Ultimate Resource Guide
The 10 areas of
information you should always have at your fingertips.
By Neal R. Bevans
January/February 2005 Issue
The ultimate paralegal resource guide is
the place you save every important piece of information you have
gathered in your daily work as a paralegal. This resource should contain
telephone numbers, e-mails, important dates, notes about attorneys and
judges and much more. The couple of hours you spend creating it will
save you hundreds of hours throughout your career, give you a
competitive edge and make you an invaluable member of your legal team.
In fact, having all of this information at your fingertips will make you
seem almost superhuman.
If putting together your own paralegal
resource guide sounds unusual, it isn’t. Legal professionals have been
creating their own handy references for decades. When I first started
out as a lawyer, a senior partner at my firm had a ragged manila file
folder on his credenza containing copies of complaints he previously
used in a wide variety of cases. When he needed a new complaint, he
would pull out some of those old pleadings and reuse them. Your system
might be a similar large file folder on your desk. Perhaps you keep
everything stored in a database on your laptop, or in a network folder.
Whatever method you currently use to hang on to your important
information, you need to pull it all together and put it in one place.
Let these 10 categories be your guide to organizing your resources and
making your job easier.
Although there are a lot of telephone database programs
available, including some basic software programs that came with most
computers, many people find simple solutions are better.
A telephone reference is easy to create
in any word processing program. The nice thing about using Corel
WordPerfect or Microsoft Word to create these tables is these programs
already are running on your computer, you can keep the files open while
you work on other materials, you can constantly update your entries and
alphabetizing them is a breeze. For instance, Janice Johnson, a
paralegal for attorney Russ Becker in Morganton, N.C., said she uses a
client list she originally created using WordPerfect. Her basic client
list includes a chart consisting of the client’s name, phone numbers,
postal and e-mail addresses and notes.
Johnson said she encourages clients to
contact her via e-mail. “I can check on e-mail in an extremely timely
manner without having an interruption while a client is in my office,”
she said. “I also can respond back without getting caught on a call that
ends up going entirely too long. Also, I have a word-for-word record of
what information was given to the client through the e-mail contacts.”
BlackBerry wireless devices are another
great way to store contact information and have become very popular
among law firms. Dana Martin, a paralegal at Greenbaum, Doll & McDonald,
with offices in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and the District of Columbia,
likes the fact that with her BlackBerry, she can retrieve her e-mail
anywhere, anytime. “We have Microsoft Outlook and [the BlackBerry] gives
wireless access to that and my address book.” She said she takes the
BlackBerry with her wherever she goes.
The notes category is where your
telephone reference really shines. You might not think having a notes
section is important, but little details about your contacts really can
Denise Cunningham, a paralegal for
attorney M. Lynne Osterholt in Louisville, Ky., said she lists personal
information for many of her contacts. “Along with the addresses, I also
put in other information, like birthdays and anniversaries.”
Little, personal details, such as
remembering a client’s birthday or the names of a client or contact’s
children, can help build personal relationships and provide you with
substantial help when you need it most. For instance, one client might
be able to help you locate another client who is missing or unavailable.
Personal relationships with courthouse personnel will put you on the
inside track when it comes to things as simple as when to schedule a
hearing or earn you a warning phone call when your firm forgets to file
appropriate paperwork in a case.
2. One Central
Everyone knows having a calendar isn’t a luxury, it’s an
absolute necessity. With so much to do and so little time to do it, your
calendar must be accurate, easy to access and contain enough information
so you can understand what you need to do. “Experts all agree you should
have one calendar, not different calendars for work, for play and for
the holidays. You should have one calendar for everything,” said
Cunningham, who has been a paralegal for almost 25 years.
Cunningham said the calendar feature on
her Palm is the most used feature and it often comes in handy in court,
especially when scheduling court dates. “We write in our appointments or
when pleadings are due. We depend on the Palm now, although we also keep
a regular calendar. I like the Palm. It’s wonderful and I take it
Martin has her BlackBerry synced to her
office calendar. “If I have an event on my [office] calendar that would
notify me that I had an event coming up, I would get the same
notification on my BlackBerry.”
Whether you use a book-sized calendar,
software or the latest handheld device, the important thing is to have
one central calendar that is easy to access and update.
Whether you decide to go high-tech or stick with low-tech
methods to create your paralegal resource, it should contain additional
information beyond just telephone contacts and important dates. It
should contain plenty of information about the courthouse, including a
list of the types of information that can be found in each office, as
well as the names of your contact people in those offices. When you find
a friendly face at the courthouse, put that person’s name in your
courthouse reference in as many different places as possible. The next
time you call that office, ask for that person.
No ultimate reference would be complete without an “attorney
peculiarities” section. This is a section to remind you about the
various idiosyncrasies of the people with whom you must interact
everyday. If the attorney has a hang up about the way pleadings are
prepared (such as never staple, always use paper clips) then make a
running list of these preferences. These notes can save you a lot of
time, effort and frustration later. If you get new employees in the
firm, you also can provide this list to them.
The basic premise about keeping track of attorney
peculiarities applies to judges even more. Every judge with whom I have
ever worked has had a different approach to court proceedings,
pleadings, drafting orders and even when and where the attorneys should
stand in the courtroom. Some judges like to be referred to as “Your
Honor” in every context. Some judges have a habit of leaving work
everyday at 3 p.m.
Other judges think nothing of making you
wait for hours outside their offices before they will sign an order. All
of these characteristics should be written down for future reference.
Attorneys have been doing this for years. When an attorney has a case
pending before an unknown judge, he or she always will call a friend and
ask about that judge’s characteristics. Then the attorney adapts to that
judge’s approach. You should do the same thing.
