I worked for an attorney who would say on a weekly basis, “This is not an emergency room. We are not performing life and death surgery.” He used this statement any time someone in the office hit the panic button. I'll admit that he had a unique perspective because his wife was an emergency room physician who dealt with real life and death situations on a daily basis. He's the only attorney I worked for during my career as a paralegal who never hit the panic button. This is extremely rare. While some attorneys hit the panic button frequently, for a variety of reasons, a great attorney knows the difference between a true emergency and just another day at a busy law firm.
I worked for another attorney who had a hard rule that no one was allowed to speak to him for the first 30 minutes he was in the office. He said that he never walked into the office when there was not an emergency. For this reason, he refused to deal with anyone or anything until he had at least 30 minutes to check emails, listen to voice mails, and drink a cup of coffee. He refused to give into the concept that someone’s failure to act constituted an emergency on his part. He believed that every emergency was a direct result of someone’s failure to do their job correctly.
Over time I learned that a good paralegal operates somewhere in the middle of these two concepts. We realize that our attorneys and others around us push the panic button but we refuse to be controlled by their sense of panic. A good paralegal knows that the best way to handle any crisis is to be proactive. This includes handling a boss that pushes the panic button on a daily basis. Yes, I have worked for that type of attorney, too!
The Definition of “Panic”
The definition of panic is a “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety that causes wildly unthinking behavior.” When someone panics, they stop thinking and offer little to no help in resolving the problem. Attorneys operating in panic mode may do so because they're disorganized and fail to set priorities. It could be a part of the attorney’s personality that is difficult to control. Regardless of the reason, it’s the paralegal’s job to remain calm in the face of a “life and death” crisis.
You are an expert problem solver, a master negotiator, and a skillful communicator. You have an amazing analytical mind that pays attention to detail, remaining calm in the face of crisis. This is also the definition of a triage nurse. While you may not be dealing literally with life and death in your law firm, there’s a lot you can learn from a triage nurse.
Triage in a Law Firm
Merriam-Webster defines triage as:
- The sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors.
- The assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success.
Let’s look at each of these definitions in terms of dealing with an attorney who always seems to be in crisis mode. In both definitions, handling a crisis requires the paralegal to be able to assess the situation quickly and assign priorities. You must first get as much information as you can about the situation and make your own assessment considering the level of urgency. Just because your attorney believes every situation is a crisis doesn't mean that EVERY situation is, in fact, a crisis. If your attorney's in panic mode, you should be concerned and you should act quickly. However, what you do is as important as how quickly you do it. First, use your analytical skills to look at all of the details and determine the priority of tasks.
Assigning priority also means using your resources efficiently. Your resources may include other staff members and professionals outside of the firm as well as your attorney and yourself. Delegate the highest priority tasks to individuals who are best suited to perform those tasks. Many attorneys who operate in panic mode believe they need to do everything themselves. By helping your attorney delegate tasks, you are helping to defuse the panic. Set up a schedule and procedure for everyone to report their progress so the attorney feels a sense of control. Control defuses panic.
Another important element is having a system. Think of this in terms of a fire drill. In one particular law firm where I previously worked, the offices were on the 15th floor. As office manager, I was required to make sure everyone participated in fire drills. We had several employees who complained each time we had a fire drill. They didn't like walking down stairs and were very vocal about the absurdity of practicing vacating a building. In their minds, they didn't need to practice leaving the office. However, the reason behind the fire drills was to practice walking down the stairs (something we're capable of doing in a normal situation). If you do this enough, in an emergency situation when the stairs are filled with smoke and people are shouting and panicking, the hope is that you'll “automatically” perform the same procedure you did during all of the non-emergency practices.
If you have a system in place for dealing with various small and large problems that arise, you’re less likely to panic. When faced with a crisis, follow the procedures in your system. Unfortunately, the paralegals with the best systems are typically the ones who work for a panic mode boss – it’s a necessity. They’ve learned that being organized and having a system for handling various matters is the best way to deal with a boss who creates some type of crisis to panic about each day. Being organized is one of the best defenses against panic because it gives you a “safe and practiced route” to get out of the burning building. Remember, your boss may have set the fire but it’s your job to put it out each time. It’s one of many roles we play each day as a paralegal – crisis manager, problem solver, communications director, negotiator, researcher, director and, above all, a team player.
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).