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By: Jamie Collins
“Stress is the negative whirlwind of emotions that gets imposed on top of our stimulation and engagement.” – Andrew J. Bernstein (See also: a paralegal job)
I’m sending today’s post—a topic written upon request—out to all of the incredibly ambitious, hard-working students at Georgetown University, and one of their professors (a dear friend of mine), Amy Bowser-Rollins a/k/a the Litigation Support Guru. This one’s for you.
As most of you know, I started my first job as a paralegal with no experience. Yep, make that a big, fat, underwhelming zero. I wasn’t just slightly intimidated by the lawyers and the work; I was gripped in quiet terror. Calm on the outside and screaming for mercy on the inside, pretty much on a daily basis. I mean, it’s not like I thought they’d actually kill me or anything (okay, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate, after having made a mistake or twelve in the twilight hour), but to say the learning curve for a newbie paralegal is arduous for the first few years in a paralegal career is like saying paralegals kinda, sorta, might just a little, itty-bitty bit like chocolate and Fridays. Ha. The learning curve was epic. And not in a good way, either. Fun times. I remember every scar.
As a semi-sane paralegal who has now spent the past 19 years working for esquires in the legal trenches, looking back, I’ve come to the realization there are some things that have saved my sanity along the way. That’s what we’re going to talk about today. But before we get to that…
I confess the following:
- I am officially O.C.D., but not by the standard definition. In the legal realm, that actually stands for “Occupationally Controlling Details.” That. Is. Me. I perform my routine tasks the same way each and every time. (For the most part. We’ll get to why that is important later.)
- If you touch the blue pen that is always conspicuously placed, at all times, about ½ inch to the right of my square, black mouse pad on my desk—I will cut you. (Do I sound like I’m kidding? Death by paralegal is an entirely viable way to die, people. No part of me is joking.)
- As a paralegal, I’m kind of like a legal super hero and an assembly line worker, all conveniently rolled into one caffeinated, black suited, high-heeled wearing package. (Most good paralegals are. Perhaps, without the heels.)
But enough with the confessions. Let’s get to the good stuff.
At some point in my career, one thing became apparent to me. If I found myself enveloped in the midst of stressed out esquires, impossible tasks, and a minefield of expiring deadlines, I needed to learn how to survive. I never used to understand how an esquire would think that I, the newbie paralegal person, could possibly know whether I (the now instantaneously clueless one, upon verbal prompting) sent out some random letter 12 days ago to some fella on a case. I’d slept since then; 12 times. The truth is, to this day, I still don’t always know the answer to the random questions straight out of the gate, but my systems and O.C.D. have saved my weary soul on many, many occasions. Daily, actually. So today, I’m here to tell you why it pays to be an O.C.D. paralegal. (I’m pretty sure the best ones are.)
I control every aspect of all of the things I can control in my own personal work world for a reason. Things get crazy. And fast. Not only do I know where everything is located on my desk, but I can confirm that the flaps on my large mailing envelopes are always faced to the right, my blue pen is always in the same place on my desk, and every single file I’ve ever created looks the exact same, with a few trial exceptions created after the fact. I once had a coworker laugh when I asked her to train one of our newbie interns on how to properly open a file. She turned to me and replied, “Uh, I think you’d probably better do it. I’m not nearly as O.C.D. as you are about opening my files [insert coworker laughing, but being dead serious at the same time here].”
That’s left tab, middle tab, right tab, and so on and so forth, with uniform labels affixed to the front of each manila folder, a label on the front, completed Lawdex card taped onto the “Contracts and Authorizations” folder in the front, etc. I refuse to open them any other way. If we’re out of left facing tabs, I’ll wait. It’s simply the way I roll. I assumed every paralegal in the firm (and for that matter, on the planet) set up files the same way. Methodically. But I was mistaken. It turns out, there is a special club for O.C.D. paralegals like me, and you’re totally invited. You can be my plus one.