One prosecutor, who preferred to remain
anonymous, had a judge who would routinely appear for calendar calls in
December wearing a Santa Claus cap. He would then give probation or
suspended sentences to nearly every case pending. This is an important
piece of information, not only for prosecutors who never wanted to have
cases pending before that judge near Christmas, but also for defense
attorneys who did.
One of the primary reasons to create an ultimate paralegal
resource is for the forms. Forms are the dirty little secret in the
legal profession. Every time you come across a good form, put a copy
into your paralegal reference guide. Copy the file over to your CD,
store it on your flash memory card and put it someplace where you can
access it again. There is another reason your forms should be stored in
digital format: These days, many federal courts are requiring pleadings
to be filed electronically.
“Federal courts are requiring briefs to
be filed in Adobe Acrobat,” Martin added. With a complete file of forms
and pleadings, you will be ready to go in no time.
7. Brief and
Your resource also should contain copies of briefs and
memoranda used in other cases. We have all had the experience of
realizing our current assignment is exactly like a brief we had to
prepare last year in another case. Being able to pull up that previous
brief can be a huge timesaver and be a real feather in your cap.
Although law firms often have firm-wide
brief banks, keeping one of your own always is a good idea. The one time
you need access to the law firm’s brief bank probably will be the one
time the system is down. Having your own brief bank also helps when you
have to work at home and have no direct access to the firm’s computer
system. Your personal brief bank should contain all of the generic
appellate briefs and memos you use on a daily basis. For anything more
specialized than that, you always can pull it off the main network
If clients ask you the same questions repeatedly, it’s time
to digitize the answer and keep it available to print at a moment’s
notice. You might have clients who always ask how to get to the
courthouse or what they should wear to court. Give them the answer in
written form. It’s easier for you and gives them something tangible they
can review later.
Lisa Mazzonetto, a paralegal at the
McDonald Law Offices in Asheville, N.C., handles domestic cases
exclusively. She often gets questions about how long it takes to
complete a case, what the basic rules about child visitation are, and
what a client should do if he or she wishes to have a Temporary
Restraining Order taken out against an unruly spouse. Mazzonetto has
this information ready in writing, which frees up her time and gives
clients a handy reference if they ever need it.
In these days of Internet legal research and databases, it’s
important to have a handy reference containing all URLs, passwords and
notes about how to access specific sites.
“There is an incredible amount of
information out there that is key to day-to-day work in a law office. In
my field of work, online tax records and register of deeds, [Department
of Motor Vehicles] records, postal addresses, Web sites and people
locator sites are very important,” Mazzonetto said.
To keep all of your passwords confidential, yet easy to access, you can
keep the list in a Word table and update it regularly. You also can
password-protect the file to keep the wrong people from accessing it.
10. Vendor and
Your ultimate resource should contain information about all
your office hardware and software, including vendor names, toll-free
support numbers, license numbers and any other information you will need
to get help if you have software or hardware problems. Keeping this
information in your resource guide can save you a lot of time,
especially when a service representative asks you for information
contained on the computer or program that isn’t currently working.
Digitized Resource Guide
Now that you know the most important areas to include in your
resource guide, you must decide in what format you will keep the
information accessible. People have different preferences as to the
format that suits them best. Some like to keep a binder with all the
information printed out, while others prefer to keep a fully digitized
version. Still others prefer a combination of both print and digital
records for their resource guides.
There are a lot of different legal
software programs available with which you can create a digital
paralegal resource guide. They range from simple databases to complete
law firm packages containing billing and accounting software, calendar
features and complex databases. In high-tech offices, the calendar and
case management system is available firm-wide and can be accessed by
anyone on the network. However, not all law offices have taken this step
into the 21st century. In situations where the office is filled with
standalone systems, you will keep this information on your computer and
on a backup CD.
David Moyer uses database programs to
create lists of clients and documents in his freelance paralegal
practice in Cuyahoga, Ohio. “I use database programs, such as Microsoft
Access and Excel. I use the databases for client conflict of interest
checks, to name just one example.”
Use programs that have been tried and
tested in the real world or in firms similar in size and structure to
your firm. Mazzonetto’s firm uses Time & Chaos (www.chaossoftware.com).
“It acts as our daily, weekly and monthly calendar, client address book
and To-Do lists. It’s very inexpensive, but an incredible asset.”
Johnson’s North Carolina firm uses
Abacus Data Systems’ AbacusLaw (www.abacuslaw.com),
which has been around for years and functions as a client database,
calendar and docketing system. “We use Abacus as a database and tracking
system here at our office,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how we survived
as well as we did before we went to this system. Today, not to have some
type of program for client information and management, along with a
deadline system is like living in the dark ages and asking for a
Martin’s firm has a separate Information
Technology division. “We have a very complex piece of software that
keeps track of client information, accounting, billing and case
management. Our whole office is really tied together. We are a regional
firm and everybody can get to the same documents.”
For many firms, tailor-made programs are
the best way to go. Norma Schvaneveldt, a paralegal in Chattanooga,
Tenn., said her former firm, Eric Buchanan & Associates, relied on
software created for the firm’s specialty area of law. “We kept track of
client information on the computer through a case management software
program especially configured to handle Social Security cases. We also
used it for our long-term disability cases. If you were out of town and
needed to review a file, as long as you had Internet access, you could
review any file.”
The Power of
Your Resource Guide
The smartest thing you can do with your ultimate paralegal
resource is to organize it and keep it all in one place. Let everyone in
the firm think you are superhuman, with an incredible memory for names,
dates, telephone numbers and the myriad of other information law firms
need on a daily basis. Your ultimate paralegal resource can be your