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.