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Jamie Collins

By: Jamie Collins

In light of several, recent requests for an article offering up career success tips for newbies, we decided to approach the lovely and talented Chere Estrin to ask if we could reprint an article written by yours truly, which was recently featured in the Summer Edition of KNOW, The Magazine for Paralegals. She graciously acquiesced, so today, we’re bringing Captain Obvious to the TPS floor to share a few tips!

Captain obvious or not? You tell us!

Reprinted with permission from KNOW, The Magazine for Paralegals: www.paralegalknowledge.com

Approximately 15 years ago, I entered the paralegal profession having no legal experience or education whatsoever. It was a different time and place then. One could readily break into the paralegal profession if you led with a good first impression, and had a glimmer of ambition, backed by a few key qualities attorneys sought, coupled with a chance encounter with the right person, at the right time.

I may have walked through the front door of my first law firm as a newbie, but Mother Experience proved to be a remarkable teacher. In fact, she was the best. You either learned to do the job (and do it well and fairly expeditiously), or the violins began to play, and you know what comes next. While the school of reality certainly wasn’t an exemplary model of organization and training for a wide eyed paralegal in search of a “real” career path, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. The school of sink or swim served me well.

I entered the doors of my first law firm, into an eclectic lobby where each wall was brightly painted in a different shade of bright, primary colored paint, and the room was lined with sleek, black, leather furniture, and accentuated by modular tables. It was that law firm that I would not only learn to call home, but where I would be introduced to my best teacher. Her name was “Reality.” It was on my 20th birthday.

It was just a few short days later when I realized that I had been dunked into the shark tank.  I may have been a bit clueless and inexperienced back then, but I was determined that I was going to make the most of it or die trying.  How did I survive? I used these tips:

I always actively asked questions if I didn’t know something I thought I needed to know. I know, this one sounds obvious. Let me assure you that it isn’t. Do not fool yourself into thinking, “Well, of course you ask questions if you need to know something, duh!” It’s not that simple.

Basically, in order to ask a question, you must (1) swallow your pride and/or push aside your ego; (2) admit you do not know something to another person in your office; (3) approach the appropriate person for the question at hand; (4) glean the necessary information you need to carry out the task; and (5) make the response meaningful by committing it for future reference.

So, how do you crash and burn on this one, you ask? Let me count the ways: (1) You worry that others in the office may think you don’t know what you’re doing, so you don’t ask; (2) you ask the question, but in a very ineffective and nonchalant manner; (3) ask the wrong person altogether or someone who isn’t truly capable of answering; (4) do ask, but fail to glean the necessary information in order to understand and/or complete the task; (5) try to ask the right follow up questions, but retreat prior to having a full understanding of what you need; (6) actually manage to ask the right questions, but fail to make the data meaningful by writing it down.

If you’re going to ask a question of a co-worker, try this:

(1)   Determine that there is no way around asking this question. You need the answer and you will seek it;

(2)  Decide what it is you really must know to complete the task.

(3)   Who is the best person to approach? The appropriate person for one question may not be appropriate for another.

(4)   Please, for the love of sanity, bring a notepad and pen with you, and write down what this brilliant soul tells you. It is a gesture of respect to actively listen and take notes. A trainer is likely to spend more time with you if he or she sees that you respect their expertise, appreciate their time and copiously take notes.

(5)   Do not retreat until you have the information you need.  Yes, this tip also applies when asking your attorneys questions.

Granted, they can seem a bit intimidating, but their failure to explain something well is not necessarily a reflection upon your intelligence or perceived lack thereof. Ask follow up questions. Unless it’s simply a bad time, do not (I repeat…do not) walk away until you have the information.

I cannot tell you how many people I have trained that would come back to ask me a question, and never write down a thing, only to return to my office a few moments or hours later or the next day with the exact same question, and no clue how to answer it. This is a process you must embrace in order to (1) not look like an idiot; (2) get the job done; (3) avoid irritating your co-workers and supervisors for no good reason; and (4) remain gainfully employed.

