It’s too much to expect that anyone stepping into a brand new position will do a letter-perfect job on day one.. but nothing builds dumb confidence quite like a college degree and zero experience!
As a brand new paralegal, fresh out of school, you’ll feel like you’re ready to take on the world. Then you’ll humiliate yourself with a stupid mistake. The kind that makes you cringe and want to crawl under a rock every time you think about it for years to come.
It’s inevitable. And just as inevitably, you’re going to beat yourself up about it. The key is to get out ahead of these things and spare yourself the embarrassment – and the self-flagellation that follows.
Even experienced paralegals make mistakes, and god knows you’ll see lawyers themselves make plenty of them. But there are certain mistakes brand-new paralegals seem to be famous for making. Be Warned …
Giving Legal Advice
Every new paralegal runs afoul of this mistake at some point despite having repeatedly been hammered in school that the unauthorized practice of law is strictly prohibited and sometimes rises to the level of a criminal offense.
It’s an easy mistake to make. Sometimes it’s just to friends and family, eager to draw on your freshly minted expertise in the field for some free consultations. Sometimes, and much worse, it’s helpful advice to a client who seems worried and needs reassurance. But it can come back to bite you and it’s best to put a lot of room between yourself and legal advice or anything like it until you have a few years under your belt and know where the fine lines are drawn.
You’re told all through your training that details matter, that being detail-oriented is the most important part of being a paralegal, that it’s your responsibility to get every little thing correct in everything you do. But it doesn’t really sink in until the first time you slide a folder into the wrong file and come up missing crucial documents at a critical moment. There’s not a lot you can do about this except double down on your attention so you don’t have to learn the hard way.
Mishandling Potential Clients
Lawyers and experienced paralegals know that the key to a successful law practice is in picking winning cases. It’s not your skill, it’s not the lawyer’s skill, it’s not crucial sleuthing out on the streets… it’s picking clients and cases that can prevail in court.
But new paralegals have seen too many TV shows and haven’t yet become hard-boiled professionals who can see through a sob story and tell when a client is lying. At first, you’ll probably do poorly at filtering out the bad risks. This is another area where experience becomes your best friend—but you can be sure your employer will be happy to help until then.
Missing A Deadline
Missed deadlines are unfortunately all too common in American jurisprudence. Even in the most serious of cases, capital crimes where defendants face the death penalty, the New York Times found 80 cases where legal teams failed to file crucial documents in their client’s defense on time.
There are no statistics kept in the wider world of law, but you’ll see plenty of missed deadlines in your own career… and you’ll probably be individually responsible for a few of them yourself. It’s a terrible feeling and one you’ll want to avoid as much as possible.
Some of the things that come across your desk will be so outrageous, so hilarious, or so interesting that you’ll just have to tell someone. But that someone had better not be anyone outside the office, because if it is, you’ll have violated one of the most sacrosanct strictures of legal practice… client confidentiality. It’s no easy task to keep your lips sealed at happy hour with friends and family but it’s a habit you’ll have to get into if you hope to have a long legal career, because violations can be serious and could result in you being the one on the receiving end of the criminal justice system.
Failure to Disclose a Relationship or Other Conflicts of Interest
Outsiders are always surprised how seriously ethical conflicts are taken within the legal community. You’re primed through popular culture to be used to lawyers and law firm staff sleeping with clients, gossiping with other firms, or otherwise behaving in a cavalier manner about conflicts of interest. But when you become a practicing paralegal, you’ll need to learn to take it seriously, because everyone around you will. If conflicts of interest emerge, you need to be forthright and frank about communicating them, even if they are uncomfortable to share.
Not Tracking Your Time Closely
Law firms live and die by billing. Although trends are changing, that’s still primarily hourly billing, in increments of one-tenth of an hour… every six minutes on the clock needs to be accounted for and accurately attributed to the relevant case or client. Just keeping track of all those time segments is a lot of work, and there’s a lot of pressure to drive up the time spent to increase billable hours. You’ll be in a lot of hot water if you can’t attribute your time to individual cases, no matter how hectic your day has been.
Not Knowing Court Rules
It’s not intuitive that different courts have different rules and standards for esoteric legal matters like document formatting and filing, but they do… and a failure to learn and apply those rules has brought the axe down on many a new paralegal. If you don’t know the rules for your jurisdiction, you had better at least know how to look them up… and not be afraid to do so when you have a question.
Although missing a deadline is among the worst offenses a paralegal can commit, there are whole other categories of calendaring mistakes that new paralegals routinely make. From scheduling new client appointments while the attorney is supposed to be in court to mistaking calendar days for business days in docketing matters, the calendar is a minefield for new paralegals – and only experience will help see you through safely.
Being Overly Dependent on Your Attorney
Reacting to many of these other possible mistakes can create a new one that paralegals sometimes make… becoming overly dependent on the attorney to answer hard questions or avoid obstacles. But paralegals are there expressly so attorneys won’t have to do all this detail work. If you’re not serving as a resource for your attorney instead of bogging them down, you’re not doing the job you were hired to do.