The paralegal: backbone of the legal department

Some time ago, Legadex organised the third Paralegal Day with Stichting Beroepsopleiding Paralegals, this time at the Rode Hoed cultural debate centre in Amsterdam. If there was one conclusion that could be drawn from the event, it was that the term ‘paralegal’ no longer adequately covers the associated range of duties; with this in mind, the new term ‘pluralegal’ was cautiously put forward as a replacement.

Text Michiel Rohlof Photos Elodie Burrillon

The new generation of paralegals consists of multi-talented individuals whose understanding of key corporate information, process-led working and strong affinity with IT constitutes the backbone of law firms and corporate legal departments. In other words, the paralegal profession is clearly coming of age in the Netherlands. “So much so, that the term 'paralegal' is really no longer adequate,” according to Luc van Daele (Legadex).

These days, many Dutch colleges of higher professional education now offer qualifications in law. And in the past decade, more or less parallel to this development.

Legadex has been taking specific steps to introduce the concept of paralegals to its clients. Before this, paralegals in the Netherlands were drawn mainly from ambitious secretarial staff who wanted to move up the career ladder and experienced lawyers who wanted to take a step back. This has fundamentally changed in recent years. Paralegals are now increasingly becoming the backbone of legal departments, and their detailed knowledge of legal tech and process management tend to give them a head start on many lawyers.

The rise of legal tech is now rapidly changing the face of the legal sector. At the press of a button, clients will soon be able to call up advice for which they currently pay premium prices. This commoditisation will put growing pressure on the business model of traditionally trained lawyers. Corporate legal departments are increasingly looking for staff with IT and work process-related skills, disciplines that rarely (if ever) feature in the training of corporate lawyers and attorneys but are one of the core competences of a paralegal.

“Demand for paralegals is skyrocketing,” Van Daele confirms. “For some time now, general counsels have understood the value they add to their legal teams. Law firms have taken longer to come round, but they too are now making more and more use of paralegals. Over the past two years, nearly every major law firm has been to see us to ask how to integrate paralegals into their own organisation. The traditional view of paralegals as legal juniors who are saddled with the donkeywork is rapidly outdating.”

The professional training course for paralegals, which has been offered by Stichting Beroepsopleiding Paralegals and Legadex since 2010, clearly reflects the core competences of a paralegal in its curriculum. They include mastery of legal software, project management, personal effectiveness, legal business English, legal entity management, contracting and contract management, management of intellectual property and presentational skills.

Large dose of IT
Over the next few years, paralegals will play a vital role in the transition to a smart, efficient legal service, chiefly through their knowledge of IT and legal tech, subjects that colleges of higher education are now increasingly making part of their own curriculum. Van Daele describes the paralegal as a process-based lawyer with a sound basic legal knowledge coupled with a large dose of IT and strong organisational and analytical skills. He agrees that knowledge of IT is what makes the difference. “After all, many of the services Legadex is currently rolling out are based on the supply of legal information, such as the creation of virtual datarooms and due diligence for M&A transactions, and corporate housekeeping and contract management for corporate legal departments. All these activities frequently require the processing and analysis of large volumes of data. Legadex increasingly uses artificial intelligence to support these processes, and this presents the ‘new-style' paralegal with an interesting challenge.”

New gold
“Smart software and artificial intelligence can save you a lot of work, but you need someone with both a grounding in the law and technical knowledge to guide you through them. A role for which the paralegal is perfectly equipped,” says Van Daele. Legadex uses artificial intelligence, for example, in its Review Robot, which extracts useful information from extensive datasets. The results are checked by paralegals, who draw conclusions that companies can use to further improve their corporate housekeeping, contract management, M&A or privacy policy. Van Daele: “Data is referred to as the new gold. This emphasises the growing appreciation of paralegals, whose tech-savviness will soon make them indispensable. The corporate lawyers we speak to already understand that a close-knit team of paralegals and legal specialists is far more effective than a team consisting of traditional lawyers alone.”

Changing legal reality
A data-based approach is one of the core competences of a paralegal, and this will come into its own in the next few years as more and more companies and law firms – and judicial authorities – look at ways to apply artificial intelligence. Van Daele: “People have really woken up to the importance of legal tech. It's fascinating to see that it's no longer the core professions of attorney or company lawyer that are now in the spotlight, but roles that were once regarded as ancillary, such as paralegals. The same trend is visible in the medical sector, where over the next few years artificial intelligence will take over a lot of the work that is now performed by doctors and will increase demand for IT-savvy professionals with a basic grounding in medicine. Developments in the legal sector are now moving so fast that it's no longer sensible to work based on a traditional market approach, since companies are now demanding solutions that conventional lawyers can't always deliver. In that respect, paralegals are the future, in that they are much better equipped to respond to the legal reality that will evolve in the coming years. We at Legadex are keen to help shape that reality.”

Paralegals are the future. They are much better equipped to respond to the legal reality that will evolve in the coming years