January 17, 2013 Articles

What They Didn't Teach in Law School: Working with a Paralegal

Paralegals know just as much as attorneys and, in some regards, even more.

By Paul D. Edger

When I graduated from Widener Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I had spent the past three years in law school learning everything I could to prepare for the bar exam while also serving in the American Bar Association and interning with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. After graduating, I eventually joined a small firm, the Law Offices of Peter J. Russo, P.C., in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, which is composed of the managing partner, office staff, and me. What I never expected as a first-year associate was being assigned a paralegal who worked with and answered directly to me. For the three years I spent in law school and even following graduation, I created the mindset of assisting senior lawyers with tasks such as drafting pleadings, researching for hours in a local law library, and even copying and mailing. For years, law professors always said, “When you graduate, you will be in a library every day for the next three to five years until you work your way up.” I can honestly say that’s how I imagined the first five years of my life after I passed the bar.

When I found that I would have Derek, my paralegal, to assist me with everyday items, which alleviated some of the stress and complexity that comes with being an attorney, it took a few months to understand the relationship between attorneys and paralegals. As I write this article, Ashley, our office manager, has returned from maternity leave, and the stress and pressure have finally lifted, allowing us to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am fortunate and privileged to work with my staff since I started at my firm eight months ago. And I learned one major thing: Paralegals know just as much as attorneys and, in some regards, even more.

What law school does not teach students is how to deal with office staff and paralegals. It often seems that freshly barred attorneys and even those with more experience do not respect paralegals and support staff and fail to appreciate their valuable contributions to the practice of law. Although I am not an expert in what attorneys should know about paralegals and how attorneys should conduct themselves with their staff, I have realized what paralegals and other office staff would like new attorneys to know.

1. They are just like you. Every firm expects different contributions from paralegals and support staff, and, usually, no two are ever the same. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations defines a paralegal as “a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.” Ultimately, the definition of paralegals solidifies my mantra about paralegals: “They are just like an attorney, just without the debt.” When law students leave law school, they likely feel that they know everything about the law. The thing is paralegals do too. In fact, paralegals actually know more about everyday tasks and rules than attorneys. For example, my paralegal knows more about the rules of court for the surrounding counties that I practice in as a family law specialist and can recite the rules in a way that I should be able to recite them in court. As an attorney, I should and do know the rules; however, without the assistance of someone like Derek who knows those rules and has that understanding of procedure and substantive law, I would be at a loss on a daily basis. Whether it is confirming service and other aspects of civil procedure, my paralegal keeps me on my toes and never lets me fail.

When I enrolled in law school, I told myself that I wanted to be a criminal law attorney and possibly work in the district attorney’s office. When I was hired as the associate for my firm, I knew that family law would become my specialty. For my first couple of months, Derek knew more about the law than I did, and, in a way, I feel that Derek taught me family law. While I could read books and treatises and learn the law, Derek had the benefit of years of experience that gave me the reliability you cannot always receive from a book. However, do not forget to let your paralegal relationship work in the reverse. Ensure that you are teaching your paralegal what you know to help your paralegal personally expand his or her own knowledge. You are in the practice to care for your clients’ best interests, but you should also take a moment to explain items to your staff to help them understand what you are doing and manage those tasks more effectively and efficiently in the future.

2. Use common sense. Common sense dictates how to treat a person. Remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. That should be the same with your paralegal and other office staff. If you are rude and belligerent, they will likely treat you in the same way (most likely behind your back). Remember to say “please” and “thank you.” As elementary as this may seem, many people unfortunately do not remember it and allow their egos to override common sense.

3. They are not secretaries. Remember that your paralegal and office staff have the education, training, and experience to do more than simple, mundane tasks. Realize that paralegals can obtain certification in two ways. They can obtain a bachelor’s degree and then study for another two years to obtain an associate’s degree or a certificate in paralegal studies, or they can obtain the paralegal certificate simultaneously with their bachelor’s degree. However, not all paralegals obtain their certification. Staff and paralegals will gain experience and knowledge over the time that you work with them and will show you that they can perform more complex work.

4. Do not upset the staff. I have always found that if you upset your staff, no work will be done. Attorneys sometimes do not realize that without their support staff, nothing happens. Bills are not paid, letters are not mailed, research is not completed, and deadlines are missed. When Ashley left on maternity leave, the senior partner and I both realized that life really revolved around Ashley. Those six weeks that she was absent made us realize the importance of our support staff and how much we rely on them to do the everyday tasks that keep the firm running. Remember, your support staff’s number one goal is to support the attorneys and make them look good. Whether it is responding to letters to ensure a deadline is met or checking in when a client is belligerent, your staff always is there for you. If you abuse or misuse your staff, some work will be done, but the simplicity and stress-free environment that a happy office makes will not exist.

Although this is not a comprehensive list, it is one that I hope will help provide you a basic understanding of working with paralegals or other office staff. Whether you have practiced for years or just graduated from law school, having an office staff makes life much more manageable and less stressful. If it were not for Derek and the rest of the support staff in our office, it would takes hours of additional studying and other resources to learn local rules and service of pleadings (and ensure that deadlines are not missed). Treat your staff with respect, and enjoy the privilege of working with a paralegal.

Paul D. Edger is an attorney with the Law Offices of Peter J. Russo, P.C., in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.