“Don’t be a paralegal! You’ll hate it – all attorneys are awful.” I actually changed the last word of that sentence to keep this article G-rated. That pleasant piece of unsolicited advice is what I received from a family friend when I told a group of people I was enrolled to enter the paralegal program at my local college. This comment was made at my bridal shower and the guest’s tirade continued through cutting and serving the cake.
If you believe even half of what people say about the paralegal career, you’ll run to the other side of campus and choose another degree. But as you know, with any career, there are people who hate it, leave it, and spread awful exaggerations about it. I like to take the negative advice people give me with a grain of salt.
To start, I wanted to share my favorite paralegal movie quotes from movies that are on target when it comes to the stereotypical complaints about our field:
- Erin Brockovich (2000) – Erin Brockovich: “I don’t know s### about s### but I know the difference between right and wrong.”
- Eagle Eye (2008): Jerry Shaw to Rachel Hollorman: “What does a paralegal do?” Rachel Hollorman’s response: “The same thing as the guys with their names on the door, except I do it for $11 an hour so they can bill $200 for it.”
- Erin Brockovich (2000) – Erin Brockovich: “I hate lawyers; I just work for them.”
If you’re cynical, you could read these quotes to mean that as paralegals, we’re not intelligent because we lack law degrees, we do the same job as attorneys but are paid pennies compared to the money an attorney is paid, and, we all hate attorneys. I prefer to look at these movie quotes as they were intended — an exaggerated joke.
Unfortunately, for some paralegals these jokes may be painfully true. My advice to them is to get another job or another career. For the most part, attorneys appreciate their paralegals, treat them with respect, and reward them for a job well done. Not all, but most.
With that said, some of the paralegal advice I’ve received over the years from other paralegals, mentors, attorneys, friends, family, judges, and complete strangers has turned out to be true. Most of the time, the advice is true only until I do something to change it. We all have the ability to take something negative and change it into something positive . . . or dust off the resume and move on.
Not so perfect paralegal advice
Speak Up – Your attorney hired you to play an important role so voice what you are thinking during meetings.
A key communication skill is to be an active listener. Listen for details, listen for evidence and instructions, listen to witnesses and to your client, and of course listen to yourself. As part of your listening skills, learn to tune out gossip and background noise to focus on your job and what is important for your client. The first step in doing an exceptional job for your attorney and your client is learning to listen first, think second, and speak LAST.
Protocols and procedures: Set up procedures and protocols that can be used in every case or situation.
Yes, protocols and procedures are essential for you to juggle so many cases, tasks, demands, and people successfully. However, if you’re not flexible, your carefully structured world will crash around you. Nothing goes exactly according to plan (see my post on operating in panic mode). Unless you can switch gears quickly, turn on a dime, and go full steam in a different direction (all while remaining the perfect picture of calmness), you won’t survive in a fast-paced law firm. Be organized but build in flexibility, especially when dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty.
Prioritizing will make your job easier.
I worked for an attorney who preached this skill day in and day out. Long before tablets, he created a “to-do” list on the computer, printed it out, and walked around from desk to desk asking the status of each item on his list. Paralegals and staff members could identify the attorney’s priority list by the items he asked us about several times each day. This helped set up my priority list for him. Unfortunately, he didn’t take into consideration that the paralegals had priorities of their own that they had to complete that day or the attorney’s priorities would suffer greatly.
While having a priority list is extremely beneficial, you have to be able to revise it constantly. Most law offices are very busy and fluid – your priority list may be outdated by lunch. Revise your list “on the fly” and you’ll be far more successful in achieving your tasks on time.
There are probably many more tidbits of advice you’ve heard over the years that turned out to be the worst paralegal advice ever uttered. What would you add to the list?