If you’re a seasoned paralegal, you already know this paralegal truth. And if you’re new to the field, I’m happy to share it with you. Your work as a paralegal is driven by deadlines and is highly detailed-oriented. The secret to reducing your stress levels and advancing your career is learning to be a proactive versus reactive paralegal. Reactive paralegals are always in panic mode because they’re constantly putting out fires and jumping from ship to ship, trying to plug holes to keep each ship afloat.
However, a proactive paralegal anticipates these fires and takes steps to prevent holes from forming, avoiding potential disasters. A proactive paralegal looks ahead to see what’s coming down the pipeline, planning accordingly to be ready for almost anything. With a proactive approach, you can reduce work stress levels, making your responsibilities easier to manage while demonstrating the abilities of a great paralegal – leadership, organization, attention to detail, and patience beyond understanding.
I’m spilling my secrets to being a proactive paralegal below:
Take an offensive position
. Rather than constantly being on the defensive, take an offensive position. A quarterback knows exactly where his team members are going to run and where he wants to place the ball before the ball is ever snapped. In order to be a proactive paralegal, you must take control of the situation in order to stay ahead of the “other team” to avoid being “sacked.”
Delegate tasks to the appropriate person.
Learning to delegate is a valuable tool. Don’t take on every task and project. When you try to do everything, you end up spreading yourself thin and doing nothing well. Delegate tasks to the people who can perform them best so that you can focus on what you need to do.
Take time to create a plan.
If you’re too busy to look ahead and create a plan, then you've taken on too much. Setting targets, goals, and deadlines is important to stay ahead of the curve. Use a planner, whether it’s a traditional daily log book you write in every day or a program on your computer. Track your deadlines, enter upcoming events, and schedule regular meetings to review and revise your plan of action. When you have a plan, you anticipate upcoming events so you can control them rather than the other way around.
Create templates, checklists, and standard procedures.
You can be much more efficient when you automate tasks or processes. Create templates for documents that you use repeatedly in every case. Create checklists for opening a new file, conducting discovery, preparing for trial, and other things to make sure that you don’t forget a key step or essential element of the process. Create a standard procedure for everything you do on a routine basis so that others can step in to help you when you have an emergency or you have to be out of the office. Review your templates, checklists, and procedures on a regular basis and update them as needed to make them more useful.
Use your problem-solving skills.
It’s inevitable that you’ll run into problems. When was the last time a work project went exactly according to plan with no hiccups along the way? When it happens, don’t panic! Stop, take a deep breath, and focus on how to solve the problem rather than allowing the problem to overwhelm and cripple you. Take a few moments to determine the steps you need to take to resolve the issue, revising or making a new plan as needed. This will help you remain focused on the solution rather than the problem.
Learn from your mistakes.
When you have a problem, take a few moments to review why the problem occurred and how you resolved it. Is there something you can do to prevent the problem in the future? Or was there something you could have done to more effectively resolve the problem? Learning from our mistakes is an important quality that makes us better paralegals.
Anticipate what you'll need.
Look ahead and figure out what you need to do your job in the next month, quarter, and year. If you know that your workload increases during certain periods, be prepared to increase staff and/or hours to accommodate the increase. If you know that you’ll be out of the office on vacation, take steps to ensure that you’re not overwhelmed in the days ahead or following your vacation. Do you have a trial coming up in the next few months? If so, what will you need to do in order to be prepared for trial? Taking the time to plan and anticipate your needs will help you avoid major bumps in the road.
Striving to do the best job possible for attorneys and clients can be extremely challenging but also very rewarding. Each paralegal position has different demands depending on the law firm and the area of law. However, you can benefit from being more proactive when it comes to managing daily and long-term workloads and anticipating problems that can undermine your efforts.
Now it’s your turn. What do you do to stay on the ball as a paralegal? What techniques do you use to be proactive?
Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal).