Attorneys: Mentor Your Paralegals

Elona Jouben, MPS, Paralegal/Program Assistant at American Association of University Professors has a very good article in Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association’s publication, The Summation. The article is addressed to attorneys who sit in their office “frustrated because [they] are not quite getting the quality work product and professionalism [they] want from [their] paralegal.” She notes that that many paralegals have  a “paralegal‘s fervent, but often overlooked, wish – that [the attorney]would do something to enable her to more fully develop the skills” and advises attorneys, “The answer is
simple and may not have even occurred to you. Mentor your paralegal.”

Mentoring, as Elona points out, ought to be part of every attorney/paralegal relationship. She say, “Mentoring your paralegal begins by simply being willing to take the time to answer questions – not just what and how, but why it is important as well. Opening and encouraging channels of communication and providing constructive feedback on your paralegal‘s work product allows her to understand not only what you want corrected and how, but the all important why behind it.”

The one caveat I’d add is that the mentoring can, and should, go both ways. As I’ve noted here (and in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional) The keys to an effective, sustainable attorney/paralegal relationship include respect for each others role on the legal team and communication about and within those roles.

In previous posts I’ve discussed, however, the confusion that may exist even among attorneys over the role of the paralegal. That confusion results not only in a less effective legal team, but in frustration and unhappiness on the part of both the attorney and paralegal.

You can help reduce the confusion by being aware of the potential for it, being clear in your own mind about what you can and cannot do, and being willing to talk to your attorney about it in an open, honest and non-confrontational way. This is especially true in obtaining the instructions you need to do your job correctly.

No one benefits from a paralegal spending four hours completing a research project only to find out they did not understand what the attorney was asking. Nor is it beneficial to spend four hours completing a project you do understand if a few clarifying questions would have made it a one hour project. On the other hand, receiving highly detailed instructions or only unchallenging tasks that require little or no instruction wastes the attorney’s time, under utilizes you as a paralegal which wastes the attorney’s money and your competence, and leads to frustration on your part, if not hers.

However, it is not likely that she does this intentionally. More likely, she was simply unaware that more was needed, either because that is her management style, she made faulty assumptions or she has an insufficient understanding of what you in particular or paralegals in general can do. She cannot read your mind, and you cannot read hers.

So you can see that obtaining proper instructions means instructing the attorney. We come back again to basic communication.

In other posts, I’ve discussed some measures you can take to prevent and resolve these difficulties, and improve attorney/paralegal communication in general. Most can be found in the “Relationship with Attorney” category.

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4 Comments

  • Elona M. Jouben says:

    Thank you for blogging about my article! I just discovered this blog post via LinkedIn. I agree that the whole attorney/paralegal relationship requires two-way communication. Perhaps my article and your blog post here will help provoke attorney/paralegal discussion on this issue.

  • R. E. Mongue says:

    This is a point I’ve made at CLE sessions. In general it is a mistake for so many CLE sessions, conferences, and similar events are designed for paralegals or for attorneys, rather than for both. Paralegals and attorneys ought to work together as a team, moving together like a dance team. This is not possible if each member of the team learns and practices separately all the time. Much can be gained if training, especially in-house training at middle to large-size firms, is done as a team. In this respect the military seems to be a step ahead of the private sector.

  • Elona M. Jouben says:

    My home paralegal association, the Northwest Florida Paralegal Association (www.nwfpa.com), does an excellent job of putting on annual CLE seminars that serve both attorneys and paralegals. We partner with the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association and work with ESRBA on obtaining FL Bar CLE approval for the attorneys. Additionally, just last year the NWFPA agreed to open up 1 or 2 of our monthly CLE seminars to attorneys as well, and we obtain FL Bar CLE approval for those particular sessions. Attorneys are always welcome to attend our monthly CLE seminars, but they can only receive credit for the seminars for which we seek FL Bar CLE approval.

    Overall, the feedback we’ve received from the attorneys who attend our CLE events has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve even had some attorneys say that our CLE events are better attended than the attorney-only events. You are more than welcome to contact our current President for more information on these endeavors.

  • R. E. Mongue says:

    That sounds great! My favorite session is one where the instructor acts as a facilitator for an hour to help each member of the the legal team give and gain a better understanding of the role they play on the team and increase overall communication and understanding on the team. Having the facilitator keeps these session from becoming just a “gripe” session.

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