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Career Advice

Meet the Competition

How to win without losing.

By Dorothy M. Pritchett

September/October 2000 Table of Contents

Web Exclusive


Competition is the American way. And frankly, those who excel get ahead. But there are different ways of competing. Do paralegals in your office strive to produce the highest quality work, or do they play political games? Does a clear line separate healthy competition from stabbing colleagues in the back? A distinct difference exists. All may be fair in love and war, but the same can’t be said for the workplace.

Outside Influences

Before evaluating individual actions, it’s important to consider the bigger picture. What’s happening in the marketplace heavily influences what occurs behind the doors of a firm or corporation. While the economy is thriving and opportunities for growth abound, there is intense competition between law firms to secure new business. Work cultures have changed as a result. There’s a focus on improved technology to provide faster and more specialized legal services. To keep pace with corporate environments and retain employees, business attire is no longer required in many offices. Business casual is no longer relegated to Fridays.

American companies now compete on a global scale. Likewise, large law firms are opening offices outside the continental United States to provide services to clients. Corporations are downsizing to become more cost efficient and nimble. Today, businesses are often expected to do more with less. Law firms feel the impact because clients put the same pressures on legal counsel. Clients, therefore, challenge legal costs and expect increased speed in the delivery of legal services.

We work in a high-speed world that demands instant access to information and rapid responses. It’s fast-paced, chaotic and stressful. Competition has never been more aggressive. When employees observe their employers using aggressive and sometimes questionable tactics to get ahead, they may feel it gives them permission to operate in the same manner. It doesn’t.

Genuine success for an individual requires different rules. First, you’re interested in long-term results, not short-term triumphs. Second, you’re involved in relationships with people, not battles over business. And finally, the individuals you may view as "competitors" are perceived by management as your "teammates." Whether you realize it or not, your mutual success benefits the entire office.

Setting the Stage for Paralegal Competition

If the world was a perfect place, you could simply perform your job to the best of your abilities, your supervisor would recognize your contribution and you would excel. But it doesn’t operate that way, does it? Paralegals have two distinct challenges that set the stage for competition. Time constraints often affect performance. Attorneys may frequently inquire about the progress of a project or demand that it be completed in an unreasonable timeframe. In your desire to appease, you may make mistakes — overlooking important data or neglecting to carefully proofread documents. You become vulnerable to "attack" from your perceived competitors.

Another dilemma legal assistants face is the constant struggle related to billable hours. Those with consistently high numbers are held in high regard, yet paralegals don’t control the reporting process. It’s not unusual for attorneys to reduce time billed to an amount they feel they can personally justify to the client. In addition, since the billing rate for associates is higher than the rate for paralegals, work traditionally given to paralegals at times may be shifted upwards to pump up the coffers. This could become a critical issue when there’s not much work coming through the door, again, creating an exploitable "weakness."

Anatomy of a Backstabber

Healthy competition is good. Motivated achievers who work hard and perform well set high standards for the workplace. They may elicit jealously — or sometimes be regarded as brown-nosers — but it’s hard to argue with the excellent results they produce. It’s actually quite easy, however, to determine when someone crosses the line into unhealthy behavior — it occurs when they begin to shine by making the performance of their colleagues look poor in comparison. Even when it’s unintentional, there’s a subversive twist to their achievements. Signals include:

  • Gossiping about colleagues’ mistakes or weaknesses
  • Pointing out others’ mistakes in group settings or to superiors
  • Lying
  • Taking credit for work completed by a group or another individual
  • Blaming others for mistakes they created instead of taking responsibility
  • Consistently showcasing their own work in way that makes others’ performance look poor
  • Constantly singling out the poor performance of one person
  • Undermining a colleague’s performance by causing others to doubt their abilities.

Avoid Becoming the Target of a Backstabber

Interestingly, the same rules that guide fair play in the workplace also will protect you from backstabbing colleagues. Frankly, it has a lot to do with building personal credibility. These are the guidelines that I recommend:


1. Take Responsibility when You Make a Mistake.

We all make mistakes. Own up when it’s your fault, even if it’s painful. Once you admit a failure, the healing process can begin and you can help develop a remedy. In addition, if you’ve established a reputation for accepting blame for your mistakes, you’re less likely to be blamed for the mistakes of other people.


2. Give Credit Where Credit is Due.

Call attention to the contributions and accomplishments of others. If a colleague helped you meet a deadline, let your attorney — and his or her supervising attorney — know. Teamwork is appreciated and you recognize the valuable contributions of your colleagues. Justified praise will enhance your relationships with your co-workers and they will be more likely to acknowledge your talents and protect you from unfair competitors.


3. Build Trust.

Create a strong sense of trust so that people in your office believe what you say. Be accountable for your actions, accept responsibility and deliver on your promises. Don’t repeat gossip and always respect information told to you in confidence. If someone makes a mistake, approach that individual to correct the problem; don’t talk to their colleagues or superiors about it unless absolutely necessary.


4. Keep Records.

Record your accomplishments. Weekly activity reports, billing memos and meeting notes can come in handy long after an assignment is complete and it’s time for your performance review. Detailed notes also prove useful if a sticky situation arises questioning your role or contribution to an assignment.


5. Be Proactive When You Feel Vulnerable.

If you sense you’re vulnerable — either because you’ve made a mistake or you sense you’ve become the target of a backstabber — issue a pre-emptive strike. For example, if your computer skills need improvement and you’ve unsuccessfully solicited assistance from colleagues, enroll in a class. Inform your superiors and co-workers about your initiative. You could be direct, "I’ve enrolled in a computer class to improve my skills," or drop it into conversation, "Let me show you what I just learned in the computer class I’m taking." If someone has made snide remarks about the time you devote to your family and you had to leave early to pick up a sick child, let it be known that you met your deadline by finishing your work at home. You don’t need to become a martyr; you should simply know your vulnerable areas and respond accordingly. By anticipating the reactions of your critics, you protect yourself.


6. Respond Enthusiastically to a Colleague’s Success.

When peers accomplish a difficult task or solve a challenging problem, let them know you recognize their talents, and congratulate them on their success. This may be particularly helpful when an attorney doesn’t acknowledge the achievement or complains about some aspect of the project.


7. Create a Positive Work Environment.

The new workplace is more team-oriented than in the past. Learn the value of collaboration and consensus-building. The person you perceive as your competitor may become an ally when you have a deadline to meet. Listen to what’s going on around you; get a true picture of what’s happening. Having a positive attitude brings out your own creativity.


Some years ago, the slogan "Random Acts of Kindness" popped up, appearing on bumper stickers and in publications. The idea of performing thoughtful acts for people without expecting recognition can go a long way toward generating an atmosphere of goodwill.

If you devote your energy to creating a positive work environment, your colleagues are likely to support you. A passage from the April/May 2000 issue of the publication "The InnerEdge," captured this sentiment well: "Environments that motivate through fear literally shut down the potential for growth. Those that motivate through vision, open us up to express unforeseen possibilities."



DOROTHY M. PRITCHETT is the managing partner of the Legal Search Division for Lucas Group, a national recruitment firm specializing in executive, financial, legal and military searches. Pritchett has served as director of paralegal placement for Co-Counsel and for Briggs Legal Staffing in Atlanta. Prior to that, she worked 11 years as a paralegal in the areas of litigation, real estate, general corporate, trusts and estates, and bankruptcy law at law firms in Virginia. She’s a member of the Georgia Association of Paralegals and a graduate of the University Maryland.



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