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By: Jamie Collins
This article was reprinted with permission from the Institute for Paralegal Education. To subscribe to IPE’s monthly newsletters (where this article was published) go to: http://www.nbi-sems.com/subscribe. It’s free and a great resource! We highly recommend it. (You can also join IPE’s LinkedIn group).
Institute for Paralegal Education, Tools of the Trade, November, 2011.
Guest Author: Jamie Collins
If the title for this month’s Top Ten Pointers caught your eye, then perhaps it’s for good reason. Do you currently find yourself at your first legal job or perhaps in the early stages of your legal career longing for more? Have you reached a professional crossroads or issued a personal proclamation that it’s time to take your career to the next level? Do you have your gaze fixed intently on the top rungs of the paralegal ladder? If you can identify with any of these situations, then this article is for you! Read these Top Ten Pointers, so you begin to climb the paralegal ladder and secure yourself a coveted spot in the paralegal kingdom. The climb will be long and arduous, but well worth it. The groundwork for your induction into the paralegal hall of fame begins today! Let’s get started.
1. Create a paralegal dashboard. You must first determine what it is you are truly seeking. Is it a new job, bigger paycheck, notoriety, professional respect, a better network, employment with a more prestigious firm, a window office, higher social status or simply to learn more and excel in your chosen profession? Perhaps you want to become heavily involved in a paralegal association, secure a promotion, become a writer, obtain a RP or CP designation, land a better job or enhance your paralegal skills? You must create a paralegal dashboard.
Your dashboard should be intentional and specific. You need to set forth an agenda for your professional goals and write them out. Your goals must be clear, definable and realistic. They should also be measurable. For example, “be a better paralegal” is not a measurable goal. You need to map out where you want to be in three months, six months, one year, two years, five years, etc. Be specific. Define your career goals in writing, so you can refer to your list and assess your progress as you climb the paralegal ladder. Step one is to create a clear and concise paralegal dashboard. Start yours today!
2. Be prepared and if you aren’t – get that way! This is especially important for new paralegals; those entrenched in their first paralegal job or individuals that are gearing up to enter the workforce after college. Heed this message: It is your responsibility to insure that you can do your job — and do it well. Repeat after me: the words “I do not know how to do this” are not an excuse, nor a reason, and I will not act as though they are an escape clause. If you do not know how to perform a particular task assigned to you — that may not be your fault! It may be due to a lack of formal education, training or experience. However, it certainly is your problem – isn’t it? You need to solve it! It is a real pet peeve for any attorney or coworker to hear someone utter the words “but, I don’t know how to…” Erase them from your vocabulary.
If you find yourself wanting to utter the forbidden phrase, you need to reprogram your dialogue. What you should say is: “Could you please show me how to do this? -or- I’ve never done this before, but I’d really like to learn how! -or- Could you tell me where I can find more information on this? -or- Who could help me learn how to do this?” See the difference? Your boss and co-workers certainly will! You should seek out information, peruse the internet, search for educational resources and find people that can help you to learn how to do your job. After all, it’s your job! Be prepared and if you aren’t — get that way!
3. Do not worry about asking too many questions, worry about not learning enough. Let’s face it; the paralegal world is complex…especially when you first enter it. It is important that you ask good questions (and lots of them) to learn all that you need to know. Bring your pen. Please be sure to write down the answers you seek. Attorneys, paralegals and other staff members really don’t mind answering your questions, but they would prefer that you take an active interest in their responses. If you always keep a written record of each new thing you learn, you will have a terrific source of reference material to draw from in the future. You should also compile a list of all attorney numbers, log in information, vendor contact information and other helpful tidbits. The best paralegals typically compile tons of information, articles, research, and forms which they keep readily accessible, often in a binder, for future reference. You should do the same. Start yourself a paralegal binder today!
4. “I don’t have time to do this the right way – right now.” Wrong! All the time is the time to do things the “right” way. There is no wrong or bad time. As a paralegal, you get bombarded with assignments, deadlines, projects, and an endless barrage of work requests from attorneys, but you should always strive to do things the right way, even when you’re short on time and when your office starts to resemble the Library of Congress. It will take you more time to resolve the issues you will inherently create by not doing things right from the onset. You can’t unscramble an egg, no matter how hard you try. The same can also be said of a major mistake or shortcoming that is made due to a perceived lack of time on your part. You do have time and if you don’t, you’ll just have to make time. Don’t force yourself to navigate a retroactive minefield later, as you attempt to deal with your past shortcomings and oversights. Make it a habit to do things the right way – every day.
5. Hello paralegal auditor! Let’s face it, we base our opinions of other people based on how they present themselves. We assess their verbiage, physical demeanor, attire, and anything else we can “dig up” about them. We make judgments, and sometimes harsh ones. Employers are no different. A professional audit may be necessary, especially if you are having difficulty securing employment or making your way up the paralegal ladder.
