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Career Advice

Seven Ways to Lose Your Job

Learn the most common reasons for firing paralegals.

By Elizabeth A. Gillis

March/April 2006 Table of Contents


The thought of being fired can be frightening. I often hear comments such as, “She will fire me if she knows I did this,” or “She will fire me if I don’t get this done.” How accurate are these statements? Generally speaking, employers can fire employees at will, provided the reason isn’t illegal. For example, employees can’t be fired for discriminatory reasons involving race, sex, religion, disability and age.

Most law firms I have worked with hesitate to fire paralegals unless there is misconduct or a definite cause. As a legal assistant manager, I have had to fire staff members at various times. It’s never easy and all other options are considered first. It always comes down to the bottom line: If the legal assistant continues to work, will it lower the firm’s standards or be contrary to the firm’s culture? To dispel certain myths, I compiled a list based on my own experiences of the most common reasons legal assistants are fired.

1. "Harassment Means What?"

My firm, like many others, has zero tolerance regarding harassment. It has a written policy and a method for investigating harassment complaints made against employees. If the Harassment Committee concludes that an individual has violated the policy, that person most likely would be terminated. Haras­s­ment can include: displays of offensive materials; sexually demeaning behavior; unso­licited sexual advan­ces; unwanted touching; unwelcome sexual or gender-related comments or jokes; and other behavior that creates an intimidating, demeaning or offensive environment.

What you think is a socially acceptable joke might be offensive to someone else. In Canada and the United States, employees come from many different cultures. It’s incumbent on us to respect other cultures as well as to respect our firm’s standard policies, which are drafted to make the workplace a safe and comfortable environment for everyone.

2. Mediocrity is All That Matters

Lacking necessary job skills is one of the most common reasons I have had to terminate a legal assistant. Poor performance includes being consistently inaccurate, lacking legal know­ledge, working outside the policies of the firm with respect to client contact, missing important deadlines, procrastinating and not following instruc­tions. Most firms have regular performance reviews. My advice is to study the criteria by which you are evaluated and make sure you do an above-average job in each area. If your per­­­­­­­formance evaluation program is properly managed, there will be no surprises when the formal annual evaluation is delivered because your manager will have discussed any performance issues with you as they occur.

3. "I Am the Team"

It’s the legal services team that delivers the product to the client, so working as a paralegal demands team play.  If one of the players doesn’t communicate or isn’t playing by the same rules, the quality of service to the client is negatively affected.

First and foremost, being a team player requires communication with your team members. Always think about whom you should copy on letters, memos and e-mails. At the very least this should be the supervising lawyer or maybe a senior legal assistant.

Another aspect of team play is to back up your teammates because success for the department or firm means success for you. You can achieve this by always speaking well of your team members, sharing new information (which is key in the knowledge management arena), offering to help a colleague who is overloaded and teaching someone a new skill. If a para­legal always works in isolation, this inevitably will lead to some performance issues and become the reason, or part of the reason, for dismissal.

4. Behave Badly

Working in a pro­fessional environment requires professional behavior. Over­­­­­­­­­­­­­indulg­ing in alcohol at a firm social and being rude to a staff mem­ber or lawyer is considered inappropriate behavior. You might get away with it the first time, but if this is a repeated pattern, you likely will be asked to leave the firm.

Other inappropriate behavior can involve demeaning office staff or consistently annoying co­-workers. Annoy­ing behavior almost always will result in complaints to the manager. In turn, the manager will be concerned about losing a valued employee who might choose to leave the firm rather than be sub­jected to the annoyances. Also, inappropriate behav­ior can involve improper use of the Internet and taking too many personal calls in the office. These likely would not be the only causes for dismissal, but they certainly can contribute.

5. Clash With Firm Culture

Each firm has a different culture. Some parts of the culture are easily learned from written core values and codes of behavior. Other parts of a firm’s culture are not written down and can only be discovered by listening and watching fellow employees. This is when a mentor can be useful. If your firm has a paralegal mentor program, watch your mentor carefully and ask questions about unwritten rules and regulations. For example, our firm’s unwritten rule is that a legal assistant position is not a 9 a.m-to-5 p.m. job. It will not be tolerated if a para­legal always leaves at 5 p.m. on the dot every day, leaving incomplete work that someone else is waiting for.

6. Be a Smooth Criminal

Illegal behavior inside or outside the office most likely will be cause for dismissal. For example, I once worked with a paralegal who developed a pattern of submit­­­­­­ting disbursement requisitions in excess of the actual amount paid. The legal assistant received the excess and the client was billed for the higher amount. Ulti­mately, the auditors discovered the pattern, and the paralegal was fired. To work in the legal environment, employees must have a high standard of integrity.

7. Bury Your Head in the Sand

In addition to the aforementioned reasons for dismissal, there also are those unfortunate circumstances when legal assistants might be let go through no fault of their own — such as poor economic conditions, partnership breakups or downsizing. If you are aware of your firm’s circumstances, you might be able to avoid this. For example, I once worked in a small four-person partnership and was astute enough to realize there were serious disputes among the partners. When the partnership folded, I already was looking for another job. Although I was given a position with the downsized partnership, it was obvious the new firm didn’t need a full-time legal assistant. I soon resigned and moved on to a new job without experiencing the disillusionment of being let go.

You’re Fired! What Now?

If you are unfortunate enough to be fired, your next dilemma might be what to disclose in a future job interview. First, you need to reflect on what actually happened and understand why you were fired. This will help you explain the situation honestly to a future employer. Never lie about being fired. Inevitably, through the informal legal grapevine, a future employer will find out, and the penalties of lying far exceed the penalties of being honest.

Second, reflect on what you have learned from the experience. By doing this you will be able to explain to a future employer how you have grown through your mistakes. For example, you missed some early warning signs and next time you will be more aware so you can catch and correct your mistakes right away.

Managers need to know that legal assistants will perform their jobs accurately, responsibly, legally and in accordance with the firm’s policies and culture. However, law firms don’t like to fire people and are conscious of having a sound reason to do so. Usually, only the most blatantly improper behavior or sustained inappropriate conduct results in dismissal. And often it’s not just one of the previously mentioned causes, but rather a combination of them occurring over time that will lead to an employee’s termination. If you unfortunately have been fired, be proactive and learn from the experience to negate any potential damage to the rest of your career.



Elizabeth A. Gillis is director of corporate services at Miller Thomson in Markham, Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at [email protected].



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