Article originally published in the ABA Labor and Employment Law Summer 2023 Newsletter. Reprinted with permission.
Law school undoubtedly teaches you a lot and provides a strong educational foundation on which new attorneys practice. Having not attended law school myself, it is difficult to know the specifics of what is taught and how it is taught, but I think it is safe to assume that law school does not touch on—at least not in great detail—the relationship between the attorney and their paralegal. This is a foundational relationship in the practice of law, and the strength of the relationship can have a direct correlation to case success and job satisfaction. This article is a personal testimonial of my own working relationships with attorneys, and it will discuss how new attorneys might consider practicing in order to establish a strong relationship with their paralegals leading to case success and job satisfaction.
I have been a paralegal for about four years, working under attorneys with varying levels of experience. I began my paralegal career under a senior associate who had a strong grasp on every one of their 100+ active cases. This attorney gave me clear and concise direction on nearly all of my tasks. This attorney also frequently provided me with the “why” we are doing something so that I would better understand the area of practice. As a new paralegal, I appreciated the specific instructions and educational tidbits. In fact, the deep knowledge of the law that I gathered from my past attorney is something that I use at work every day; I am grateful for their teachings.
After this attorney left my firm, I began working under another associate in the same area of practice. My new associate is a seasoned attorney, but does not have quite as much experience as the senior associate I describe above, at least in our area of practice. This is where all the knowledge I gained under my past attorney became critical. I receive much less direction under my new attorney, but since I already established a strong working understanding of the law, it is easy for me to anticipate the next steps in a case, identify strengths and weaknesses of a case, make suggestions for work that we need to accomplish, and more.
I have also performed work under a couple firm partners. This work is a whole different ballgame. Working for a partner can be intimidating because, well, they are the leaders of the firm and have a lot of pull when it comes to hiring and firing. Firm partners are also very busy people, which means they may not always be aware of minute details of a case. Working under partners has been frustrating at times because they frequently ask me to bring them up to speed on things that I may have already written them an e-mail about. Detailed case notes come in handy in these types of situations (detailed case notes are something that both attorneys and paralegals should maintain).
The working relationship that I have with my current supervising attorney is one that I cherish. I would like to touch on a few ways in which the new attorney might practice in order to establish a strong working relationship with their paralegals.
First and foremost, it is important to build trust. The attorney must be confident in their paralegal’s work, and the paralegal must be confident in the attorney’s ability to practice law. Trust is not something that is built overnight, but rather something that requires ongoing communication, regular check-in meetings, and even passing draft work back and forth. With trust, the team can appropriately delegate tasks in order to efficiently and consistently produce exemplary work product.
Second, the attorney-paralegal relationship should be viewed as a collaborative relationship, rather than a hierarchy. Sure, attorneys are the ones with law degrees and the ones that should guide cases, but working under a strict hierarchy has the possibility to create disdain and job dissatisfaction. Collaborative work requires keen attention to a strong team effort, but when curated properly allows for work to be completed in a more efficient manner. Collaborative work has the added benefits of taking work off the attorney’s plate while allowing the paralegal to try their hand at higher level work.
Lastly, the paralegal and attorney can benefit from learning from each other. The attorney is likely to know more about the law itself, but the paralegal may have the upper hand when it comes to most efficient processes and procedures, or the logistics associated with practicing law. It is also worth recognizing that experienced paralegals may actually have an advanced understanding of the law. Regardless, paralegals and attorneys can undoubtedly learn from each other, and both parties must be open minded when it comes to learning new things.
Through the conscious building of trust, collaborative work, and being open to continued learning, I believe that attorneys and paralegals can develop a strong foundational relationship with one another such that they will not only be happy with their jobs, but they also will work well together and consistently achieve positive outcomes for clients. This relationship is not one that should be taken for granted but rather one that should be carefully and intelligently developed.