Brace yourself – this means you may need to promptly go re-work that Facebook or LinkedIn profile! Employers want to see a poised, polished and professional individual. I would recommend that you approach one person who is outside your “friends” circle. Seek out a neutral, candid, professional person and ask him or her to “view” you through a professional lense. This “auditor” should peruse your social networking sites, resume and cover letter. You must get your legal house in order. If in doubt, conduct a paralegal audit today.
6. Don’t row the boat alone. If you’re riding on the “SS Paralegal” all alone, you are making a major career misstep. Everyone needs a support group. I am not talking about just having “a mentor,” but an entire paralegal support system in place. If you are working in a small firm or in a rural area, networking can present issues. I’ve certainly been there. However, you can still find a supportive paralegal infrastructure, in spite of your firm size or location. There are plenty of great paralegal forums you can join on LinkedIn. There is no shortage of friendly, experienced paralegals that are willing to help you. You simply need to be open to meeting them and approaching them (yes, you don’t already know them, but you need to reach out to them) for additional support. It is important that you extend an olive branch to others paralegals. Surround yourself with happy, positive, successful paralegals and build a social infrastructure. Social media allows you no excuses! Go find yourself a support group!
There are also several outstanding paralegal blogs you can follow on the net. A simple search for “Top Paralegal Blogs” on Google and the blogosphere will be at your fingertips! You can check out my social forum, The Paralegal Society TM at: www.theparalegalsociety.wordpress.com. Put action in place of your excuses for not having a paralegal support group. No excuses! There’s no better time than the present to build your paralegal empire.
7. One thing they never taught you in paralegal school: The poker face. I perked your curiosity with the title, didn’t I? The poker face is a critical paralegal trait. There will be many days when your boss will assign you a task and: (1) you have no idea what the task even “is” and are utterly clueless about how to perform it; or (2) it seems impossible (and perhaps it is). There you’ll be, sitting at your desk, gazing up at your boss in a state of sheer paralegal bewilderment, as your heart begins to palpitate, you feel your face go flush with paranoia, and your mind races with thoughts of staging a paralegal revolt. In that very moment, you will feel like a claustrophobic person being shoved into a tic-tac box, while deprived of oxygen. It happens…and often. There will also be occasions when your supervising attorney will irritate or annoy you in some fashion. In these scenarios, it is imperative that you maintain a poker face. You must learn to harness your frustration, stress and anger because you will encounter these emotions, accompanied with chaos, on a regular basis. You must appear calm under pressure. An Emmy nomination in the category “dramatic and frustrated paralegal of the year” will only win you diminished respect in the eyes of your peers and supervising attorney. You must master the poker face.
I was once sent by my attorney to a site inspection with our expert witness and five (yes – five!) attorneys from other law firms, namely the bigger ones in town. He did not want to attend, so I, at his request, found myself at an apartment site inspection. I was in a small apartment with probably 10 people total — attorneys, our expert and a defense expert. Was that a bit intimidating? Absolutely. Could they tell I was intimidated? No. I was the “Queen of Cool.” I had to take charge of the situation. They had to ask me, as the Plaintiff’s representative that was present, if they could go ahead and remove balcony railings prior to actually doing it. Having no clue, I confidently turned to our expert and asked if he needed to do anything beforehand. The poker face was in full effect. I was there to get the job done and I did so in a confident, poised and professional manner. Now, secretly, I may have wanted to hurl myself off of that 3rd story balcony, but the only person who knew that was me! You must use a poker face when the need arises. It is a professional requirement.
8. The only person you should be competing with is yourself. I cannot stress this point enough. Edward Gibbon, in a profound and eloquent quote, stated: “We improve ourselves by victories over ourself. There must be contests, and you must win.” Don’t worry about the rest of the paralegals. They aren’t your problem. They may, however, become a part of your solution. Do not view others around you as “ the competition.” This is a personal and professional mistake. You need to realize that the only person you are ever really competing with is yourself. If you want to become better, focus on you. Don’t worry about what the mean paralegal in the cubicle across the hall is doing (or not doing) and the same holds true of the top shelf paralegal down the hall — although you should be watching him or her like a hawk to learn from him or her. You need to befriend all the people you can throughout your paralegal journey. Although people can be personally competitive by nature, this is not necessary. Your biggest competition is you. You can get to where you want to me by doing what you need to do. This is all about your personal evolution, so focus on y-o-u.
9. Master the art of legal triage. One day, Julie Weinkauf (of IPE) and I engaged in an e-mail exchange. We touch base from time to time regarding writing topics and other legal endeavors. It was a Monday and Julie was “fresh” back from vacation and completely overwhelmed by the multitude of e-mails, stockpile of phone messages and stacks of work that awaited her. We can all certainly relate to “that” feeling, can’t we? It was on that day that Julie shared the concept of “legal triage” with me. She refers to Mondays as her “legal triage” days. I loved this concept so much that I wanted to share it with you.