When the chaos hits—and trust me—it will, the last thing you need to be is a paralegal on an island (not the kind with sun, umbrella drinks, and cabana boys, but stranded on the type with florescent bulbs, freaked our esquires, and the fiery sands of hell) wondering which way her envelopes are facing or whether or not he did, in fact, send a particular letter that is now of paramount importance, as the esquire sends the 100-yard-soul-stare your way, perched in fury in your doorway or at your desk, like he’s about to pounce on the jugular of a certain paralegal person standing in the fray. Yep, things get crazy fast. (Fun place, right?) The stress is real. The deadlines are unrelenting. The impossible tasks are endless. The attorneys are stressed out and about to flip out. And it is for those reasons you must be organized like a stealth ninja with everything that is within your control ready to roll out at any given time in the 8-5.
Envelope? Facing right. Pen? To the right. Everything you need to function from a supply capacity? Within 2 feet of you. And if you always perform each type of task (especially routine ones or those involving multiple steps, like preparing court filings, compiling trial binders, or scheduling depositions) the same way each and every time, it’s easy for you to take a quick peek to see where you are on a particular task and whether or not you sent the letter when the voice of authority bellows.
Be methodical. Form a routine and stick to it. Set up systems. Follow them. It will save you, and your sanity, at least in part. Once the stress looms, you’ll be too far gone to control the things you can control proactively.
In the past, I’ve had interns look at me like a circus freak, when I clearly articulate how we’re going to always ensure that envelope flaps face the same way and will perform each task I train them to do in a methodical manner that likely borders insanity to an outsider looking in. But it’s not about control. It’s really to teach them something beyond the lesson at hand. It’s to teach them how to be methodical and why it’s important. The moment that prowling esquire approaches and the stress hangs thick in the air, they will sure wish they knew which way those envelopes were facing and whether or not they sent out the letter to James Doe on March 5th of 2010. It hits hard and fast. There is no warning. The time to think about envelope flaps and the location of Post-It notes and tabbies is gone. Knowing how to quickly ascertain the status on a particular task is necessary. It’s go time. Preparation and planning are key. You have to be ready for it before you need to be ready for it. The ability to do this will also be crucial to not only your sanity level, but your success as a paralegal.
As a paralegal, I’ve learned that I cannot control a lot of things swirling in the periphery around me: the personalities, the projects, the overabundance of work, the crazy hours required at trial time, the frustration of clients because litigation takes a long time, and a wide array of other things. But what I have also learned is that I’m going to control the things I can. Methodically. And when that moment from hell presents itself to me, served up with a fresh heap of pleadings, 2 impossible tasks, one stressed out attorney, and 3 deadlines looming—I’m your girl. Sign me up. I stand ready, willing, and able to assassinate problems.
The reason for Occupationally Controlling Details? Survival. Sanity. Success. Besides, the blue ink pen conveniently located next to the mousepad also doubles as a makeshift weapon. After all, I am a paralegal ninja. I keep my folder flaps to the right, the manila tabs alternating left to right, and my mind in the calm hanging just below the fray.
I hope you’ll join me.
“I like having a routine, because everything else… is so unpredictable.” – Jordana Brewster
“I guess darkness serves a purpose: to show us that there is redemption through chaos. I believe in that. I think that’s the basis of Greek mythology [and paralegaling].” – Brendan Fraser
Thanks for stopping by the blog today, TPS readers! Are you O.C.D. like me? Were you trained by an individual who was riding the Type A train? Hit that comment button. Tell us about it!
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out and subscribe to my new personal blog – Just Being Jamie. As always, I promise not to hit the blank page lightly. (Rumor has it I might be inspiring or hilarious. The jury is still o-u-t. Give it a gander.) And if you have any interest in litigation support or technology tips, be sure to subscribe to Amy’s blog: Litigation Support Guru. She’s awesome! The advice is free.
We’ll see you next time! Until then, keep on keeping on, and go save those esquires. The legal trenches await, my friends.