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Smith Freed & Eberhard Featured in the Portland Business Journal: Flood of e-documents boosts demand for paralegals

Northwest law firms have hung out help-wanted signs.

The demand for litigation support personnel –– an emerging field where the law and technology overlap — is running strong. Northwest firms are hiring to keep up with demand that stems from fast-growing litigation practices and the proliferation of digital documents and communication in every area of law.

“Paralegals are the unsung heroes of law firms –– they’re responsible for taking large groups of documents and narrowing it down to a relevant group of documents,” said Jeff Eberhard, managing partner in Portland-based litigation firm Smith Freed & Eberhard PC. These employees are constantly making decisions on which documents in a digital database are relevant to the case.

Litigation support hiring among recruiting firm Robert Half Legal clients increased well in excess of double digits in terms of percentage growth between 2010 and 2011, said Tammy Gibson, division director for Robert Half Legal in Seattle.

So far, it’s more of the same for 2012, “but still a dramatic increase over last year,” Gibson said.

That jibes with a national survey released by The Cowen Group, a New York-based litigation support staffing firm. They survey asked 22 firms with headquarters throughout the country about their litigation support hiring plans. More than half — 57 percent — anticipate hiring litigation support staff in 2012 with an average growth rate of 13.7 percent.

Smith Freed has hired a couple of paralegals recently for work on cases with plenty of documents, such as construction defect and product liability claims, Eberhard said. With today’s technology, it’s less a matter of how many paralegals are at work and more a matter of how good they are.

Good database skills are essential, although, with some search software, the databases aren’t that hard to sift through, he said.

Apples-to-apples comparisons of litigation support hiring can be challenging because different firms use different terminology, said Jeff Frank, chair of the litigation practice with the law firm of Foster Pepper PLLC in Seattle.

The titles and duties — legal secretaries, legal assistants and paralegals — vary from firm to firm. One firm’s legal secretary may be another firm’s legal assistant and one firm’s legal assistant may be another firm’s paralegal. Today, these hires increasingly fall under the heading of litigation support. While litigation support is not a new role, the skills needed to do the job in the age of electronic discovery have changed and firms increasingly view litigation support as a distinct profession.

The job also is a ticket to ride for anyone who can juggle the demands of a hybrid profession requiring the courtroom savvy of a paralegal and the technical skill of a database administrator.

“There’s definitely a national trend of increased hiring, increased spending and increased opportunities in litigation support,” Domeyer said.

Frank agrees, saying demand for litigation support is growing faster than the demand for traditional legal assistants/paralegals.

“When you get a good one, you don’t want to let them go, that’s for sure,” he said.

Foster Pepper expects to hire one or two litigation support specialists during the coming year, but additional hires tell only part of the story. As openings in existing positions have occurred, the firm has made a point of hiring replacements with litigation support capabilities, said Frank.

The Northwest law firm Lane Powell PC also expects to add more people with litigation support skills this year, depending on how many additional attorneys it brings on board, said Shevette Floyd, manager of legal support staff. “We want to ensure we have that skill set in-house so we don’t have to outsource (very much),” she said.

Although firms aren’t eliminating outside vendors, the growing demand for litigation support makes it cost-effective for firms to bring more work in-house, creating additional billable hours while saving clients money by eliminating the middleman.

When it comes to hiring paralegals or legal assistants, law firms clearly want somebody with experience in dealing with large databases, said Anneke Haslett, a senior recruiter with Portland-based staffing firm Legal Northwest. It doesn’t matter so much what type of database the person has worked with before – law firms know they can teach a person how to deal with different types of databases as long as the person has done it once before.

Part of the litigation support boom has to do with an improving economy. Law firms are busier now and litigation is one of their fast-growing practice areas.

Haslett said that late last year she was asked to provide five paralegals for one project, a type of request she hadn’t seen for a few years.

But the biggest driver of demand is the proliferation of digital documents and communication. One of the primary duties of a paralegal/legal assistant is to organize, review and analyze discovery materials.

In the old days, discovery materials would arrive in boxes. Now they come on hard drives full of digital documents, but also packed with emails, Tweets and Facebook posts, creating an avalanche of digital records that is far greater and more complex than the paper files of the past.

“If you’re not up to speed on e-discovery … you can’t compete for the kind of litigation cases everyone wants to get,” said Erle Cohen, chief operating officer with the Northwest law firm of Garvey Schubert Barer. “In our case, our paralegals wear dual hats and have morphed into the technical role.”

Garvey Schubert Barer recently added a contract position and may add one or two permanent positions before the year is over, said Cohen.

The full version of the article can be found on the Portland Business Journal’s website.

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