Do Not Be Underutilized as a Paralegal – Q1 2024 Facts & Findings

There are compelling questions that I ask myself about our profession, including: Are paralegals underutilized? Are they provided with adequate training, advancement, compensation, and respect? I do not want to complain about the current answers. After all, to steal a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, “Complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining.”

How can paralegals advocate for better work assignments? How can they be used in a way that maximizes their skills, furthers their careers, and adds value to their work? The best and most obvious solution is that underutilized paralegals need to embrace legal technology. Learning or advancing your legal technology abilities enables you to handle complex cases more efficiently. This saves time and money for your employer and increases team confidence in your abilities. Start by becoming an expert with the programs your firm uses or plans to use. Later in this article, there is a discussion about keeping up your knowledge base.

Many paralegals know they can do more complicated and essential work, but how do you convince others that you are ready for more responsibilities? There are multiple methods to advocate for work assignments that increase your employer’s use of and reliance on your skills, knowledge, and talents.

Some of the items to increase the value of paralegals include:

Maintaining competency in legal technology is a requirement for every paralegal. Understanding basic business concepts is necessary if you want to avoid being underutilized. The new era requires that certain concepts be added to our business acumen. Understanding how to use new tools or upgrade your skills includes understanding legal technology ethics obligations.

The big three headline grabbers are:

  1. Privacy
  2. Generative AI
  3. Cybersecurity

Resources available to understand data and technology, from the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP)1 to InfoAdvocates,2 are vast. New whitepapers, guides, webinars, and blogs are being published or produced daily.

There is currently no federal comprehensive privacy legislation. There are specific mandates for many of the fields that are serviced by law firms, such as:

  • Healthcare
  • Finances
  • Education
  • Marketing and telecommunications

The fast-moving technology changes and challenges related to ChatGPT AI have generated lots of press and chatter. The everyday press does not provide the foundation to apply the concepts under discussion. The headlines have included scary warnings, hinting that paralegal work, even jobs, may be at stake. In focusing on education, however, paralegals will see that this AI is just another tool. Staying current is a challenge, but many educational papers are available. As an example, the Federal Judicial Center has even published a report3 to introduce federal judges to artificial intelligence. The biggest issue that is addressed in the EDRM Professional Responsibility Considerations in AI for eDiscovery (EDRM AI white paper)4 is that of reusing client data.

When discussing the reasoning for the EDRM AI white paper, Dave Lewis, Project Trustee and Chief Scientific Officer of Redgrave Data, wrote:

AI programs like ChatGPT say the darndest things. So do machine learning systems that attorneys might train on client data, and it behooves them to be aware of the risks to confidentiality, privacy, and intellectual property. We hope this white paper will provide helpful guidance.

The EDRM AI white paper includes an appendix list of key terms, concepts, and issues. The statutory definition of AI used in the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act of 20205 is enlightening and instructive:

The term “artificial intelligence” means a machine-based system that can, for a given set of human-defined objectives, make predictions, recommendations or decisions influencing real or virtual environments. Artificial intelligence systems use machine and human-based inputs to

(A) perceive real and virtual environments;
(B) abstract such perceptions into models through analysis in an automated manner; and
(C) use model inference to formulate options for information or action.

According to ABA’s 2022 Legal Technology Survey Report,6 the issue of cybersecurity directly affects law firms. Not only did it report that 27 percent of those who answered the survey acknowledged that their firm experienced a data breach, but it also revealed, shockingly, that 25 percent had no knowledge regarding whether there had been a breach! The report reminds legal professionals of the need for technology competency and training that should incorporate knowledge areas as well as software.

Many people treat privacy and cybersecurity as if they were the same concept. In fact, they go hand in hand. Data privacy concerns protecting personal and other protected information, while cybersecurity is about preventing the unauthorized access, use, destruction, or alteration of data. If the security of the data is compromised, then it is highly likely that some of the personal information was leaked. Paralegals must take training about both these key issues because the protection of data is paramount and is the responsibility of all members of a law firm.

The future challenges for legal professionals will include staying current with multiple knowledge areas. David Cowen of Cowen Café rightly points out that the career ladder is gone and replaced by a jungle gym. I know there are days when the analogy of being on the monkey bars on a playground is apropos.

Another common discussion point is that we all need a knowledge base that looks like a “T” and a broad base of understanding. The typical general overview of essential business acumen must accompany an area where your knowledge is more profound! As a California litigation paralegal, my deep level is basic procedures, rules, and workflow, but I try to add new concepts to the base as
much as possible. Look at job advertisements to determine what additional knowledge you need or want.

Many others have noticed the intertwining of knowledge areas regarding data. Influencer Nick Inglis has outlined 18 areas to help bridge the gaps between disciplines. The electronic version of the InfoAdvocates Strategic Information Professional Certificate (SIPC) Guidebook is free.2 This 300-page guide covers each domain area with a clear overview followed by each core concept. The three areas in this guide cover the headline grabbers discussed earlier in this article.

Because knowledge regarding data is vital to each of us, as well as to our clients and employers, gaining an understanding of these concepts is essential to accelerating your career.

5National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act of 2020 §5002(3), Pub. L. No.116-283, 134 Stat. 4524, 15 U.S.C. §9401
7Per the 2021 Verizon Data Breach Report

Author Biography:
Procopio_Grela_Sheila Bio Photo copySheila Grela, ACP, is a seasoned litigation paralegal who obtained a paralegal certificate with honors from the ABA-approved USD Paralegal Program. Sheila has advanced her paralegal training by becoming both a Certified eDiscovery Specialist (CEDS) and an Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP®) in eDiscovery. She was chosen to participate in the Global Advisory Council for the Electronic Discovery Reference Model (EDRM) in 2020. Sheila is a fierce advocate for training, education, mentorship, and professional development for paralegals. She is heavily involved in the California Alliance of Paralegals, the San Diego Paralegal Association, and the San Diego chapter of Women in eDiscovery.