nascent stage, Elin has not yet named her business but has been meeting with law firms of all sizes since January to share her business model and discuss opportunities she can provide, including paralegal, project specialist and notary services.

In addition to paralegal experience, Elin has provided operations support for a Fortune 500 corporate compliance department and has co-self-published and marketed a children’s book that is available through Barnes and Noble — broadening the skill sets she can bring to the table.

Elin wants to provide a cost-effective option for legal professionals that allows them to scale up or down as needed, no matter their size. She said current service options don’t really fit the bill. She mentioned temp agencies as the most likely route an office might take but noted that an office often isn’t able to get the same temp person the next time it needs to amp up service, and it doesn’t always get someone with the experience it needs.

She noted there are other contract services she’s encountered, but none with quite the same focus or capabilities as hers.

“I thought that there was an opportunity to be a contract paralegal and contract specialist — somebody who would fill the gap between a full-time employee and a temp agency,” she said.

Elin quickly found clients in West Michigan, including angel investment group Grand Angels in Holland and a sole practitioner whose business has been growing to the point that he needed extra help without the long-term commitment of hiring an employee.

The response has been positive: Even firms Elin is not yet working with have expressed an interest or, at the very least, have expressed the feeling that the service is needed.

As the legal profession goes through some dramatic changes, a new model for paralegal services might be one solution to help keep costs down and at the same time get the professional help that’s needed.

“In this economy you need to produce in order to keep your own clients and customers happy, to build your own success rate, but if you don’t really have the capital or funds to always have the personnel that you need, this is a way of accordion-style expansion. When you need help, you get it, and when you don’t, you can maximize your own resources and have better control over your own budgets and resources.”

Elin thinks busy firms that take advantage of contract paralegal services will benefit from the impact on employee morale.

“It keeps morale up, I think, when employees know that their supervisors are looking to get them help and not just throwing everything on them because ‘oh, we’re busy right now.’”

Elin said that the flexibility her role offers is a win-win. She noted she can do the work at the firm or remotely, depending on client need. She is available for commitments of as short as a couple of hours to longer stints that last several months.

“I like the variety,” Elin said of the arrangement. “I might be working for an estate attorney today and maybe doing discovery on another case tomorrow. I’ve been doing some projects for an investment firm — they have nothing at all to do with law, they are just editorial projects, procedural manuals, things that they just need to get caught up with.”

Elin said attorneys might want to consider bringing her in for projects they keep meaning to get to but that never seem to become enough of a priority to focus on.

“I think they should consider how a service like this — whether it’s me or somebody else — how it can help organize their time beyond just the traditional thinking … in terms of doing the things that you yourself have put off. You know you need to do it — maybe it’s organizing your files, maybe its indexing some information, maybe it’s a piece of research. Maybe it’s even writing articles and marketing yourself.”

Elin noted that firms should keep in mind that attorney oversight is still required, just as it would be with any other paralegal relationship. She said one of the first conversations she has with potential clients is about any possible conflict of interest issues, since she is doing work with multiple law firms in the area.

Elin can be contacted at JLEParalegal at gmail dot com.

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