Managing legal costs, services
Government cost-cutting efforts have long been focused on the health arena, giving rise to managed care and encompassing techniques such as preferred providers, gatekeeping and physician and bill review. With many municipalities reporting greater control over their medical costs, it has taken only a short time for officials to begin applying managed care principles to other provider services.
In Colorado Springs, for example, City Attorney Jim Colvin is exploring ways to expand legal services while, at the same time, maintaining quality and saving money. He believes increased use of paralegals will improve the availability of attorneys and keep legal costs in check.
“There are a lot of areas where it is a waste of time and money to use lawyers,” he says. “These are areas where you need to exercise judgment and discretion, but you don’t need to be a lawyer.”
The Colorado Springs city attorney’s office consists of 19 attorneys and 21 support staffers, including four paralegals, overseeing legal issues for the city of 290,000 residents. Colvin predicts the work load will increase and wants to “hire more paralegals, not attorneys, to handle that work.”
He believes paralegals are qualified to work in areas where they have typically been overlooked. For example, “We currently let law students handle pre-trial, why not highly-qualified paralegals?” he asks. The paralegals would act within the bounds set by the city attorney, freeing attorneys to focus on issues requiring greater use of their legal knowledge.
A paralegal education does not teach law school basics but rather the practical aspects of handling legal documents, i.e., identifying legal issues; gathering information regarding regulations, laws and legal precedents; and document drafting. Within municipal government, there is a wide range of positions that require an understanding of legal and regulatory systems but do not require the attention of an attorney. For example, loan documentation, real estate closings, insurance claims and investigations and environmental compliancecan be handled competently by a paralegal.
In addition to using paralegals in pre-trial and documentation roles, Colvin favors the use of lawyer-paralegal pairings to handle more specialized requirements. For example, in Colorado Springs, the city attorney’s office includes a litigation team, a corporate team, a utility team, a prosecution team and the headquarters or core team. “It’s somewhat like a moveable amoeba, where all the teams touch and interconnect,” Colvin says. “We can spin off little teams to deal with special issues.”
Colvin plans to hire a paralegal in the city’s utilities office next year, and he is also considering options for their use in other departments. “The land office, which deals with the acquisition and sale of city property, could and should be run by a paralegal,” he says. “The police department chief should have paralegal support at his disposal … to keep up to date with issues, proceedings, case law and changing laws and regulations.
One of the most vivid illustrations of the paralegal’s value is in the area of computer research, says Colvin. “One hour of computerized research is roughly equal to nine to 10 hours in the law library. A paralegal who has specialized in computerized research is at least twice as efficient as an attorney on the computer. That is going to save lawyer time and cost and cut in half your computer expense,” he says.
Like Colorado Springs, governments and businesses nationwide are beginning to draw on the skills of paralegals to help minimize their legal costs. Colvin’s experience suggests that paralegals are a cost-effective means, of improving efficiency without sacrificing expertise.