A New Year’s Resolution for Your Consideration

I’m heading back to Maine for the holidays, so I don’t know how often I will be able to post this week, but I have managed to get this one in before I leaving!

Since the beginning of this blog, posts have discussed the issues of whether attorneys really understand what paralegal do and how to educate your attorney about your skills and role. The topic is often discouraging to paralegals, although Melissa H. of Paralegalese provided one encouraging sequel to the original post. The issue has been a recent topic of discussion on the Legal Assistant Today discussion forum in response to a question asking what the biggest and most common problem paralegals face. One post indicated the biggest problem was “getting the attorneys to trust your skills enough to let you handle substantive work.” Another responded:

It’s funny, but I feel like I sometimes have the opposite “problem” with my supervising attorneys – they’ll frequently ask me to draft a trial brief or similar, and then sign it with barely a glance-through. While I appreciate their confidence in my abilities, I also feel a pang of trepidation when I file those pleadings for them, because I’m acutely conscious of the fact that it’s not MY license to practice that’s on the line if I messed something up!

Previous posts here has dealt with paralegal-attorney communications, and the fact that the difficulties paralegals face in this regard vary depending on what type of manager the attorney is (while recognizing that it is rare for an attorney to be a good manager regardless of their style. Several posts have also dealt with the necessity for paralegals to take charge and manage all aspects of their work – that is the essence of being The Empowered Paralegal. Many of these elements were combined in a post by Linda Whipple, who I recently quoted at length in regard to another issue. She has not yet objected, so I’m going to do it again:

I have been a paralegal for more than 35 years, I have my 2 year paralegal certificate and about to finish my BS degree in political science this year. The attorney I work with now is a type AAA++ personality and who not only expects perfection but demands it! When I came to work for him nearly 11 years ago, I didn’t ask him what “tasks” I would be able to perform for him. He actually had 2-1/2 people working for him the day I started. I simply sat at my desk, started pulling cases off the shelf (an entire case) and reading it, making notes about what I thought had been overlooked in requesting discovery, what issues should be considered in upcoming motions in limine and a motion for partial summary judgment. I kept performing the “tasks” he asked of me which were no more than what a great legal secretary could do, but I had been doing more for decades. So as I went through case by case, I would type up a “case status” with where the case was, the upcoming deadlines, a draft of discovery that was needed to fill a hole in the case, motions to compel discovery that had gone unanswered for months, a draft of motion in limine, and a draft of a partial summary judgment (with the supporting brief)attached. I would put it on his desk early in the a.m. and when he came in, after the first case, he would ask “which law clerk did this?” I said, “no law clerk did that work, I did it myself.” He was shocked that I was capable of performing at that level. When he showed his surprise at my abilities, I simply replied, “It’s my job to know how to do these tasks and I DO know how to do them.” Ever since, we have worked this way and have a great working partnership. Bob now even says that I’m worth 4 law clerks to him and 2 2nd year attorneys because I know his cases inside and out. IF YOU TRULY WANT PARALEGAL TASKS, DEFINE THOSE TASKS FOR YOUR PARTICULAR JOB AND THEN TAKE IT UPON YOURSELF TO DO THEM WITHOUT THE ATTORNEY’S PERMISSION OR KNOWLEDGE. If he doesn’t like what you do, or how you do it, simply sit him down and ask him “what part do you have an issue with, as I’m willing to change the way I do it to meet you standards”. I know a lot of paralegals with more than 30 years experience and we’ve all had conversations about how we got to do the tasks that parallel our education and experience and most have told me they earned it the same way – not simply waiting for an attorney to “approve” of them doing the work, they just sat down and did it. I would recommend that to all the paralegals on this list serve.

Linda Whipple
American Association for Justice’s 2009 Paralegal of the Year

It may be necessary to change this approach a bit depending on your attorney, but the basic concept is right. A paralegal could no worse than to include adopting this approach as a New Year’s resolution.

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