Updated: Sep 25, 2019
As new Paralegals, we're often thrust into law firms without much guidance. We're simply expected to know what to do and how to do it. Yes, by now you've got the terminology down, and maybe a little procedure, but what do you really know about the new firm you've just been hired to work for? Almost nothing!
Honestly, you can watch all of the "Day In the Life" videos on YouTube, or be a conversation starter in any Paralegal Facebook Group, but let's get real. Every law office is different - the people, the clients, the network, the filing systems, the layout, absolutely all of it. I once worked at a firm with two floors, thousands of square feet, with nine conference rooms, a mock trial room, a board room, and offices for 300 attorneys and managerial staff. I spent most of my billable hours trying to find the bathroom, the break room, or one of the many attorney's offices.
So what is a new Paralegal to do when faced with little office training and left to their own devices at a new firm? First, you understand very quickly that you are a BIG piece of a really large puzzle. If you think about it, all the pieces are needed to make that puzzle complete, and as cliché as it might sound . . . you complete your attorney.
Yes .... YOU are a big piece of the puzzle and one of the reasons your attorney shines. The corner piece of the puzzle, if you will. So here are my 5 tips on how to make it all fit together so that you can create this marvelous picture puzzle that you call a team.
TIP 1 - Show Initiative & Be Proactive
Part of being a great Paralegal is staying ahead of everything, even when your attorney isn't. Showing initiative leads to being proactive. Here's an example:
Reference: State of Illinois -
If the case I'm working on needs a Motion to Compel, I know that I have to file it 5 to 7 days prior to setting it for presentment before the Judge, depending on the Court and Judge's standing orders. However, I'm not going to wait until the day before the Motion needs to be filed to ask my attorney about it. Instead, I'm going to show initiative and be proactive, and remind him 14 days out about the Motion to Compel. If I really want (or have the time) to go the extra mile, I'll draft the Motion to Compel for him and email the draft to the attorney with the reminder that the Motion is due on a certain date. By doing this, I've taken steps to make sure the Motion is filed on time and perhaps I've taken the bulk of the work off the attorney's plate. By taking the initiative and being proactive, I'm taking steps to become indispensable, which in turn creates job security. I'm also showing excellent time management skills, which I'll discuss later in this article.
As a Paralegal, you need to think like an attorney and be 5 steps ahead. Begin with the end in mind. For example, as a Litigation Paralegal, my steps when receiving medical records are as follows: 1) remove transmittal pages, quickly audit to see if any pages need rotating or are illegible, apply page numbers to the lower right-hand corner, apply a bookmark, and save. Why? Because when I talk to my expert, we both know what page number we're on, and because I want my expert and attorneys to receive legible pages that don't rotate on their iPad when they receive them, and because when I combine several PDFs into one, I have a bookmark building a map of section by section for indexing purposes. By thinking ahead when I received the experts, I was fully prepared to produce them in discovery and make preparing an index simple and using a fraction of the time it would have taken me to build bookmarks while trying to put together the document production.
TIP 2 - Be The "Know It All" for All of Your Cases
Do you remember the movie the "Devil Wears Prada", and the scene where Andy has to remember all the names of the invited guests for a party. Well guess what ….. That's you! As a Paralegal, you must get familiar with ALL of your cases and case contacts. You need to be ready to answer all questions about the case and to speak intelligently about the case to any party or attorney in the case, at any time. In essence, your mind needs to be the vault that answers questions like - "What is the name of the employee we sued for the case we had two years ago where the woman broke her hip, died a few days later, had the estranged daughter who challenged the Will …. What was the name of that case?." You need to be ready to provide an immediate answer. I know it sounds impossible, but consider your career like a fine wine - you just keep getting better. By becoming the "know it all", you are, once again, taking the necessary steps towards become indispensable and creating job security. Who else is going to remember everything you do ---- that's what they'll be saying, and that's why they won't be able to let you go. If you're going to leave the firm, it is going to be on YOUR terms and not theirs.
"A good Paralegal is worth their weight in gold."
TIP 3 - Be Productive
There is a difference between being busy and being productive. But let's face it - Paralegals have to-do lists a mile long, and you're expected to be a poised busy bee, with octopus arms doing 8 different things, going 100 mph, working on case loads and expectations that exceed laws of nature, and yet, you achieve them and do it all over again the next day (after a few glasses of wine - I call it mommy's juice). So how do you manage all of the tasks with impossible deadlines when you've got what seems to be like an unmanageable case load? You implement time management practices such as written lists or third-party solutions like Asana, Microsoft Tasks or Planner, and you stay ahead of all things due, all deadlines, all upcoming hearings, and you remain productive to keep your cases moving forward. Like a fine oiled machine.
Which brings me to my next item, and that is ….
TIP 4 - Learn Time Management Skills
If you think about it, time is the biggest unrenewable resource. While youe can't control many things in a law firm, you can control our time management. How do you do that? You look to Tip 3 and implement systems that keeps you on track with your tasks, assignments, and deadlines so that you are able to control your time management much more. Yes, you will have last-minute items, but by showing initiative and being proactive, you will spend less time being "reactive" to those last-minutes items and situations that will cause you to lose control of your time management. Speaking of prior tips, Tip 2 talks about being the "know at all", and by being familiar with your cases and contacts, you spend less time researching the answers your attorneys or clients need, and more time focusing on the priority tasks that need your undivided attention (all 52 of them).
Tip for Paralegals billing by the hour: Are you a Paralegal that has a difficult time writing down or typing your billable hours, or entering your billable time into your firm's software? Are you going back to read emails and looking at documents to figure out your billables? Are you racing the clock to get your time entered because you procrastinated all week and put aside time to do it on Friday, but then got hammered with case work and attorney hand-holding, then think about how implementing a task and time management system can help you. Scratching your head yet? When using a third-party solution like Asana or Planner, those platforms allow you to generate reports that recall your completed and in-progress case work, and put's it into a spreadsheet form to copy/paste into any billable program.
TIP 5 - Be Resourceful
Just because your firm doesn't have a time management system in place doesn't mean that you can't take the initiative and start using one on your own. In many cases, you need to be well networked in order to be resourceful. You need to have a vast, diversified amount of contacts and good relationships with multiple people like referral attorneys, court reporters, videographers, process servers, court clerks, law clerks, neighbors in your office building, the building doorman, your maintenance man (believe it or not), etc.
Example from my younger years: Several yeas ago, I had a document that required faxing given to me by an equity partner and handed to me with only 7 minutes to get the document to its destination in order for it to be considered on-time. I hustled my happy ass to our fax machine only to learn it was down. AHHHHH! I had 5 minutes left after cursing out the fax machine. But all the cursing didn't change my circumstances. Knowing how urgent the document was, I immediately took the stairs and headed one floor down to another office, said hello to the receptionist at the front desk who I'd conversed with many times before in the building lobby and elevators, and got the document to its destination on time, and with one minute to spare. Whew! I didn't worry or irritate my attorney with the inadequacies of our fax machine, but rather, I simply did what I had to do to get the job done, and on time.
I once got access to the MLS network for 30-days to investigate a case, but that's another story for another article. Point is, being resourceful for an attorney is HUGE and will come in handy when you least expect it, but need it the most.