I was professional and nice to everyone in the office – all the time. Yep, all the time.Over the years I’ve learned that attorneys seem to allow a lot of discord to go on inside small law firms, yet, in spite of that, I could tell they knew who played nicely with others in the paralegal sandbox – and I was one of them. I certainly faced my fair share of staff members who were crazy, hysterical, engaged in constant antics, threw fits, dressed inappropriately, spoke inappropriately or cried regularly for reasons unknown, but through it all, I remained professional. While wrongdoers may not have been punished, mental notes are made about their behavior.

Be professional and nice to everyone in the office – all the time.  Attorneys and other staff members do take notice. Make the good list, not the bad one.

I possessed a strong desire to learn. You’re bound to screw up some things along the way when a particular job or perhaps even an entire career is new to you.  Your desire to learn, and ability to embrace challenges will keep you gainfully employed.

An employer can overlook a mistake much more easily if they know you didn’t intend for it to happen, have accepted and learned, and possess a strong desire to steer the SS Paralegal back on course. In the end, if you don’t want to learn the job, someone else will.

Never deflect responsibility – own it.  Of all the mistakes I’ve seen co-workers make, this one unequivocally holds the top spot – hands down. Admittedly, I’ve made this mistake on many occasions during the early years of my career.

Typically, if a superior approaches you about a problem, your first reaction is to explain how it happened. Stop! Just stop. Wrong approach.

While you may feel inclined to “explain” to your boss how the mistake happened, this almost always sounds like a personal deflection of accountability. When you say “Well, I called the court and they told me I only needed 1 copy,” it sounds like you are blaming the clerk. It’s not her problem…it’s yours. The attorney is now standing in your office. What you mean to say is, “I’m sorry there were issues with that filing. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Your attorney simply wants you to own up to the mistake, and not to dodge culpability for that mistake, however small or insignificant. The easiest way to remove an annoyed attorney from your office in this type of situation is to acknowledge the mistake, own it, and if appropriate, apologize. This will disengage the attorney and prompt his swift removal from your office.

Watch the greatness around you.  Chances are, great people are all around you at your law firm. Take notice of the people around you who exhibit the professional traits you’d like to possess. It could be something as simple as a positive attitude or something more complex, like an extensive knowledge of all that is legal. You may also need to go a step further.

Perhaps there is a person in your office all of the attorneys readily turn to, but you have no idea exactly what is so great about her. Watch this person closely. It won’t take long for you to determine what it is she’s doing to make her so successful. I once conducted an observation study of my own, and found that this particular paralegal’s secret was the absolute confidence she conveyed when accepting a new task. She was confident, poised, competent, and happy to accept tasks each and every time. It was an art form, and one I began to incorporate into my daily work life. It became an integral part of my career from then until now. Watch the people around you who are successful. Once you determine their key quality for success, work to emulate it. Allow their success traits to become yours.

Never stop actively learning. Don’t call me Captain Obvious! There is a big difference between learning and “active” learning. When a new pleading hits your desk containing an array of lovely Latin words in the title, and you have absolutely no idea what it means, seek out an attorney and ask to have it explained. Utilize the W & H method: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

In other words: who filed this; what is it; when is the appropriate time in a case to file this; where could you find more information; why would you file it; and how would you go about doing it? Whether it’s a Motion in Limine, Pro Hac Vice, a Subpoena Duces Tecum or a 12(B)(6) Motion, go through the W&H process and add it to your paralegal reference binder. Learn something new every day. This field is complex! That’s part of what makes it so fun!

Start utilizing these simple career tips today to transform to take your career from “status quo” to “go paralegal go!” Embrace your inner Captain Obvious, use these simple career tips, and show that law firm exactly who they hired: a bright, eager, ambitious, fiercely talented, high caliber paralegal with a knack for asking the right questions, the right way. That paralegal with a flare for success is you!

We hope you’re making it through yet another work week fairly unscathed, paralegals! If your limbs are still attached, there isn’t an attorney following closely behind you down the hall beckoning your name, your cell phone isn’t ringing with missed calls from crazy land, and you are actually in route to the weekend, things aren’t really so bad after all! Go seize that weekend full fury! RUN!!! 

We’ll see you on Monday.