Most paralegals enter the profession with a similar type of education – usually an associate’s degree or undergrad certificate in paralegal studies. But ask any attorney and they are sure to tell you there’s a world of difference between a born natural paralegal who really leans into the profession, understands its nuances, and rises to the occasion and one that merely goes through the motions.
Do you have the persistence and assertiveness to be responsive to the needs of not just one boss, but perhaps several big-ego attorneys working cases for multiple clients that could be worth millions? …
Can you juggle multiple tasks for multiple cases at the same time without losing your patience or your mind? …
You need to keep your cool under pressure while still being reliable, professional and somehow likeable and personable with more bosses than you ever thought you would have at one time.
This means finding the drive within yourself that you used to cram for exams when you were preparing for this career in the first place; pinning the pedal to the floor like it’s finals week and leaving it there. It also means learning on the fly, adapting to what you’ve learned, staying crazy-organized… and keeping a cool head.
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Understanding the Workplace Culture and Adapting to It
You could find yourself hustling around a busy office trying to stay ahead while juggling multiple cases with huge consequences – if it’s criminal law it could be the difference between jail time and freedom for somebody … if it’s civil law it could be a multi-million dollar law suite that leaves someone financially ruined or set for life. All the while you could be surrounded by high-powered attorneys in $5000 suits with expectations for your performance that are even higher than what you set for yourself as a first-year paralegal… Or you could work for a firm that takes environmental law cases pro bono, where attorneys work as champions of a cause instead of chasing a payday.
Every law firm and corporation will have a unique workplace culture. It is your job to identify the nuances of this culture, adapt to it, and fit in.
If you work for a large law firm, conservative dress may be the norm. However, some smaller law firms and those in the environmental law and non-profit sectors are usually far less particular, dressing in jeans and t-shirts on days where there are no court appearances.
Pay close attention and take cues from what those around you are doing. The last thing you need is to roll into the office in full-on business attire while everyone else is rocking faded t-shirts and flip-flops. But nothing – and I mean nothing – is worse than doing the opposite by being underdressed around a bunch of high-priced attorneys, especially the ones that sign you paycheck.
You can also expect unspoken rules to be commonplace. For example, there may be a managing partner whose demands take precedence over others. You may be required to drop what you’re doing and tend to these requests over everything else. Keep your eyes wide to the hierarchy within the law firm. The quicker you figure out these nuances, the easier your life will be.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the rules of formality around the office. Do paralegals call the attorneys by their first names, or is Mr. and Mrs. only acceptable? Is there is a clique environment where office staff eat lunch together, while the attorneys eat separately? Don’t buck the culture of the office – go with it.
There’s No Crying in Law Firms … Letting Things Roll Off Your Back
There will be criticism. It’s a fact. The quicker you learn how to handle it and move on, the better off you’ll be.
You will work for attorneys who provide constructive criticism that allows you to grow as a paralegal, and then there will be attorneys that you are convinced were put on the earth merely to make your life a living hell. You must be able to take criticism in both forms and then keep going.
Wd talked to Angela, a Pittsburgh-based paralegal, who says she’s come across her fair share of paralegals who cry at least once a day. She also said there were times when she had to deal with not being respected by lawyers. According to Angela, “They can be downright nasty and rude.”
But she’s always refused to let her work affect her this way.
“My philosophy was, they’re not going to make me cry. They’re going to make me mad more than they’re going to make me cry.”
Not Just Responsive, But Proactive … Juggling the Demands of Partners and Other Attorneys Like a Boss
If you work for a single attorney, you will quickly fall into a rhythm of how things should be done and when they should be done. But then you will find that at any given time, your day will be thrown into upheaval and your finely tuned schedule is shot. How easily you can be pulled in another direction at a moment’s notice and then return to your daily schedule is vital for your success as a paralegal.
Now add to that several attorneys, each of whom has different demands, at different moments. It’s a pressure-filled environment that many paralegals thrive on, but one that also requires the ultimate in flexibility.
Angela was employed in a law firm’s litigation department for five years, where she was responsible for working simultaneously for eight attorneys. She said the job required her to adjust to each lawyer’s personalities and learn how each one worked.
On any given day, she could be working for several attorneys, each of whom wanted their documents prepared a certain way. She said the ability to “switch it up” was essential. For many paralegals, this is half the fun of the job. As Angela told us, “I liked the stress, I thrived on it. I liked being busy. If I had downtime, I was bored.”
Always keep in mind that lawyers want it how they want it, no excuses. If you can appease the lawyers you work for and appeal to their demands – and their egos – you’ve officially cleared your first hurdle.
Staying Organized Like Your Life Depends on It (Because it Does)
Like Angela said, you may be required to handle paperwork for several attorneys related to several different issues all at the same time. You may also be required to handle the same paperwork on several different occasions. No, it’s not always glamorous.
According to Angela, “Attorneys just plow into things, they don’t think how to organize.” That’s your job as a paralegal.
You must be organized not only so that your required tasks are completed promptly but also so that you manage your time wisely throughout the day. According to Angela, one of the hardest parts of her job is managing her time in what she referred to as, “six-minute increments” throughout the day. You will be required to keep a schedule and stick to it, particularly if the law firm you work for bill clients hourly for your time. If you’re pulled away from what you are doing, coming back to it afterwards is a whole heck of a lot easier if you are organized.
You will also be responsible for making sure court documents and other legal papers are filed on time. The lawyers you work for are counting on you to get this right – every time. If you excel, so will your career. If you don’t, your paralegal career could end right where it began.
According to Rose Turzak, a Columbus-based paralegal-turned lawyer that we spoke to, as a paralegal, you must have an incredible sense of detail so that organization comes easily. After all, Rose says, “The law is a very demanding mistress.”