Have you ever had to maintain your cool while a stranger screams unintelligible words at you? Welcome to the life of a paralegal.
Paralegals often act as the buffer between the client and the attorney. Though roles may differ depending on the size of the firm and the attorney’s preferences, many paralegal roles include the duty of answering phones and speaking with clients before they meet with the attorney.
And clients—who are usually in the midst of difficult situations such as divorce, being sued, or facing difficult child custody agreements—are not always kind.
In small firms, paralegals may function as the receptionist and the face of the firm, interacting with flustered, frustrated, or even irate clients. Regardless of the client’s attitude, it’s incredibly important for paralegals to maintain their cool with the client.
Not everyone is cut out for this work.
We had the opportunity to speak with Dana Medley-Vogel, a former paralegal who currently works as a legal assistant and has ten years of experience, and paralegal Gabrielle Crisp, who has been working in the field for three years.
When we asked what personality trait might be important for aspiring paralegals to have, they both had the same answer: “People skills!”
Why are people skills so crucial for paralegals? “People can be difficult,” Dana says. “They can be irritating, they can be frustrating, they can be demanding. Learning how to deal with the client and being able to manage them and not lose your cool with them or get flustered is important: it is a crucial aspect of the job.”
“Learning how to deal with the client and being able to manage them and not lose your cool with them or get flustered is important: it is a crucial aspect of the job.”
Anyone who has worked in a customer service environment or even in a retail position knows the reality of the irritating, frustrating customer.
In the legal world, having the ability to patiently interact with a frustrated client can make all the difference, determining whether that client chooses to work with your firm or take their business elsewhere.
For example, Gabrielle works in a one-man firm, and she handles office business, management, and reception. Her role as a paralegal looks like that of an ambitious multi-tasker, which often includes coaching a frustrated client through the first steps they need to take to work with an attorney.
“My attorney really appreciates my people skills, because people have left positive reviews and specifically mentioned me,” she explains.
In fact, the attorney that Gabrielle works for appreciates her so much that he nominated her for the 2017 Paralegal of the Year award through the Springfield Area Legal Association, and she was chosen as the winner.
People skills can win more than just awards, though—they can win repeat business, which is critical.
“You will get repeat business if you can handle the client,” Dana says.
The Client That Won’t Stop Calling
In our interview, Dana mentioned that one of the attorneys she works for recently came to her and said, “Hey, I’ve gotten an email and several calls from my client today, and I need to get this off my plate so that they’ll stop calling me.”
Dana had to contact the client right away in order to stop the phone from ringing off the hook.
Being willing to meet the client’s needs allows the attorney to work on other things—paperwork, preparing for court, or other tasks. Because of confidentiality issues, however, the paralegal’s role in interacting with the client can be tricky.
Gabrielle says, “Probably what I like least is having to tell people I can’t help them. It’s really hard as a paralegal to not offer legal advice—it’s an absolute no-no to give any legal advice as a paralegal. People call and they’re so desperate for help right away, and I can’t help them, and that’s really hard.”
Instead of offering advice, the protocol for paralegals is to explain to the client that only an attorney is legally allowed to offer help, and set up a meeting between the client and attorney.
Putting Yourself in the Client’s Shoes
Dana and Gabrielle both mentioned that they believe having compassion for the client is key to being able to interact with them and maintain a level head.
“It’s important to have a level of compassion for your client and understanding, but being able to balance and know that they don’t understand everything you do,” Dana says.
Dana worked in medicine before coming to the legal field, and she uses a medical analogy to explain how to understand the client.
“It’s kind of like going to a doctor’s office,” she says. “At the doctor’s office, the patient might not understand all the medical language, and their life is on the line. So they get frustrated, irritated, they get emotional. As a paralegal, you kind of have to take a step back and say, ‘What if this was me? What if I were getting sued? How would I be reacting? Is their reaction normal, understandable, and manageable?’”
“Having a kind and understanding nature is important, because anytime you need an attorney, it’s usually because something bad has happened or is about to happen,” Gabrielle explains.
“Having a kind and understanding nature is important, because anytime you need an attorney, it’s usually because something bad has happened or is about to happen.”
– Gabrielle Crisp, 2017 Paralegal of the Year; Springfield, MO
“Trying to remember that and having a kindness towards people in general is important,” she says. “They are usually coming to you in their worst moment, and they’re not the best version of themselves. Allow things to brush off you—water off a duck’s back.”
What about the client who crosses the line?
“Certainly we have clients that can go over the line, and it’s important to understand what the line is and how to manage that. You have to be a good communicator, have a lot of patience, and maintain composure,” Dana says.
Gabrielle explains: “Being able to listen to the client is important, and also being able to know when it’s time to say, “Okay I have to get going and start working on this other thing.”