Whether you’re new to the profession or you have years of experience as a paralegal, you may find yourself working in an unfamiliar practice area. You may be ‘learning by fire’ and not feeling confident about how you’re getting the job done. You may not have enough contact with your supervising attorney or feel like you’re bothering him/her with constant questions. Even if you’re not working in a new practice area, there are always new rules and procedures that you need to figure out.
Here are twelve tips that will help you survive these situations and thrive in your career:
Just like the cable company, adopt the habit of ‘bundling.’ Try saving all the questions you need to ask the attorney and present them all at once. It’s tough to flag down a busy person and they don’t like frequent interruptions that take them away from their work. If you can schedule one or two fifteen minute meetings (say, first thing in the morning and perhaps immediately after lunch), you may find a more willing listener.
Does your state have guidelines for the utilization of paralegals? If not, the American Bar Association has published Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services. Those are available at this link. Your national professional association may also have guidelines in place. For instance, the NALA, the assocation for paralegals and legal assistants, has guidelines available by following this link. Once you have located guidelines, make a copy and then discuss the guidelines with your employer. Tell him/her that you really like your job and you like working for him/her but there are some areas where you feel uncomfortable and could he/she help you with those. If your employer doesn’t know that you need this help, he or she can’t provide what you need.
Be sure you are getting the supervision that is required for nonlawyer staff. Remember that the attorney is to review your work before it leaves the office and that nonlawyers cannot sign pleadings or correspondence that offers legal advice.
Familiarize yourself with the court rules for your state and your local jurisdiction. Know where to find requirements and time frames for any filings you’ll be doing. It’s your responsibility to know this for calendaring and for planning when work needs to be done.
Are there similar older or closed files you can follow? They would give you great ideas for procedure that’s been followed in the past, documents that have been drafted, and correspondence that’s been sent. Be sure to ask the attorney if there is another file you can follow or another client with similar issues.
Make the court staff your new best friends. They are usually happy to help with procedure and they may have checklists and forms you can use. Be sure to treat them with respect and be lavish with your thanks.
Create your own procedures manual. This should include forms, checklists, contact lists, and helpful Web sites. The more systems you can put in place, the smoother your transition into this new practice area will be.
Seek out continuing education opportunities, especially in the new practice area. You should consider certification and advanced certification. There are also a number of online courses (remember that The Paralegal Mentor offers a few that might work) that should be convenient for you to attend.
Take an active role in paralegal forums. Two good ones are provided by Paralegal Gateway and by Legal Assistant Today. NALA also provides a good forum for members. The paralegals who post on those venues are very generous with their expertise and advice. They will generally share forms and their knowledge of procedure.
Join local, state and national professional associations. After you’ve joined, become an involved member: go to meetings, run for office, join in discussions and educational events. This will provide chances for networking with other paralegals who do the same work you do. Professional newsletters and journals offer lots of articles that may help you with your situation.
Find a mentor. Ask someone who has experience in the practice area to help you learn the ropes. Again, most paralegals are incredibly generous with their time and their expertise.
Use social media as a resource. Establish accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, provide a professional profile and dive in. Be sure to join whatever groups work for you, too. This is a great way to ask questions, locate resources and learn about educational opportunities. Just remember that whatever you post on these sites can be viewed by everyone so keep everything you do on a professional level.
Your challenge: When you find yourself saying, “Holy Moly…what do I do now?” take a step back, analyze the situation, and decide which of the above tips will work for you. You will probably find more than one. Then, step by step, learn all about the new practice area or the new procedure. Before you know it, you’ll be offering tips and advice to other paralegals.
©2000 Vicki Voisin, Inc. If you want to reprint this article in your newsletter or at your blog, you may do so but you must include the following: Vicki Voisin, “The Paralegal Mentor”, delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by setting goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, ethics issues, organizational tips, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a bi-weekly ezine titled Strategies for Paralegals Seeking Excellence. More information is available at www.paralegalmentor.com (Subscribers receive a free special report titled ‘Is Your Computer Talking Behind Your Back?’ and are invited to attend free monthly Paralegal Mentor Mastermind Calls that feature guest experts discussing issues of interest to the paralegal field.)