Merriam Webster defines legal triage as: “1(a): the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients [clients] and especially battle and disaster victims [clients and attorneys] according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors. (b): the sorting of patients [clients and attorneys] as in an emergency room [your office], according to the urgency of their need for care. 2. 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.” Sound familiar? The words “spot on” come to mind!
In all honesty, I feel like my legal triage days occur on all days that end in “y.” As a Paralegal, you must constantly assess tasks and deadlines and realign your priorities, as required by each and every “legal trauma” that comes your way. This can be accomplished by following: The 5 A’s:
Approach & Acknowledge– (1) You are made aware of the pending assignment, project or crisis; and (2) you acknowledge it;
Assessment – You must determine what the task or crisis actually “is” and what all it will entail;
Analysis – Ask yourself: Is this task, project or crisis of a critical or urgent nature or can it wait? For how long? If it can wait, then you will need to reprioritize it with all of your other work; and
Action – Take action to resolve the crisis or complete the task at the appropriate time.
Legal triage is a constant, daily struggle in the paralegal realm. It is absolutely imperative that you become an expert in this area. You must learn to properly assess priorities, make informed decisions, multi-task, and get the job done. If you aren’t sure how to rank your work priorities, approach a helpful coworker or your supervising attorney for guidance. Over time, you will learn how to properly prioritize your assignments and master the art of legal triage if you follow the 5 A’s. (Full credit to Julie Weinkauf of IPE for the legal triage concept and her generous permission to share it in this article).
10. Become “who” you want to be. I know this may sound like a tacky motivational slogan, but it’s true! You need to figure out what kind of paralegal you want to become. People are created. We are all engaged in a constant state of personal evolution – or at least we should be. You can think in terms of practice areas you want to work in, enhancing you skill set, becoming actively involved in professional organizations, landing a gig as a professional writer or speaker, increasing your knowledge base by attending CLE’s, webinars, paralegal conferences and other events…the list goes on and on.
Who is it you want to become? It is easier than one might think to transform into the person you want to be professionally. It’s basically two steps: (1) Make that determination as to who you want to become; and (2) Seek out all necessary people, resources, groups and means over time to make it happen! You will find that most organizations and legal groups want new members and are especially in search of “active” members. Most paralegals like to network with their peers! You need to formally reach out and expend the necessary effort to actively involve yourself in all areas in which you seek professional growth. Figure out who you want to be! We’re all waiting for you to reach out to us…
Bonus Tip: Build bridges and Don’t Kick at Others From the Top of the Mountain! Once you make your way to the top of that coveted paralegal ladder, do your fellow paralegals and the profession all a favor – don’t kick at others down below! Paralegals who succeed typically take one of two approaches: (1) they help other paralegals (especially the newer paralegals) because they remember what it’s like to be new and they want to give back; or (2) they kick at others from the top of the mountain because they’ve finally “made it” and feel inclined to “act” like they’re a big deal. I implore you to take the first approach. Reach out to others. This is a fabulous profession and most of us working in it really do love what we do. We want to convey a warm and professional image for our professional — so don’t kick at others from the top of the paralegal mountain!
Jamie Collins is a senior level litigation paralegal with the firm Yosha Cook Shartzer & Tisch in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she handles predominantly personal injury and wrongful death cases. She is the Founder and Owner of The Paralegal Society™ (www.theparalegalsociety.wordpress.com), a social forum created to educate, motivate and inspire paralegals. She is a Program Review Member for the Institute for Paralegal Education and a Panel Member for the Paralegal Program at Marian University. Jamie writes a popular column entitled KNOW Business for KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals and is often featured as a guest blogger on The Estrin Report. She also works as a paralegal subject matter expert consultant for a leading educational institution. Jamie earned her Associate’s degree in Paralegal Studies from Ivy Tech State College in 2003, and continues to work toward completion of her Bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Marian University. She enjoys providing mentorship to paralegals that are new to the legal field. Please feel free to reach out to her via e-mail with your comments or questions at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you missed Part I of this two part series entitled, “Top Ten Pointers for New Paralegals Climbing the Paralegal Ladder,” click to read it in full: cToolsOfTheTradeMay2011.htm.
Institute for Paralegal Education • 1218 McCann Drive • Altoona, WI 54720 • © 2011, Institute for Paralegal Education, a division of NBI, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
TPS readers: Do you have any tips or suggestions you would like to share with our readers regarding the path to success? Have you utilized any of these tips on your own journey up the paralegal ladder? Do you have anything you’d like to add? Please feel free to leave a comment! We’d love to hear from you.