It’s time to re-imagine law firms and legal work. Consider a world where paralegals can hold ownership interests in firms, represent clients, and do substantive legal work. Though regulators in the United States are just now exploring these options, it’s a reality in Ontario, Canada. Recently, paralegal Melanie Henriques became a partner in her firm. In this interview, Melanie discusses her path to partnership and how paralegals can help law firms provide cost-effective legal services to clients who would otherwise go unrepresented.
What is your role and how did you get to where you are today?
I am a licensed paralegal and partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP. My areas of practice include employment law, accident benefits claims, and insurance. As a partner, I manage all paralegals at our firm and run our Paralegal Placement Program. After obtaining my license in 2011, I began working as an assistant for a paralegal on a part-time basis through the firm I currently work for. After she had to step away from her practice, I took over her caseload and absorbed as much as I could about litigation and how to run my practice. I attended countless mediations, discoveries, settlement conferences, and trials with the lawyers at my firm. After years of hard work and perseverance, the firm welcomed me to the partnership, a rare and relatively uncommon position for a paralegal.
How are paralegals permitted to practice law and have ownership interests in firms in Canada?
Paralegals are relatively underutilized throughout Canada, and Ontario is the only province that allows paralegals to be licensed and handle their own file load. Paralegals in Ontario may practice in a limited scope, mostly in Small Claims Court, Provincial Offences Court, and most tribunals. Many paralegals open their own firm if they wish to handle matters that involve litigation as many firms do not utilize paralegals in this manner.
Is it common for paralegals to represent clients in matters in Canada?
It is very common for paralegals to represent clients in Ontario and manage their own caseload. Other provinces do not permit paralegals to represent clients, with the exception in British Columbia where they can practice under the supervision of a designated paralegal.
How can paralegals help close the access to justice gap?
Paralegals are a valuable asset to law firms and society. They offer a cost-efficient option to individuals with smaller value matters who require legal representation. Where lawyers could charge tens of thousands of dollars to handle a matter, a paralegal can provide services for a fraction of the cost with similar results. And as paralegals have a limited scope of practice, they typically specialize in specific areas of law and become experts in those areas, in contrast to many lawyers who practice in multiple areas of law.
You recently became a partner in your firm. How have colleagues from within the firm and outside the firm responded to your new role?
I was a little nervous that the news would not be well received since the operations of law firms are very traditional. I was pleasantly surprised that the response has been overwhelmingly positive from both within my firm and the community.
Shifting from employee to partner at your firm, what are the biggest differences you’ve experienced?
Besides having to take on more of a management role, I have tried to keep my practice and the way I work the same because these are what got me to this position.
Do you believe there are different expectations for technology skills between lawyers and paralegals? What are they? How do they play out?
No, I don’t think so. Any individual practicing law or working in law should have strong technology skills as our courts and tribunals continue to shift to a paper-free world, especially since the start of the pandemic.
Where can paralegals make the most difference in legal practice?
Paralegals would be best utilized in document creation (pleadings, court documents, letters to opposing parties, etc.) and in litigating/defending matters within their scope of practice.
What role does a paralegal play in the document creation process? Where can paralegals help the most?
Many paralegals are utilized like law clerks where they draft various pleadings and court documents and assist lawyers in preparing for court appearances. Given that their hourly rates are significantly lower than a lawyer’s rate, this can result in a huge cost saving for the client and free up the time of the lawyer to tend to other matters.
What unique insights do paralegals have about how legal work is done that a lawyer probably wouldn’t have?
Personally, I have obtained excellent outcomes for my clients by handling many matters that a lawyer would not have handled or would have had to charge more for than the matter was worth. In my own practice, many defendants hire a lawyer to represent them, and, given the cost for that representation compared to the value of the case, they will typically resolve the matter quickly, which is a huge advantage to my clients.
What advice do you have for lawyers and paralegals working together?
Given that lawyers and paralegals practice similar areas of law but in different jurisdictions, they will have their own unique perspective on how to handle a matter in the best interest of their client. Sharing those experiences and bouncing ideas off of each other will only make the other a better legal representative.
What advice would you give to legal professionals just starting out in the legal world?
My advice I give anyone starting may sound silly, but I live by it—“Fake it ‘til you make it.” You will start as a bundle of nerves and excitement, so channel that energy into confidence. Even if you’re not sure about something or unfamiliar with how to handle a matter, don’t let them see you sweat. Just be confident and treat every roadblock as an opportunity to learn something new.
How would you like to see the role of paralegals change in the next 10 years?
I would like to see paralegals utilized in more of a litigation role than they currently are. Law firms, especially bigger firms, are missing out on an excellent opportunity to offer cost savings to their clients and maintain good business relationships with them. I would like to see paralegal partners become more of a common occurrence as they are an important resource to the practice of law.
About Melanie Henriques
Melanie Henriques graduated from Sheridan College and obtained her paralegal license in 2011. She has been a paralegal with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP since 2014 and made partner in 2021. Melanie practices mainly in employment law and insurance law; she also handles accident benefits claims. During her career, she has conducted several trials, hundreds of settlement conferences, and thousands of cases. She has appeared in front of the Small Claims Court, Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, License Appeal Tribunal, Canadian Industrial Relations Board, and other tribunals. In her spare time, Melanie enjoys cooking, playing board games, and having her heartbroken year after year by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
About the Paralegal Interview Series
This interview is part of a collection of interviews about paralegal work. By producing this series, we hope to shine a light on some of the most important but often undervalued people in law: paralegals. Paralegals are key contributors to a high-value legal practice and are more effective when they’re empowered. Let’s start working better together.
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