Ask anyone who has been a paralegal for more than 5 minutes: it’s a tough job. Memorably,a veteran paralegal we interviewed last year joked, “Being a paralegal is easy. It’s just like riding a bike. Except that the bike is on fire. You’re on fire. Everything’s on fire, and you are in hell.”
In all seriousness, most paralegals really enjoy their work. They thrive under pressure, and they get a deep sense of satisfaction from the knowledge that their agility and determination are, to a significant degree, the glue that holds everything together. Still, the stress can be daunting, especially for newbies who are looking to land on the Partners’ radars. Sometimes it can feel as though you have to devote your entire life to the role in order to truly be seen as an asset. But the fact is, you don’t have to work 80 hours a week to make an impression. Instead, adopt a mindset that supports productivity and positivity, regardless of the situation, and you’ll soon find yourself in the coveted position of Go-To Problem Solver.
Be the voice of reason
The ability to keep a cool head on your shoulders is probably one of the most important attributes a paralegal can possess. Be the one person in the room who’s totally unflappable. Easier said than done? Well, maybe, but if you can offer reasonable solutions and steady hand while those around you are freaking out, you’ll quickly inspire the trust and admiration of your team.
Pro tip: when it feels as though you have too many balls in the air and there’s no way you’ll be able to keep things under control, remind yourself that panicking never helped anything. Focus on handling one thing at a time – and if you need to, take a moment for yourself, breathe deeply, and count to ten.
Be thorough – and take notes
Six months from now, you might not remember what you did in a particular situation, but if you’ve jotted down a sentence or two about noteworthy events and how you responded, you’ll be better able to explain how things have evolved. In a fast-moving practice, being able to quickly answer questions and find whatever information is needed, quickly and accurately, are valuable skills. A journal can go a long way towards helping you meet that mark.
Pro tip: Keep your journal in a spreadsheet or Word file, and include the client name, the date, and a few keywords with every entry. That way, it’s searchable.
Be a “yes” person
Nothing kills a mood – or the productivity of a practice – faster than negativity, so as you focus on becoming the indispensable paralegal, focus on positivity. If you’re asked for your opinion, be honest – and make a genuine effort to identify and point out any flaw or weakness, especially if it might be detrimental to the client or the practice. At the same time, offer an alternative with every criticism. You’ll be surprised at the impact you can have.
Pro tip: Instead of saying “no” or “but,” practice saying “Yes – and.” Example: Bob Partner asks if you like the new deposition scheduling software. Your first inclination is to say no, because it’s confusing and hard to use. However, instead of being negative, you respond with “Yes – and I think it would be even more useful to us if we could schedule some training sessions for the whole team. Would you like me to line that up?”
Be precise – and concise
A high-pressure practice is no place to wax poetic. When giving an explanation or an opinion, remember that the people around you are juggling a million different things, just like you are – and we all have limited mental capacity. Focus on conveying the most important information, quickly and accurately, and reserve the details until you’re asked for them.
Pro tip: Most people are either “bottom liners” or “context seekers.” A bottom-liner wants to know the facts first – and often doesn’t care about how those facts came to be. A context seeker, on the other hand, wants to understand the how of a situation first, and the impact second. Ask the people you work with which they prefer, and then try to communicate with them on their terms.
Honesty and integrity are the paralegal’s super powers – and nothing highlights your honesty more powerfully than humility. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. When you need help, ask for it. And if you make a mistake, own it. The attorneys you work with will value the sense that they always know just where they stand with you – and you’ll be better positioned to learn on the job and develop your professional skills.
Pro tip: Being praised is far less important than solving the problem. When you know your own worth, there’s no such thing as a “thankless task.”
Wrapping it up
When you’re a paralegal, your raison d’etre is essentially to make things work for those around you. Your role is equal parts project management, problem solving, and sounding board, and at times, you have to wear so many simultaneous hats that it can feel quite overwhelming. By maintaining a mindset that’s centered in positivity and pragmatism, you can overcome the chaos and show the world how agile, reliable – ultimately, how invaluable – you really are.