What Does a Paralegal Need to Know? – 10 Tips & Tricks Every Successful Paralegal Should Know

A standard job description for a paralegal really doesn’t do this profession justice.

Sure, you’ll be drafting documents, performing research, scheduling meetings, and assisting with trial preparation, all the while adhering to the rules of professional ethics. But you’ll also hold the title of resident magician (“I need you to find me a…”), miracle worker (“I know the court clerk’s office closes in five minutes, but I need…”), and mind reader (“You should’ve known that I needed…”).

Good paralegals can handle a litany of tasks like the pros they are and come out (relatively) unscathed, even during crunch time when trial prep has left everyone irritated and patience in limited supply.

Good paralegals thrive on attending to the details that most people would love to just gloss over. Organization, structure, and order are part of their DNA, making their skills simply unmatched when it comes to tackling mounds of paperwork, documents, and correspondence, keeping the team on task and on time, and anticipating the needs of the attorneys they work for.

In addition to their pretty darn impressive skillset, they’ve also amassed a nice assortment of tips and tricks that have allowed them to not just experience success but to thrive in this pressure-cooker environment.

We’ve curated the top 10 paralegal tips and tricks that successful paralegal should have in their professional toolbox. Whether you’re brand-new to the field and starting a new job or you’ve been at it for years, you’ll definitely appreciate being able to add at least one of these tips and tricks to your repertoire:

1. Most Successful Paralegals Make it a Point to Specialize in an Area of Law

The best money in the paralegal profession comes when you’ve become not just a competent paralegal, but a specialist in your areas of law. A paralegal specialization, which you’ll achieve through experience, education, or a blend of both, immediately increases your value and makes you and your skills a hot commodity to the firms that practice in that area of law.

Corporate law, estate planning, family law, immigration, intellectual property law, and real estate law are just a few of the areas you can specialize in to begin to increase your marketability and your earning potential.

NALA, NFPA, and NALS all have advanced certifications for paralegals who want to specialize their profession:

  • NALA offers Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) courses to NALA certified paralegals who want to advance their understanding of a specific area of law. Specialty courses include discovery, criminal litigation, real estate principles, land use, family law, and more.
  • NFPA works with the Advanced Paralegal Institute to offer specialty certs for paralegals.
  • NALS offers specialty certification options for paralegals who hold the Professional Paralegal (PP) certification. Areas of specialization include contract law, corporate law, trial management, juvenile law, family law, and more.

2. Keeping Detailed Notes and Not Relying on Your Memory is One of the Oldest Paralegal Tricks in the Book

Details have always been your thing, and you’ve got a knack for remembering the particulars, but good notes can’t be beat. Good paralegals never walk into an attorney’s office without a notebook in hand – and for good reason. Nothing can take the place of good note keeping. A chaotic day can turn the best minds into mush, so it’s always in your best interest to keep good notes that you can refer to at any time.

3. Being the Resident Technology Expert is Always Counted Among the Critical Paralegal Tricks of the Trade

Attorneys aren’t big fans of waiting around for you to learn new technology. If you want to perform your job effectively and efficiently, you’ll need to be a whiz when it comes to the legal software applications and other tech tools your law firms uses. An understanding of the basic operational info won’t do; make it your mission to become the resident expert and learn all the cool features that are sure to save your life once you understand how they work. Don’t just get to know tech tools and software – master them and know them better than anyone else in the office.

Document management is a big part of what paralegals should know, so becoming proficient on Google Drive and Dropbox should be first on your list.

Presentation software is software every paralegal should know, so if you’re not already well-versed in PowerPoint (or Prezi or Keynote on Mac), now is the time to explore them. And while you’ll have a good, working knowledge of LexisNexis and Westlaw upon graduation from an ABA-approved paralegal program, don’t stop there. These legal research platforms will a big part of your professional life, so becoming an authority on legal research will always serve you well.

Other areas to give due attention to include billing software like PracticePanther and Protempus, word processing software like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, video conferencing software like Skype (stumbling your way through a Skype setup as impatient attorneys wait for a conference call to begin is never a good look), and the court’s e-filing system.

You won’t be the first paralegal to put in some after-hours time on this endeavor, and you certainly won’t be the first to reap the rewards of a strong technology skillset.

