Written by Renee Wayne
I have always been interested in the law – I recall once when I was about 12 years old telling a friend’s parent that I wanted to be a Judge when I grew up. I had no idea at that time how you actually become a Judge, perhaps I liked the robe, or the smashing of the gavel, or the idea of presiding over the courtroom… or maybe I was just a bit bossy. I found the paralegal profession purely by happenstance. I was living in Charleston, South Carolina at the time working a dead–end retail job – I knew I had to continue my education if I wanted to get anywhere, so I went back to college; but I also needed to eat. I looked for something that would provide a decent paying job while I continued working towards my goal of attending law school. That’s when I discovered a program that would give me the education to work in a professional environment, while I finished college – a two-year paralegal program. I thought this route was perfect: I’d get an associate’s degree, keep on working after that to get my bachelor’s degree, then on to my Juris doctorate degree. It would be smooth sailing! That was the glorious, grand plan, but life has a way of taking us in different directions as I would later come to realize. I graduated with my Associate’s Degree in Public Service as a Paralegal in 1992, then I began night school to finish my bachelor’s degree. I was fortunate to have gotten my first job in the legal field with a prestigious and long-established firm in a city steeped in US history. I was on my way.
That firm put me to work first as a paralegal intern and then upon my graduation, I moved into a “floater” type position working to fill in where I was needed. I filled in for legal secretaries who went on vacation, I ran to the Courthouse to file documents, I went to the Clerk and Recorder’s office to research title issues, I sat with and listened to lawyers give instruction on projects, and performed investigation and fact–finding missions – I drafted basic legal documents. I did anything and everything that was asked of me. And I loved it. I loved watching legal strategies being developed and then unfolding to achieve the desired result. I absolutely soaked it all up. I talked with clients, interviewed witnesses, and jurors, and most of all, I started learning how to become a real team player. My education and hard work contributed to positive outcomes for the legal team. But, I also saw what that hard work, compassion, and dedication meant to the CLIENT, and how VALUABLE I could be behind the scenes to the lawyer.
Since becoming a paralegal I’ve experienced the intensity of trial and arbitration, and the managing of the exhibits, the witnesses and the technology. I’ve been in the hot seat many times and made mistakes (ok now, just that “one” time I swear) using Trial Director (OMG save me! Trial Director just flashed on-screen “No Document Loaded!”), or saved the day when my attorney looked at me with panic in his eyes and telepathically said, “Please save me, where is the exhibit?!” And, I knew exactly what he needed. I had taken copious notes as witnesses testified, and stayed up all night scouring real-time transcripts to find rebuttal testimony for the next day’s cross-examination. I’ve been through the highs of a big verdict at trial and through the lowest of the lows while comforting a devastated client. I’ve been outsmarted, but I’ve never been outworked or out prepared. This is a paralegal. It is me, and it is those of us out there who take this largely unregulated profession (that’s a topic for another blog) very seriously. We are the paralegals you want, and we are the people helping you succeed, and making you look good. I’ve been lucky enough to be an integral part of a legal team, and I’ve been around attorneys who refuse to involve a paralegal (I really don’t get this). I’ve seen the gamut. I am a dedicated team player and I have a few things to say.
WHAT IS A PARALEGAL, ANYWAY?
The National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”) identifies Legal Assistants and Paralegals as synonymous terms. “Working under the supervision of an attorney, the paralegal’s work product is merged with and becomes part of the attorney work product for a client. In communications with clients and the public, the paralegal’s non-lawyer status must be clear. Paralegals cannot give legal advice or perform any duty specifically reserved for licensed attorneys.” Paralegals and Legal Assistants perform billable tasks that would typically be performed by a lawyer.
While each of the terms is generally held to mean the same thing, most in the profession that I know, prefer the term paralegal. Whatever term your firm uses, it’s important to remember that the skills that your paralegal brings to the table are valuable tools in your arsenal to both help serve you, and your client.
HOW TO USE YOUR PARALEGAL 101
1. Know your paralegal’s skills. If you don’t know, ask. If you’re a law clerk or an intern, ask. If you are a new associate, ask. The moral of the story, ASK.
By doing this, you immediately begin to create a sense of team between you and your paralegal – you instill the idea that you want and value the supportive role they play and lay the foundation for a successful relationship. If you are lucky enough to be working with a seasoned vet like me, well, I’m going to simply insert myself gently into your practice and go about the business of helping you.
