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May 31, 2022

Successful Collaboration Between Lawyers and Paralegals

Jane Anne Gross, ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals Approval Commission Member and Retired Paraprofessional Manager at Reed Smith, Chicago, IL

In my long career as a paralegal and in paralegal management, I have witnessed first-hand successful working dynamics between attorneys and paralegals.  Another word for that dynamic is collaboration.

There are keys to creating a more successful working relationship with paralegals. This blog post will provide some tips on how to create a successful collaboration.

Some basic thoughts:  Who is a successful paralegal?  When I started my career as a paralegal, someone explained to me that my main job is to make the attorney’s life easier.  That recommendation has remained true throughout my career. Most successful paralegals follow this advice.  Successful senior paralegals also realize the positive effect of their role in litigation or transactional work and take pride in their contributions to achieving favorable outcomes for the client.

What can paralegals do to make the attorneys’ lives easier?  It is simpler to discuss what we cannot do.  Paralegals cannot communicate legal advice, enter into fee arrangements, or represent clients in court or depositions. After that, the world is fair game!  We can organize document productions, review documents, interact with clients, and organize appellate briefs.  We can cite check, fact check briefs, and conduct real-world research.  We understand technology so, we can breeze through the intricacies of database structure and management.  We can accompany you to court, keep track of exhibits, AND order lunch.  If your supply needs are met during trial, it is likely you have a paralegal to thank.  Paralegals may make travel arrangements for you and your clients. Paralegals draft motions, deposition notices, pleadings, and other documents.  Paralegals arrange for process servers, e-file court documents, and calculate allocation formulas.  Corporate paralegals work on mergers, acquisitions, and financings.  they also prepare paperwork to form corporations, ensure their corporations remain in good standing, and assist in the dissolution of corporations.  Paralegals are knowledgeable about UCCs, bankruptcy, fee petitions, and applications.  IP paralegals handle trademarks and copyrights as well as regularly deal with the U.S. Patent Office.  Trust and Estate paralegals administer trusts, file documents in probate court, organize estate sales, as well as prepare accountings, simple tax income, and federal estate tax returns.  Some paralegal love conducting legal research, while others (like myself) find it deathly boring.  Some paralegal careers morph into administrative and management work for a law firm, corporation, or other entity.   

As you can see, a paralegal is a jack of all trades in the legal world.  And I am sure I have forgotten a wide range of tasks paralegals undertake on a regular basis!

How effective paralegals come to be: Most paralegals complete a formal paralegal education program where they learn not only about the law but also how to do things in the legal field.  It is an exceedingly practical education.  They learn to cite check, write memos, as well as master the basics of the litigation process, real estate and corporation closings, probate, IP, and corporate legal practice.  They learn administrative law and its impact on commercial life.  Upon graduation, they find their first legal job and are ready to conquer the world.

Of course, dealing with senior, experienced paralegals is vastly different from managing paralegals fresh in their career.  Training and mentoring junior personnel are musts.  If your business employs several paralegals, these paralegals or paralegal management may coach the new hires.  If yours is a smaller office, training may fall on your shoulders.  If you consider the new paralegal as a potentially effective employee, I strongly urge you to spend the time, energy, and capital on proper training.  In my own career, it was the associates who trained me. They explained how they wanted the work done and taught me about specific areas of environmental law, such as Superfund, RCRA, as well as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.  Their instruction was invaluable. The time and effort spent on early training and mentoring cannot be overstated. Both the paralegals and the attorneys will reap the benefits for years to come.

Look at it as akin to how you mentor and train a new associate.  You put in the effort and realize a valuable, contributing member of your legal team.  The same is true for your paralegals.

What works best to effectively train and mentor paralegals? First of all, involve your new paralegals as soon as possible; the more they know about what you do, the more they understand it, the more helpful they can be.  With a solid foundation of knowledge, they are more likely to see the smoking gun if one exists.  Paralegals thrive on understanding their cases; they flourish on knowledge and responsibility.  We became paralegals because we are interested in the law, the legal process, and service to clients.  Attorneys can leverage these strengths to benefit their practice.  Paralegals who only do one-off tasks often lose motivation and interest.  We want to know how our work fits into the big picture.  Let us feel we are contributing!  We want to know that the attorney’s success is our success.  Copy your paralegals on all case emails, involve them in status meetings whenever possible and of course, answer their questions.  As you successfully work with a paralegal, you may experience a real meeting of the minds.  A good paralegal becomes a great by repeatedly working with same attorneys or teams.  You will develop mutual respect and knowledge. Before you know it, your paralegal appears to become a mind-reader, anticipating the documents you need, the meetings you must schedule, and the exhibits to hand you at trial.  

"The time and effort spent on early training and mentoring cannot be overstated."

"The time and effort spent on early training and mentoring cannot be overstated."

Other paralegals’ experience: I spoke with several senior paralegals to learn how their careers evolved and how the professional relationships they shared with their supervising attorneys impacted the arc of these careers.

First of all, why did they seek out a paralegal career?  For some, it was a long-time interest in a legal career with a realization that law school was not for them.  Others looked for a career combining intellectual pursuits with basic problem solving.  One paralegal was inspired by the movie “Erin Brockovich.”  Another considered a career in law enforcement but was not tall enough to qualify for the police force. 

Paralegals who graduated from a paralegal program felt the education was worthwhile and that the experience enabled them to easily transition into their careers.  On the other hand, one paralegal who had not attended a paralegal program did not consider herself at a loss because her criminal justice major provided basic insight into legal structures.

So how did they parlay education into career success?  Success came to one paralegal as she worked on high profile matters by asking questions and providing the work the attorneys requested although she would have approached it differently.  By sticking up for herself and pointing out errors, she gained the respect of the attorneys.  Another paralegal attributed her success to her desire by always learning more about the case and understanding all the ins and outs as well as the attorneys.  A third paralegal noted that her work standard was to do more than what was asked.

Learning the work style of a particular attorney was key for everyone.  As one paralegal pointed out, you must be a chameleon as a paralegal.  You have to be able to recognize work styles of different attorneys and adapt to them.   Back in the day, this meant knowing who likes double sided copies, who hates big binder clips and who wants Coke instead of Pepsi at late night trial prep.  Knowing what is needed before being asked!

How do attorneys train paralegals to create a successful, lasting partnership?  It was a mixed bag of answers. To some, training can be subtle, such as answering questions and giving guidance on specific projects.  It is then up to the paralegal to apply that guidance to similar future projects for that attorney.  Everyone noted that communication between attorneys and paralegals is key.  Paralegals simply do better when they understand the case, see the big picture, and have an idea where the work is leading. 

Paralegals also learn from each other.  New paralegals often seek out a mentoring relationship from a more senior professional.  And of course, we realize that each trial, each transaction, each experience brings new challenges, new teammates, and even new technology.  Learning never stops!

A paralegal educator noted that attorneys need to realize that they often don’t acknowledge how much paralegals know and how much they can accomplish.  The attorneys need to invest the time and effort in creating a successful paralegal.  Working as part of a team, the attorneys and paralegals can support each other in high pressure situations with greater ease. 

I hope this short discussion of collaboration between attorneys and paralegals and tips on creating successful paralegals for your own practice has been beneficial.  Try us, you may be pleasantly surprised at how a paralegal can advance your practice.  Remember, we are here to help you succeed and we consider your success to be ours as well!