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All the Right Stuff
Do you have what it takes to be a success?
By Diane Petropulos

May/June 1999 Issue

The paralegal profession is, at best, challenging. Personalities, time management justification, demanding clients, deadlines, did I mention personalities?; they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up our careers. Some pieces fit better than others, but in order to be successful, we need to work well with them all. So why become a paralegal? Because it is challenging. Most of us wouldn’t be paralegals if the challenges and rewards weren’t there.

It’s stimulating, intellectually challenging and fulfilling to work in the law. Unlike so many professions, you’re not watching the clock out of boredom (tracking your billable hours perhaps, but never watching the clock). And we work primarily on behalf of others. Therein lies the challenge!

Most of us find ourselves taking on high levels of responsibility, both in law firms and in business. Ultimately, the attorney or attorneys you work for take responsibility for your work. Hence, the bar is raised. Your work is not your own. It belongs to those attorneys handling the cases. They determine how high to place the bar. That puts pressure on you to meet an exacting standard. Some might find that daunting. Others recognize the opportunity for personal growth and success. We call the latter a paralegal.

With raising the bar, personal growth, challenge and other buzzwords, we must also recognize the pitfalls of the profession, not the least of which is stress.

Where there are deadlines there is stress. Litigation is acknowledged as the most stressful practice area, but working in the law demands high professional standards, regardless of the specialty, which in turn engenders tension and stress. In your own fast-paced firms, you no doubt find that your very best is demanded at every turn. Nothing less will do. And then there are the professional egos. Whether you work for Mr. Magoo, Leona Helmsley, Pope John Paul II or Saddam Hussein, each of us must deal with one (or more) of any number of professional egos.

This requires a paralegal’s best workplace skill: tact. Supervising attorneys may forget to credit you for your contribution. They may under-credit you. Or, in the heat of the moment, they very well may forget basic decorum and restraint. Attorneys, by their very nature, can be pressured and harried. Our job is to be sure that we are not. When attorneys all around us are in the process of nuclear meltdowns, we have to maintain our cool and handle constructive (and sometimes destructive) criticism with good humor and tact.

So what does all this mean? It means that to function effectively and grow our careers, we have to emphasize all the right stuff. We need to be sure that beyond building a name for ourselves, we are sure to build that name on a solid foundation. “How?” you ask. (Thank you for asking questions in all the right places.) A good way to start is to polish those skills that, beyond your training and experience, will help you stand out from the crowd.

Read and Think Critically
Do you read quickly and critically? You should be able to comprehend readily and pick out the potential areas of usefulness, either because they support your side or because they present a challenge to be overcome on behalf of your client.

Write Well
You must be able to organize and phrase your thoughts in a logical, clear and concise manner. You need to have an above-average vocabulary and use a dictionary and thesaurus consistently. Although spell-checking programs are widely available, they certainly can’t help you with syntax and grammar mistakes. Do not undervalue the power of a well-written, plucky sentence.

Express Yourself
Presentation and a strong grasp of the essentials are key. Do your homework before offering any information on a case. Make sure you are familiar with the clients, witnesses and experts. Synthesize your thoughts and findings into a brief synopsis when your attorney asks for a quick assessment on a file. Don’t be overly verbose, while at the same time don’t oversimplify. It’s a fine line, so be careful.

The Devil Is in the Detail
As we all know, the smallest detail can make a critical difference in a case. Take copious notes. Take the time to organize those notes and file them away carefully. The vital importance of proper organization skills cannot be understated. Most importantly, have critical information available at a moment’s notice.

Be a Problem Solver
Get the word out that you are a key resource. Attorneys, and especially clients, should look to you to be a vital tool in the legal process. Be as “can do” as you can. Your goal should be to become (or grow as) a creative problem solver. Contrary to public opinion, the law is not black and white. The most exhilarating part for many of us is when there is no right answer; there may be no precedent whatsoever. It is up to us to come up with new approaches to the issue at hand.

Study Quick
With a premium on intellectual and analytical skills in the legal field, you will need to refine and sharpen your ability to make subtle, conceptual distinctions, master unfamiliar concepts and terminology and then apply this knowledge to a set of facts presented in each case.

While multitasking is a mere buzzword to some, it reaches beyond that limited scope in practicality and importance. How well do you handle dropping one project to pick up another equally important task? The answer may be vital to you and your career. You need to be able (or at least appear to be able) to adapt to changing circumstances, fluid situations, and new facts that may require rethinking your strategy and changing your course.

Interpersonally Speaking
Schmoozing. It’s an art. More importantly, it is an art that you must master. Your ability to establish rapport and interact with a motley crew of personalities increases your marketability in your job search and your value with your current employer. Your understanding of the best way to communicate with others (especially clients), regardless of their status, will enable you to successfully act as a liaison for your attorney.

Go to School
How will you develop these skills and attributes? I suggest a paralegal education program or school that offers a combination of practical instruction in legal knowledge and professional skills. Your homework assignments should mirror the workplace duties of paralegals. Attorneys and paralegals currently in practice are especially good instructors. And on-the-job training is by far the best way to enhance your real-world savvy.

Diane Petropulos has been program coordinator of the Attorney Assistant Program at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., since 1983. She has a master’s degree, paralegal certificate and experience in law firms, government agencies and as an independent contractor providing paralegal services to attorneys. She is also a past president of the American Association for Paralegal Education.

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