4. A Successful Paralegal Always Keeps a Polished and Updated Resume at the Ready

You never know when an opportunity will present itself, so take a rule from the playbooks of the most successful paralegals and make sure your resume is always updated and ready to go in a moment’s notice. You and you alone are responsible for the trajectory of your career, so always keep your eyes and ears open for the next big opportunity.

5. But A Successful Paralegal Also Never Assumes that the Grass is Greener at Some Other Law Firm

You don’t like the long hours…attorneys don’t understand you…it’s not what you expected. Sure, you may find yourself in a position that doesn’t suit you well. But don’t be quick to jump into another position without giving it much thought. Jumping from one position to another in hopes of finding the perfect fit may be a lesson in futility and may reflect poorly upon you, making you look like a less-than-dependable job candidate. Instead, give careful consideration to the professional changes you make because you may just be switching one set of problems for another.

6. Being the First at the Office is an Underappreciated Trick to Becoming a Successful Paralegal

Sometimes the best strategy doesn’t rely on tips and tricks so much as good ‘ol fashioned work ethic. Paralegals who’ve been around the block once or twice know the value of quiet time, which is why you’ll find most of them opting not to hit the snooze button and instead make their way into the office before anyone else. Getting into the office just a half hour or so before the support staff arrives means you’ve likely finished that first cup of coffee, answered your emails, reviewed your dockets, and checked the attorneys’ calendars – all without any interruptions.

Keeping an early bird work schedule also sets a good example for the rest of the support staff and ensures you’re ready to go when the attorneys blow into the office and need your help getting everything together for the day’s court appearances. Every minute counts when you’re a paralegal, so if you can steal some time in the morning to get yourself organized and prepared for the day, you’ll be ready to dive into whatever chaos the morning brings – and save yourself a good bit of stress in the process.

7. One of the Most Powerful Paralegal Tips and Tricks Is Simply to Understand the Attorney-Paralegal Dynamic

Don’t attempt to figure out why the attorneys you work for are so different from you; instead, pay attention, take mental notes on the power dynamics and pecking order between partners and other attorneys at the firm, learn as much as you can about their communication style and personal preferences, and understand that the same qualities that make them good attorneys may also make them difficult to deal with at times.

Don’t expect an attorney to see things from your personal point of view. Feel it out, pay attention, ask questions, and get to know the attorneys you work for.

Patience, tolerance, and a good dose of humility can get you pretty far in this profession. No one attorney is going to have the same set of standards and certainly not the same disposition, and it’s your job to understand these differences so you can create a positive attorney-paralegal dynamic.

8. Getting to Know the Court and Service Staff is an Easy Paralegal Trick That Pays Off Big Time

There will inevitably come a time when you’ll be at the mercy of the court clerks. Have you taken the time to establish a good rapport with them? Seasoned paralegals will tell you that getting to know the court staff is worth its weight in gold, particularly when you’re running late and you need to meet an impending filing deadline.

Maintaining a friendly working relationship with the court staff is sure to make your life easier. They’ll also be lifesavers when it comes to alerting you to changes to court document filing requirements.

It also pays to note that developing friendly working relationships with everyone from your legal support staff to the receptionists at the opposing counsel’s office is always worth your time. A positive working dynamic benefits everyone, particularly when you’re all working toward the same goal. The legal environment is chaotic as it is; being on friendly terms with those around you naturally lightens the tension of a busy working environment and encourages everyone to look out for each other and lend a helping hand when necessary.

9. Never Making Assumptions is One of the Key Paralegal Tips and Tricks to Success

Did a document get filed? Is that address correct? Don’t assume – in the law, assumptions can result in massive blunders that will fall squarely on your shoulders. Check and double check everything that lands on your desk and make it a solid habit to confirm everything – dates, addresses, names – at all times.

Good paralegals are as nitpicky and persnickety as they come – and for good reason. More often than not, the buck stops with them. If something fails to get completed or a glaring mistake is overlooked, you can bet you’ll be the fall guy. You simply never want to be caught in a situation where you’re telling your boss “you assumed” that it was done.

Don’t make rookie paralegal mistakes; ask questions, double-check your work, and be unrelenting when it comes to producing quality work.

10. Here’s a Paralegal Tip from Us to You… Take it Easy on Yourself

Every good paralegal needs time to recharge and refresh. You’ll spend plenty of time in the office when it comes time to prep for trial, so during the slow times, do things that make you happy. Head to the gym, meet friends for a cocktail, and use your vacation days. You’ll return a happier, more relaxed, and more competent version of yourself.