Pro Tip: If you are an intern or a new attorney, run as fast as you can to the most seasoned paralegal in the firm. They will be delighted to help you get oriented to the firm’s way of doing things, its culture, and will point you in the right direction when it comes to examples of documents and preferred substantive language to use when drafting them. First time drafting something? Ask them for an example, let them help you make a great impression. This also creates a team like a working relationship from the very start of your career. With a bit of effort, odds are pretty good that you’ll have a paralegal dedicated to going above and beyond to make you look like a seasoned pro.
2. Delegate substantive legal work to your paralegal –something that you would likely do yourself. Here are some of the things a well-trained paralegal can do for you. No doubt you’ve seen this list a million times. But how is it implemented? Let me give you some things to think about, and how I interpret my role to help your practice.
- Draft pleadings – Let me pour over documents, distill down the facts, maybe create a timeline of events and draft the Complaint complete with exhibits. I’ll get the basic draft done with a shot at the legal concepts too. You review and edit in half the time, and you don’t have to worry if the document meets local court rules. Why? Because I’ve already done that for you. Rinse and repeat for an Answer and Affirmative Defenses, and everything else on this list.
- Draft motions and responses – again, some projects may not be appropriate for your paralegal to draft, and I get that. Though, here are some common motions that I have drafted that do not require long or complicated legal analysis and that I am comfortable doing, and perhaps your paralegal is too. Refer to No. 1, above: Did you ask?
a. Motion to Strike and/or response;
b. Motion for Judicial Notice and/or response;
c. Motion for Extension of Time/Procedural motions;
d. Proposed Orders;
e. Motion to Compel – I’m guessing I’ve spent more time with the documents produced than you have;
f. Motion for Default/Default Judgment;
g. Motion for Summary Judgment and/or response – this one is a maybe. Can I get all the elements down on paper for you? Absolutely. Can I write your fact section? That would be another yes. The legal analysis is up to you; and
h. Proposed Pre-trial Orders. Sure thing. Contentions are likely up to you, too.
- Draft discovery requests and responses. I don’t mean copying and pasting canned requests and responses here – I mean reviewing materials and then thoughtfully answering requests/drafting responses that make sense based on your case facts, thinking outside the box a little bit and of course, applying State or Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
- Summarize depositions, interrogatories, document production, medical records, and testimony.
- Monitoring of your scheduling orders and deadlines.
- As a paralegal, I’m looking ahead, sometimes months at a time. In meetings, I will both ask and remind you what is coming up, and what projects I can start. A paralegal’s job is to anticipate what is coming down the pike – and be ready to hand you exactly what you need BEFORE you need it.
- Hold your client’s hand – in my never–to–be–humble opinion, this is HUGE. Clients always have procedural questions about their case and need to be walked through the legal process – and your paralegal should be there to help. Most often this is the first time they’ve been involved with the judiciary system, and they don’t have any idea what to expect, except for perhaps what they’ve seen on TV. As you and I know, the reality is this is no Law and Order. Clients are unsure why things take so long. “Why do I have to provide my tax returns? Why, why, why?” they say almost incessantly. Why, indeed. Your paralegal should be able to communicate with your clients on such matters so that you are free to concentrate on advancing the matter for your clients.
- Shepherd a regular flow of communication to the client, whether that is in writing or on the telephone. Interpersonal skills are an absolute requirement. If your paralegal cannot assist the client in his or her understanding of the processes and empathize with what they are going through, then Houston, we have a problem. You don’t have a paralegal at all, you have someone best suited to research projects from a basement office.
- Perform basic legal research.
- Perform investigative tasks, such as finding witnesses, or defendants, finding assets, and fact-finding and/or verification. Talk to people (you may call this an interview, but skilled interviewers get what they need by “talking” to people.)
- Attend court proceedings (depositions, administrative hearings, trials, etc.). Including, but not limited to, being in the “hot seat” at trial or during arbitration which means being seated at counsel table (I was once seated next to the Judge, talk about pressure to be PERFECT! Gah!), running technology and maintaining professional composure at all times, coordinating witnesses, keeping track of exhibits – and perhaps equally as important, keeping the Clerk of Court and the court reporters happy.
