Tools of the Trade

Top Ten Pointers for New Paralegals Climbing the Paralegal Ladder
guest author: Jamie Paye Collins

If you are just entering the paralegal field or are a fairly inexperienced paralegal who wishes to climb the proverbial "paralegal ladder" more quickly - great news - I wrote this article just for you! There are several things you can start doing today to turn that desire into a reality. It will not be easy and it will require extraordinary effort, initiative, ambition and persistence on your part, but if you are willing to "pay your dues," you will go farther faster, grow personally and professionally and evolve into a high caliber, top tier paralegal. The whole world will be at your fingertips. Okay, in reality, it will be a keyboard at your fingertips, but you will certainly reap all of the benefits. Now for the important question: How can this be accomplished? By following the Top 10 Pointers set forth in this article. If you incorporate these suggestions into your daily work life - you will go farther faster!

1. Make the Attorney Look Good. Period.

  • Cast your attorney in the best light no matter what the circumstance. If a client or someone else complains about your attorney, be apologetic, but take the high road. Remain positive and/or neutral. Do not ever agree with criticisms made of your attorney. You should simply acknowledge them and try to be as encouraging and helpful as possible.

  • Get things done in a timely manner and work to keep your attorney's case load moving forward.
  • Strive for perfection in all of your written work. There should be no visible formatting, spacing or typographical errors. The wording, citing and titles should always be consistent throughout. If you see errors, fix them. Period. Your personal standard for written work should actually be higher than your attorney's. Let me repeat that: your personal standard for written work should be higher than your attorney's. After all, drafting documents falls within your area of expertise. Image is everything. If you don't care about image, you may be embarking down the wrong career path. Take full ownership of your work and strive for perfection.

2. Be Familiar With the Court System, Statutes, Deadlines and Court Filings.

  • Know the basic deadlines for litigation and discovery responses, as well as the standard statute of limitations for each type of case your firm handles. Request for Admissions responses are also very important. If your attorney ever misses an important deadline or statute, you will be the first to blame. He or she may show you the door (and you can kiss any future employment references goodbye).
  • Understand how the court system works and learn the applicable Trial Rules in your state, especially the ones pertaining to deadlines and court filings.
  • Know the amount of copies of each item you need to send to the court (and the reasoning behind it) and when you must include envelopes and/or orders. This is critical. Call, read, ask... you must become well-versed in this area.
  • Know who you should call for what and how to get the most out of your telephone calls to the court and others. There is a trick to this:
    • Address the person answering the phone by name (if they state it)
    • Do not just begin talking at the person - this is what everyone else does.
    • Use an introductory line:
      "Hi Joe, I'm hoping you can help me..."
      "Hi Joe, I have a question for you..."
      "Hi Joe, if I give you a case number, can you look something up for me?"
      "Hi Joe, this is probably the weirdest call you'll take all day..."
      "Hi Joe, I have an unusual situation..."
      "Hi Joe, I am so sorry to bother you again, but the attorney I work for has asked that I keep calling..."
    This strategy will work with 95% of people you encounter over the telephone. It will not help with about 5%, but the odds are stacked in your favor.

3. Develop a Good Working Relationship With Your Attorney.

  • Learn the attorney's writing styles and preferences. Be observant. You will learn just as much through observation of your attorney as you will through his or her actual words and instructions.
  • Always strive to make the attorney's job easier - never more difficult.
  • Do not upward delegate a task to the attorney unless there is absolutely no other option. An appropriate time to do this would be if you were asked to obtain something from a client (doctor or attorney) and they refuse to comply with your requests. This type of situation could require attorney intervention. Always try to accomplish the task on your own and turn to the attorney for assistance only if it is truly required.
  • Convey confidence that you will get the job done well and in a timely manner for each and every task you are given. You will gain the attorney's trust over time.
  • Take initiative. Don't wait for your attorney to ask you to perform a task that you already realize needs to be done. You can certainly draft or prepare things for your attorney without being prompted (although you should never send anything out without his or her approval). Attorney like someone who takes initiative - so take it!
  • Do not bother the attorney with unnecessary information and constant updates. Try to convey only meaningful information to your attorney, not useless updates. In other words, do not tell the attorney what you are about to do or need to do - - just do it -and then give them a meaningful update! Although you may intend to convey the message that you are on top of things, providing constant, useless feedback actually conveys the opposite message to your attorney. Only send meaningful information.
  • Speak with the attorney to determine how he/she sees you interacting with one another. Does he/she want you to be proactive or wait to be assigned tasks? Do they want to meet with you daily, weekly, monthly? Do they prefer status updates via e-mail or verbally? Do they want you to place mail or finished items on their chair (a real pet peeve to many) or on their desk?
  • Don't be a slacker. If you are working in a file and see that it needs to be organized or new subfiles need to be created, then just go ahead and do it - right then and there. If you notice something isn't up to par, your attorney will notice it too and it will be a direct reflection upon you. Take initiative.
  • In the event you make a professional mistake (and you will), own up to it fully. If your attorney confronts you about a mistake, take full accountability for the mistake and let them know you will be vigilant to insure that it will not happen again. The last thing any attorney wants is an employee who makes excuses, attempts to deflect responsibility or places blame on others when confronted about a mistake. If you own up to your mistake and take full accountability for it, your attorney will appreciate it and you will both be able to move past it.

