Can we just choose five traits as the most important paralegal traits that you must possess to succeed in a paralegal career? In my opinion, the answer is "no." The paralegal profession has grown and expanded over the last few decades to encompass so many different positions and roles that it would be impossible to choose just five traits as the most important traits you need to have in order to be a successful paralegal. Furthermore, paralegals now work in numerous related fields that go far beyond a law firm. Therefore, the skills and paralegal traits a person needs to succeed depends more on the type of job, the industry, and the paralegal's role than the standard definition of a "good paralegal."
What is a Paralegal?
Before we can choose traits that define a "good paralegal," we need to understand the definition of a paralegal. Two of the most commonly used definitions of a paralegal come from the National Association of Paralegals (NALA) and the American Bar Association (ABA). Both definitions are extremely similar.
NALA: "Legal assistants (also known as paralegals) are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training, and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law, which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney."
ABA: "A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."
Both definitions require a paralegal to have training, education, and experience in order to perform their duties as a paralegal. Neither of these definitions explains what traits or characteristics make a paralegal successful. However, a simple internet search reveals hundreds of articles claiming to explain the traits and characteristics required to be a paralegal. In theory, paralegals possessing these traits or characteristics will be successful in their chosen career. However, further examination of these traits reveals that most of them are really skills rather than traits or characteristics.
Some of the most common "traits or characteristics" listed in articles related to this topic include:
- Highly organized (this is on 99% of the lists you'll find)
- Good communication skills (another popular "trait or characteristic" associated with paralegals)
- Excellent research and writing skills
- Ability to multitask
- Good computer skills
- Pays close attention to detail
- Works well independently
- Works well under pressure
- Maintains a professional attitude
When I look back through these "traits and characteristics," I notice that all of them are skills that a person can develop or grow if they have the desire. You can take courses to learn and enhance your research, writing, and computer skills and there are numerous seminars that teach you how to be more professional, handle pressure, become more organized, and be more attentive to detail.
Yes, some paralegals will have a greater natural aptitude in some of these areas and, yes, that probably does give those paralegals an edge on those of us who need to develop our skills.
5 Personality Traits of a Great Paralegal
Let's go beyond the "canned" list of skills or traits that make a great paralegal and do a deep dive - what actually helps someone excel in the paralegal field?
I thought back through the many paralegals I have had hired (and fired) and those I've had the privilege to work with over the past 26 years. I found five personality traits that each of the paralegals who rose to the top of their profession had in common.
Will Rogers said, "Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment." I believe this is true (I have learned many lessons from the bad decisions I have made during my career). I also believe that some people have a stronger ability to make good judgments because of their other personality traits discussed below (i.e. patience and logic) just as good judgment enhances other qualities of a great paralegal (i.e. ingenuity and persistence).
How Do We Define "Good Judgment?" First, we must look at the definition of "judgment." MacMillan defines judgment as "your ability to understand a situation well and make good decisions." Merriam-Webster expands the definition of judgment to "the act or process of forming an opinion or making a decision after careful thought."
When you break down those definitions and apply them to a paralegal, you can see that having good judgment is essential if you are to be a great paralegal. Unfortunately, there is not a class on "using good judgment" that I am aware of that truly helps an individual comprehend when and how to use good judgment. A professor or coach can give you tips and examples of when and how to use good judgment. However, you either have the ability to make good judgments or you learn it through your mistakes (if you are humble enough to learn from those mistakes).
Going back to the definition of "judgment," a great paralegal has the "ability to understand" a problem or situation and decide whether to involve the attorney or move forward independently. A great paralegal also understands the process and time involved in "forming an opinion or making a decision" only after careful thought and research. Paralegals who rush to a conclusion simply to finish the task or impress their boss often make poor or rash decisions that adversely affect the client and the attorney.
Let’s consider the following real-life example. A family law client was in a highly contested custody dispute. Both parents were pulling out all stops and slinging, in some cases manufacturing, as much mud at each other as possible to win custody. Our client confided in one of our paralegals that she had an affair years ago right after the couple was married. The client begged the paralegal not to tell anyone because it only happed once and it was a terrible mistake that caused him great embarrassment. The paralegal felt sorry for the client and used her own judgment to reason that the affair occurred roughly 22 years ago. If the spouse were going to find out about the affair, she would have done so by now so the paralegal never divulged this information to anyone until after the final hearing.
In this case, the paralegal's assumptions were correct and the affair never did come up in the court proceedings. Did the paralegal use good judgment? Absolutely not. Paralegals are not attorneys - we do not have law degrees nor are we licensed to practice law. We support the attorney as they practice law in the representation of a client. As a paralegal we receive thousands of pieces of information that we must process. Some goes to the attorney but some does not. This paralegal didn’t use good judgment in this decision and that was a hard lesson to learn.
Arlen Specter: "If you are going to have to play defense all the time, you cannot have the kind of ingenuity, assertiveness, independence, and intelligence which is what has made our country strong."
Okay, you’re wondering what I believe this has to do with being a great paralegal. When we look at the definition of "ingenuity" it gives a clearer picture.
Merriam-Webster defines ingenuity as "the quality of being clever, original, and inventive."
Another word for ingenuity - resourceful. Great paralegals are resourceful and innovative. In other words, they play offense by having the "ingenuity, assertiveness, independence, and intelligence" to tackle issues and problems before being told to do so by an attorney. If you see something that needs to be done, be assertive and independent enough to tackle the problem before the quarterback hands you the ball.