- Pre and post–trial case management. Get the jury panel list and research who they are, what they do. Google them. Make a Juror Book; gather as much information on each juror as you can for fast and easy jury selection/pre-emptory challenges (blink and you’ll miss this fast-paced process). Post–trial – this can include interviewing jurors, summarizing their opinions and using them to formulate strategies moving forward. Finding out what Jurors liked, what they didn’t like – maybe, more importantly, WHO they liked or didn’t like, and why. (I recall one trial where our Client was coming in and out of the courtroom quite a bit due to medical issues. Some Jurors thought that he was bribing witnesses each time he left the Courtroom! It’s unbelievable what people will tell you. This is one of the more fun and interesting tasks I think).
- And, finally, know the nuts and bolts of the procedure in the jurisdictions in which you practice, i.e. state court, water court, federal court, bankruptcy court, justice court, etc.
I just finished reading a really great book published by the American Bar Association titled Paralegals, Profitability and the Future of Your Law Practice which I highly recommend. There is a chart in the book that really spoke to me and I want to share it with you.
When you study this graph, what do you notice? Look at all the tasks “Before Paralegals” a lawyer is responsible for. Can you do it all yourself? Sure. Perhaps the real question is . . . should you? How many cases can you handle practicing this way?
What this chart says to me is that the practice of law has changed substantially over time. You no longer have to manage your entire practice on your own. You can serve more clients, and we can serve them as a team. Your bottom line should increase, and your clients should be happy. Definitely a Win-Win situation.
That said, the projects that are completed by your paralegal aren’t meant to usurp your job as an attorney, but rather they are meant to enhance it. We often aren’t able to (or perhaps can’t) be included in strategic discussions or meetings with clients. It’s important that you recognize that we recognize this fact as well. Our jobs are simply to make your practice run smoothly and efficiently, make it profitable, and to keep the client satisfied.
3. Talk to your paralegal. Before I get headlong into a talk about communication, I’d like to acknowledge here that I’m assuming that you already have a paralegal, or even a team or department full of them, that you’ve bought into the idea of USING them and have already gone through the analysis during your annual firm administration meetings that you’ve decided paralegals are great (we are!) Take advantage of the resources of your firm and utilize your paralegals!
- Team meetings – This option always sounds like a great idea, right? In my experience, the reality is that sometimes this is really hard to do because everyone is so busy. We all try for Best Practices. When time is short you should be able to give your paralegal the gist of any project and turn them lose to get a project going for you. Of course, the more information you can share, the better the product the paralegal will return to you. Your team’s “Best Practice” may just become a regular check–in. You and your paralegal need to work out what works best for both of you, your work styles and the demands of your practice. Talk about it.
A common practice of a Partner I used to work with was what came to be referred to as a “drive-by.” The act of blurting out case strategy and or instruction to your paralegal as you dash by his or her desk. Usually, after you’ve done some of your best thinking: while driving to work, while on the treadmill at the gym, or shoveling the walk – with no place to write any of it down. We started calling these instances “drive-bys” because often these tasks/strategies occurred to him while he was in between other things. He would jet out of his office just to tell me something, I’d laugh and tell him to “hold that thought” while I grabbed a pen and a note pad. The “drive-bys” became more and more frequent and just one way we managed our workflow. Yes, we had meetings, but these “drive-bys” were usually very productive. My point is, have a relationship with your paralegal and when you do a “drive-by” they’ll know what case you’re talking about, get a little chuckle out of it, and turn your “drive-by” instruction into some good work product for you.
I think you’ll find that the most valuable paralegals are those who want to make you look good, and who consider themselves part of the team. Your paralegal is extremely vested in the outcome of the cases you work on together and takes pride in helping your clients obtain positive outcomes. Great communication is one of the best ways to create and foster an ongoing team relationship. Empowered with knowledge, your paralegal can then spring into action and take the initiative to help manage your workload. The longer the two of you work together, the more your paralegal will adapt to your preferred style of work product.
I am sure by now that you’ve figured out I never quite made it to law school. I’ve enjoyed very much the last twenty-something years (I’m not counting) in my career as a Litigation Paralegal. What I didn’t know way back in 1992, that I know now, is that my dedication to the advancement of my education and my tenacity are two traits that suit me well. I find these traits in many other paralegals that I’ve worked with over the years as well. As a whole, we are individuals who are educated, dedicated (loyal beyond words really, and I’m not just saying that because I happen to be a Leo, but I digress) tenacious, goal and detail-oriented, among other awesomely obsessive traits. So, if you are fortunate enough to have a paralegal team or department in your firm and you have yet to reach out, I strongly encourage you to do so. I’m sure that you’ll be met with enthusiasm and a willingness to work hard, which will enhance your practice even more. Take it from bossy old me, you won’t regret it.