Mistakes Attorneys Make, a Paralegal’s Perspective
Over the last eight years, I’ve regularly attended a paralegal seminar that’s held annually in my state. It’s an excellent opportunity to learn about new regulations, to network, and for me, it’s also a yearly reminder of how fortunate I am to have landed at the firm where I work. As paralegals trade case management tips, and medical-record requesting horror stories, I hear about attorneys who never reimburse training expenses, who are unwilling to spend money on updated computer programs, or who ignore the need to adequately staff as case-loads increase. Each year, I’m surprised at how dismissive some offices are about investing in the betterment of their paralegals and how those decisions are ultimately impacting their firm’s bottom line.
A well-trained, well-paid paralegal can be an attorney’s biggest asset. Paralegals talk to existing clients, manage the day-to-day operations of the firm, and can help bring in new business. Attorneys need to remember that their paralegals are out in the community, telling other people how they are treated as employees and that information reflects back on the attorney’s reputation. Wouldn’t it be great for potential clients to hear how often your paralegal is sent to training seminars? Or how cutting edge your computer systems are? Investing time and money in your paralegals will allow the firm to function more efficiently.
Paralegals learn through a combination of education, experience, and practice. You want your clients to feel confident with your paralegals ability to answer questions and provide solutions. Help your paralegal stay up-to-date by sending them to local seminars or subscribing to a Webinar On-Demand Service. Training is not a one-time thing. It’s constant. Bring in experts to talk to your paralegals or provide them with copies of CLE material that you’ve found helpful. Regulations change, case law gets passed, and new software emerges weekly that can help make case management easier.
I’ve met countless paralegals that still have to hand-number briefs because their boss won’t spend money on a software program that will do it for them. In the end, they are not only wasting time, they are actually wasting money. My favorite program is Adobe Acrobat Pro. It’s a great tool for building briefs, redacting, performing word searches, paginating briefs, and a million other things. It’s $500, which is a complete steal, considering the amount of time it saves. Hand-paginating a brief, depending on its size, can take 15 minutes or an hour. Doing it in Acrobat takes about 20 seconds and frees the paralegal up to focus on more important tasks. Take a moment and ask yourself, do you really want to pay someone to hand write numbers on a piece of paper? Or, would prefer your paralegal spend that time returning phone calls, researching case law, or following up on demands?
Keeping clients happy is how firms keep their lights on. When a client calls, you want someone to be available to talk to them, answer their questions, and make them feel important. It’s vital to the firm’s success. However, a paralegals ability to get his/her job done is also critical. Managing a case load, following up on medical records, drafting motions, these are all things that need attention and focus. Answering a ringing phone causes attention to be shifted away from important tasks and diverted repeatedly to more-immediate, but less pressing, tasks. With a very rare exception, all firms should have a person who is dedicated to answering phones and all paralegals should have voicemail. A receptionist can also scan mail, handle inventory, and stay on top of filing. Recently, the flu swept through our office causing a few paralegals and the receptionist to be out sick. The result was a constantly ringing phone and a long line of drop-in’s that needed attention. It took me nearly three hours to send out a simple medical authorization due to the number of interruptions. Thankfully, that’s a rare case for our firm, but it’s a daily issue for firms without a receptionist. Talking to clients is important, making them feel cared for is important, but it’s also extremely important that your paralegal be given time to actually do the work the client needs, which is not possible if they are chained to a ringing phone.
In any profession, when you have a supervisor/subordinate relationship, it can be easy for there to be a power struggle if the relationship isn’t approached properly. Whether it’s an attorney over a paralegal, a doctor over a nurse, or a nurse over a medical assistant, the proper way for that relationship to run is as a team. Teams help each other and teams elevate each other. Teams accept when mistakes are made, forgive easily, and listen out for new ideas. Stomping your feet and yelling ‘I’m an attorney and therefore I’m more important’ is the fastest way to terminate loyalty. A loyal paralegal is productive and goes the extra mile for the firm. A loyal paralegal works hard to turn an angry client into a grateful client. A loyal paralegal is constantly on watch for the firm’s bottom line by engaging clients, beating deadlines, and finding ways to help their attorney.
High turn-over says a lot about how a firm is run. Returning clients love to see familiar faces. This is especially true for firms that handle highly emotional cases like personal injury, family law, or criminal matters. Clients may be losing their homes or family and being able to talk to someone they’ve worked with before creates a life-long relationship that the firm needs. It’s rare that a case is open and closed within a few weeks, so being able to deal with the same paralegal for several years helps a client feel like the firm has a solid understanding of their issues.
For the betterment of your firm, invest in your paralegal’s success. Invest in training, invest in software, and take time to consider your office dynamic.