They hold various titles for their daily roles in the practice of law: paralegal, legal secretary, paraprofessional, law clerk, project assistant, docketing clerk, research assistant, and the list is ever expanding. Regardless of their title, members of law firm support staff serve a critical role in the daily practice of law. Their work, when performed with proper guidance and supervision, not only keeps a legal practice running but also helps to mitigate and avoid legal malpractice claims. Over the entire span of a client representation, law firm support staff is critical to supporting the development and maintenance of professional attorney-client relationships.
Notably, support staff has a serious impact on professional liability exposure. Data from the American Bar Association’s Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims shows that administrative errors (procrastination in performance; lost file, document or evidence; failure to calendar properly; clerical error; failure to file document – no deadline; failure to react to calendar) leading to malpractice claims peaked in the 2011 study at 30.13% of total errors claimed. In the 2015 study, however, the administrative errors had decreased to a more typical 23.15%.
Although no known specific cause was identified for the uptick in legal malpractice claims related to alleged administrative errors, it may have been related to the economic downturn. As attorneys adapted their law practices to survive the economic downturn, many ventured into new areas of practice bringing their law firm support staff with them. Without proper guidance and supervision, and lacking a mentor to address uncertainties about the new area of practice, errors were made related to proper filing of documents, clerical errors, failure to file documents among other issues, which involved steps completed by support staff. As the legal community recovered from the economic downturn, legal malpractice claims based on administrative errors returned to customary historical numbers, but still remained in the double digits. Thus, opportunities exist throughout all stages of the client representation for support staff to more effectively support law firm operations and thus reduce the risk of a professional liability claim.