4. Make the Work Environment More Positive Each Day. Period.

  • Have a great and positive attitude each day. Bad attitudes are contagious. Don't be a dark cloud in your office.
  • No complaining, sighing, whining or negative comments, even if he/she just gave you the worst assignment in the history of the world. Control your reaction and lack of enthusiasm. You should always instill confidence that you will get the job done. Exude only positive thoughts, words and non-verbal communication to your attorney. Save your eye-rolling and sighing for your friends, who play no role in your monthly finances. This may be a news flash for some, but you are being paid to act like a professional. It was implied when you accepted your position.
  • Set daily and weekly goals for yourself and try to meet them. The more you get done, the better you will feel and, in turn, so will your attorney. It will increase morale.

5. Work Each Day Like Your Review is Next Month.

  • This is not a joke. If you really try to keep this in mind, you will go farther faster and you will increase your salary far more quickly over time.
  • Raises are earned (and more importantly, respect is gained) over time. If you spend 2-3 months trying to impress your attorney right before your review, that means you essentially spent 9-10 months not impressing them. How much is that worth?
  • You will become more confident and productive if you make the most of each day and week. After all, you will be spending 40 hours at work this week anyway - you might as well make the most of it. Be productive!

6. Create a Personal/Professional Network.

  • Network with everyone around you. Yes, everyone. If you left your job tomorrow, what relationships would you take with you? Keep in mind that statistically, in 5-10 years, you will all be working somewhere new. There is always going to be a person or two you don't care for, but everyone else needs to become a part of your network. Do they like you? Do they trust you? Would they recommend you? Would they ever hire you if they had the chance?
  • Focus. I am about to tell you the single most important way to climb the corporate ladder. Establish personal relationships. Personal relationships are everything in business. Personal relationship + knowledge and skills = the best possible job opportunities. Often times, a better position will actually come looking for you through a personal relationship. High caliber paralegals can usually find jobs without ever looking in the classified ads.
  • You will never need to convince someone how "good" of a paralegal you are if other people are willing to do it for you. Now go build yourself a paralegal network!

7. Learn as Much as You Can. Always.

  • Seek out one person who is more knowledgeable and skilled than you are who you would feel comfortable asking questions. This person can act as a personal mentor to you. There is no need for a formal discussion about mentoring, unless you are comfortable with that. By the sheer nature of the question asking/answering process, this person will naturally become your mentor. Who does everyone look at as being the gold standard for paralegals at your office? Who do you want to be more like? Who could you learn the most from? If no one comes to mind, you can feel free to e-mail me at: jamietheparalegal@yahoo.com. No excuses. Find a mentor.
  • Emulate the traits you admire in other paralegals who work around you and make a conscientious effort to make those traits a part of who you are going forward.
  • Ask intelligent questions and search not only for "what" will be doing on a particular task, but also for the "why" and "how" associated with performing it. You should seek to become more knowledgeable about anything new and unknown to you. After one or two encounters, a new topic should become an area of expertise for you.
  • Learn as much as you possibly can. Ask questions, read books, take a look at online materials, join a blog or chat group, take a class. There is always more to learn in the legal field no matter how long you have been working in it. More knowledge = more money.
  • The more you learn, the more you will love this job! Knowledge is power and usually equates to more opportunities and better paying jobs.

8. Join a Paralegal Network.

  • Create a LinkedIn professional profile (or an online profile through another means) and start online networking with people you know to build a strong networking base.
  • Join the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (N.F.P.A.) or another paralegal organization in your state. You will usually receive paralegal newsletters or periodic e-mails which provide valuable information.
  • Attend a paralegal seminar. You will meet other paralegals in your area and learn more about being a paralegal.
  • Sit for the PACE exam once you are eligible.

9. Look the Part.

  • Attorneys want a paralegal who is poised, polished and professional.
  • If you want to be a successful paralegal, you need to look the part. Dress for success. You will feel better about yourself and others will take notice of your professional appearance and demeanor.
  • If you have limited funds, start out by purchasing just a few inexpensive suits and pieces you can mix and match. Over time, you can work to build your professional wardrobe.
  • In reality, you will never be taken seriously as a paralegal if you don't look like one. This is especially critical if you will attend trials with your attorney. You need to convey a professional image.

10. Be the Best Paralegal You Can Be.

  • Approach your job with full dedication and enthusiasm.
  • Put full effort into your job. You will get out of it what you put into it. Truly.
  • Help the attorney and your law firm to get what they want professionally and you, in turn, will get what you want...a great job, professional respect and more money!
  • Never stop growing. Set personal goals for yourself. What would your dream job be? What do you want to learn? Where do you see yourself professionally in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, at your ultimate position?

I would like to acknowledge attorneys, William N. Riley, Mark K. Dudley, and Amy Ficklin DeBrota for all they have contributed to my legal growth and education. I would also like to thank Mary Beth Ramey, Esq., for being my personal mentor. You are all very talented attorneys and I am truly a better paralegal for having worked with each one of you during the early years of my career.

 

Jamie Paye Collins is a litigation paralegal with the firm YOSHA COOK SHARTZER & TISCH in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she handles complex litigation involving predominantly personal injury and wrongful death cases. Over the past fourteen (14) years, she has worked for three (3) Indianapolis based law firms and gained extensive experience in the areas of personal injury, employment law, business law, real estate, asbestos litigation, medical malpractice and complex class actions, among other practice areas. She is a current member of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Litigation Support Professional Network, Paralegal Network and a Peer Review Member for the Institute for Paralegal Education. Jamie earned her Associateís degree in Paralegal Studies from Ivy Tech State College in 2003, and continues to work toward completion of her Bachelorís degree in Business Management from Marian University. She enjoys volunteering her time to provide mentorship and shadowing opportunities for paralegal students and those who are new to the legal profession.

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