Popular television shows like “Law & Order” often show paralegals in the thick of research. While research is an aspect of the job, it’s by no means the most prevalent part of the job.
Firms may differ in exact job description, and paralegals working in small firms often take on tasks that legal secretaries and office managers complete in larger firms. However, most paralegals will work with pleadings and contracts, completing edits and revising the documents.
Paralegal duties often include writing memos and drafting documents or briefs. As a paralegal you might be charged with going over lengthy contracts to catch the attorney’s mistakes.
Because these documents are presented in court, the paralegals preparing them are held to a standard of perfection. This can be one of the most frustrating and difficult aspects of the profession—completing lengthy documents within the attorney’s timeline and under their specific expectations.
When Working in a High Stakes Field Like Law, Expect Your Work to Be Critiqued
Preparing highly scrutinized documents for court is not for the faint of heart. Attorneys are known to be demanding and critical, and that criticism falls directly on the paralegal.
We had the opportunity to speak to Dana Medley-Vogel, who has been working as a paralegal for a decade now. Over those ten years, she’s learned to go with the flow and become a better paralegal by listening to criticism and using it as an opportunity to learn. As Dana put it:
“Being a paralegal is one of those professions where you have to be okay with your work being critiqued and kind of ripped up and not be offended by that. It doesn’t mean you didn’t write it well— it means that the attorney may have something different in mind. Or, sometimes you start something and they change their mind by the time you finish it. For some people, that’s very difficult.”
Can you change gears and follow the attorney’s lead even if you’re right in the middle of something? If not, this may not be the career for you. Sometimes you’ll be asked to fill in the hole you just dug then dig it again, and it has nothing at all to do with the quality or accuracy of your work.
Dana said, “I do a lot of contract work. The attorney may give me a 45-page contact to do edits on, and I may spend hours doing it. Then, they may talk to the clients and change their mind, and I’ll spend a lot of hours undoing and redoing it. And that could happen a ton of times. It’s a little bit maddening and frustrating. It’s one of those things that you can’t take personally, if you know it’s part of your job and you do what has to be done, you’ll be okay.”
How to Take Criticism… and Learn From It
Dana attributes the high turnover rate in the field to the fact that paralegals are expected to absorb so much criticism, which can feel very personal for some. “It’s been my impression in looking at how some people come and go in the field, it can be really hard to have an attorney criticize your work, and they take it personally,” she said.
Rather than taking the criticism personally, there’s a better option.
Successful paralegals are able to see a critique of their work as an opportunity to become a better paralegal. Deadlines are short and accuracy is of utmost importance. As Dana advised, it’s best not to take criticism to heart.
By moving forward and completing the attorney’s request even if it means you have to start from scratch, work late, or complete work under tight deadlines, you’ll set yourself apart as a confident, capable paralegal.
The Attorney Calls the Shots. The Sooner You Accept That the Better
As a paralegal, you’ll be subject to the whims of the attorneys that you work for.
Dana explained, “The attorney may come out and say, I need you to work on this. I’ll be in the middle of it and the attorney will come back out and ask me to do something else. And you get working on that, and there’s kind of a back and forth. If you’re geared towards starting Project A and completing it, not wanting to be interrupted, that can be hard and you can get frustrated.”
Learning to accept criticism and improve your work is one hurdle. The next is learning how to accommodate the attorney’s needs, which sometimes means leaving a project unfinished.
“It’s kind of one of those things that if you don’t overthink it, and you know there’s a reason you’re switching gears, it helps. Sometimes, you don’t always know the reason, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what the reason is, the attorney gets to call the shots, that’s their position. Your age and experience can play a factor in how you deal with that. The older you get, the more you realize that life doesn’t happen the way you want it to, and you’ve got to be flexible. If you learn to expect some of that, things get a little easier. For some people, changing gears is hard,” Dana said.
What Would a Successful Paralegal Do?
There is a high turnover rate in the legal field in general, including the paralegal profession. This is often attributed to the stress of the job, including the stress of facing criticism on a regular basis.
Successful paralegals who have spent significant time in the field and are valued by their employers for having learned to accept a certain amount of stress as being all in a day’s work.
Cases can be won or lost depending on correct documentation. Focus on improving the skills that make you a great paralegal: strong communication and proofreading skills, and don’t be afraid to clarify what the attorney needs.
Each attorney has his or her own preferences. Adjusting to the way a certain attorney or law firm works can be extremely difficult. However, rebounding off of criticism and using as it a way to adjust your approach and get better at what you do is ultimately the only way you to land on your feet and continue to thrive in a fast-paced law office or corporate legal department.