Ingenuity goes a few steps further than simply grabbing the ball. Once you have the ball, run with it. Be resourceful and inventive when searching for solutions to the problem. If you can’t find a solution, use your other skills to develop a solution of you own to present to the attorney. However, use your good judgment to know when to stop running down the field and reset with the quarterback (attorney) to confirm the play is legal.
I hate to use tired, old clichés but great paralegals do think "outside of the box" rather than accept what is presented to them. This ability ties directly into the personality traits for being logical and having persistence.
When we view the definition of logical in the light of Einstein's quote, we conclude that a great paralegal can start at "A" and arrive at "B" using reason and careful thought. However, along the way the paralegal must use good judgment to avoid mistakes and may need some ingenuity to make "B" the outcome that the client and attorney desire.
Paralegals must deal with the abstract, complex, and ambiguous elements of the law. A great paralegal must be able to think logically and analytically to identify and evaluate key concepts and facts related to a specific case. This personality trait also enhances the paralegal's ability to communicate facts and conclusions in a clear, concise manner to the attorney — a skill that is at the very core of being a great paralegal.
Again, paralegal courses and other educational or coaching courses can help a person develop their logic and reasoning skills. There are undoubtedly some paralegals with a natural "Sherlock Holmes" personality trait that makes them extremely analytical and logical. A paralegal who is able to use logic to carefully analyze the case, remove the irrelevant factors, and concentrate on what is truly important is an asset to the firm. In the words of Holmes, "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth."
Merriam-Webster defines persistence as " the quality that allows someone to continue doing something or trying to do something even though it is difficult or opposed by other people."
Eleanor Roosevelt said, " It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."
Both of the above quotes relate to a paralegal's ability to be persistent. Some people give up when they run into an obstacle (i.e. the dark). They refuse to continue to search for a key (i.e. the solution) because it’s too difficult. A great person will light another candle, and another candle, and ten more candles until there is sufficient light to locate the key. If the candles don’t work, they’ll try something else rather than give up.
It would be wonderful if everything had a quick "fix" so we could make it off our to-do list for the day. Clients would be thrilled if we could settle their cases in a day or two rather than a year or two. Paralegals who are always searching for the easy, quick way to handle a case or a problem often quit when things get really tough.
On the other hand, great paralegals keep going regardless of how tough it may seem right then. They don’t "curse the darkness" because they are too busy lighting more candles to keep moving forward instead of standing still or retreating. Quitting is not in the vocabulary of a great paralegal who is persistent. If all else fails, a great paralegal will draw on their personality characteristics of logic and ingenuity to find a other ways to solve the problem.
Persistence also breeds consistency and commitment. A great paralegal is one who is committed to the law firm, the attorney, and the client instead of being committed to the job. The job is what we do because we need to earn a living. A great paralegal consistently goes beyond the "job description" to make things happen while using good judgment to know when to involve the attorney or a supervisor.
"Able to remain calm and not become annoyed when waiting for a long time or when dealing with problems or difficult people" is how Merriam-Webster defines "patient." This is one of my biggest character flaws — I am highly impatient. People get on my nerves in general but difficult people are the worst.
As a paralegal, you will always deal with difficult people and their problems. That's your job. From your attorney and other attorneys to your client, experts, witnesses, co-workers, and others (the list goes on forever), you will be dealing with difficult people. Think of how your own problems can drive you to lose your patience. Now imagine dealing with a client's problems and the client is demanding and difficult. It’s easy to lose your patience but a great paralegal has the patience of Job.
Joyce Meyer said, " Patience is not simply the ability to wait - it's how we behave while we're waiting." A paralegal who is patient doesn’t sit around waiting for a miracle to fall in their lap nor do they curse the problem. Job was patient but he did not curse what happened to him nor did he simply give up. A great paralegal will rely on their other skills and traits to continue working toward the ultimate goal. If they must be patient while waiting on the court to move or opposing counsel to make their move, they will do so while still working the case from other angles. You can be patient without being angry or still.
Am I a Great Paralegal?
I admit that I saved the personality trait of patience until the end because I lack this personality trait. Even after 26 years of working with attorneys and clients, I still am not a patient person. I’m thankful I don’t use a video phone because the look on my face, the words I’m mouthing, my fingers strumming on my desk, and the stress-relieving ball I am hurling through my office are all strong indicators that I’m losing my patience with the person on the other line.
With that said, I’ve learned to control my reactions to others but I doubt that I’ll ever master being patient. Does that mean I’m not a great paralegal? Absolutely not. In fact, if you don’t have any of the above personality traits, you can still be a great paralegal. The wonderful thing about being human is that we can all learn and grow. It may be more difficult for some of us than others in some areas (I doubt I’ll overcome being impatient) but it can be done.
The other thing I ask you to remember is that the above personality traits aren’t required for every paralegal position. They’re general traits I have noticed as I worked with other paralegals for almost three decades now (oh that makes me sound ancient). The term "great paralegal" can and does apply to paralegals who are committed to their job and who have a love for what they do each day regardless of whether they have any of the above traits (my list or the other list).
However, attorneys will be attorneys and they love paralegals with these traits, skills, and characteristics. They’ll consequently look for paralegals who display these types of skills and personality traits. Learning coping skills to tame my problem with patience improved my efficiency and quality of work, which helped me obtain my position as project manager.
The real trick to becoming a great paralegal is to be honest enough with yourself to identify the areas where you need to improve. Take those necessary steps - that is a true sign of a great paralegal.