In a high-growth in-house environment, when time becomes such a blocker that you need to expand your legal team, what kind of hire should you go for? In this series, we look at the different options, and share the insights of real-life tech GCs on why they chose the role profile they did.
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A person training in subsidiary legal matters but not fully qualified as a lawyer.
Rohan Paramesh, VP Head of Legal, Habito
What are the specific skills and qualities that a paralegal brings to the business?
I wanted to hire a strong generalist, but without going to town on budget before there was a clear and demonstrable business need for a new recruit with more specific experience. I was, though, looking for someone with experience in a dynamic in-house environment. But the biggest quality I was looking for was enthusiasm and a proactive approach: that ability to learn quickly and get stuck in.
Hiring a paralegal, I was accepting of the fact that I’d need to invest substantial time to train them and bring them up to speed on how the business works. That was going to be needed from day one, and that’s something to bear in mind - so if you’re willing to put that time in, it’s a great starting point, because it ensures that your hire has a proper understanding of the business and a diverse set of work they can help with. The great advantage for the paralegal in that position is the amount of headroom they’ve got to grow into - their working life becomes an environment that rewards initiative, where their willingness to take stuff off your plate is helpful and warmly welcomed. They get lots of exposure to interesting work and, in time, increasing levels of responsibility, which is a big upside.
There are many paralegals with that type of in-house experience, although I was keen to find out about the candidates’ mindset and approach to new challenges. We recruited directly rather than through agencies, and we had a huge volume of applications. If you do that, you need to be aware of the time it takes to do all the screening, carefully reviewing a vast quantity of CVs and then doing the telephone screening, and so on. But there were plenty of appropriate candidates which is great - they weren’t all necessarily from tech or fintech startup backgrounds, though the candidate we hired had just spent a year at Google which was a big plus.
What are the advantages of a paralegal as opposed to other types of legal hire?
Budget is a factor, and in my case there was an element of me taking a realistic approach: a budget request at paralegal level is more likely to be approved and, in my view, was what was needed at the time. I think, as a hiring manager and leader of a function within the business, it is important to always understand and build a proper and credible business case in support of any proposed hiring - does that role make sense and add value to the business as a whole?
"A budget request at paralegal level is more likely to be approved and, in my view, it was what was needed at the time"
Also, taking on any new recruits is really serious, in terms of making sure you don’t mis-sell the opportunity, aligning on growth and development objectives, maintaining a good balance of work, and so on. if you don’t think you and the function can offer a really good trajectory for a more experienced lawyer and don’t genuinely have that need at that particular point in time, then think very carefully about making a headcount request.
Ask yourself if you’d be happy joining at, for example, 5-year PQE, knowing what you know of the legal team’s day-to-day work and the workload ready and waiting for the new recruit. Pitching a role at paralegal level was perfect for us at that point in time and we were lucky to get such a good one!
And some potential disadvantages?
Whether or not you see any disadvantages in choosing a paralegal depends on the particular need you have when you’re looking to hire. There are obvious factual differences between a paralegal and other kinds of hire, like the amount of time they’ve spent behind the desk to date, and the types and diversity of work they’re qualified to do. But in principle, within this environment, there aren’t any distinct disadvantages, particularly if what you need is an enthusiastic generalist to come in and get stuck in. But if you need a corporate lawyer to come in and lead on high-value transactions, for example, then obviously they’d lack that specialist expertise.
Are there qualities that paralegals have that are well-suited to high-growth tech businesses?
It comes down in large part to personality and approach. A paralegal who’s naturally inquisitive and takes the initiative can be ten times more beneficial than a mature hire who lacks that ambition and has a different mindset and objectives. In a high-growth environment, a hire who’s quick to learn, can pick things up easily, move between tasks seamlessly, and be flexible as the work changes and the pressures increase - that’s key in my view. Paralegals generally are familiar with a flexible environment; the paralegal role naturally involves working that way more than perhaps a senior specialist hire would.
Where do you go to find good paralegal candidates, and what do you ask them at interview?
We used LinkedIn to advertise the role, and we had a huge number of applications. That’s very positive but it also often entails a really diverse spectrum of experience of candidates - which means a lot of work on telephone screening to separate those who would and wouldn’t be a good fit.
"Paralegals generally are familiar with a flexible environment; the paralegal role naturally involves working that way more than perhaps a senior specialist hire would"
More than any other category, I think, there’s huge breadth and depth of paralegals - there’s a mix of new graduates, career paralegals, people working towards their GDL or LPC, and everyone in the middle! So that means that there is often a broad and rich pool of applicants but also a greater investment of time required in filtering and understanding the candidates which are likely to be right for the role in question. That becomes a big part of the interview process - as well as a short technical skills exercise, my questions and the interview discussions primarily centred around previous experiences, approach to problem solving and a sense of the general attitude of the candidate.
What kind of approach do you take to training and development with a paralegal?
There are two broad buckets there. Firstly you can focus on the more formal development that leads them towards becoming a qualified lawyer if that is what the person is aiming for - so that’s things like potentially a training contract scheme, or supporting the conversion of foreign qualifications - helping to develop their status as a legal professional. But the second bucket is just as important, if not more important: that’s the day-to-day guidance, training and goals that they set for themselves on an ongoing basis. Helping them to understand what the business needs them achieve, setting good goals, being ambitious and offering support is crucial.
Paralegals could perhaps expect more exposure to that laser focus in a goal-oriented culture in a tech environment than perhaps they would in a more traditional corporate environment. Another huge benefit is the access to great work - in a high-growth tech company you can’t help but get exposure to a huge variety of work in a really short timeframe, whether that’s regulatory requirements, funding rounds, or any of the other challenges that pop up day to day. It’s a great learning environment for a paralegal.
Stay tuned to this series to hear the merits of the different role profiles you might choose to hire when scaling legal. Subscribe or follow us on LinkedIn for the latest Juro news, views and interviews.