Paralegals are one of the fastest growing careers in the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 18.3 percent employment growth for paralegals between 2010 and 2020, adding 46,900 positions. Despite this growth, many people who do not work in the legal field, and even those who do, are mystified by the paralegal’s role.
The amount of responsibility an attorney has on a case may outweigh the lawyer’s ability to handle all aspects of a case personally. Behind the scenes, a paralegal performs a great deal of functions the attorney could not complete independently.
Behind many successful attorneys are great paralegals. A paralegal supports the attorney so that the lawyer may perform well for the client and shine in court.
The Role of the Paralegal
Paralegals work diligently behind the scenes organizing, managing, monitoring and anticipating both attorney and case needs. Common paralegal responsibilities include investigating case facts, researching and understanding relevant laws and regulations, organizing a diverse array of information and recording information in appropriate physical and electronic documents. Paralegals may also be responsible for writing memoranda to assist attorneys in preparation for trials and depositions, composing drafts of legal documents and serving as an attorney's right hand during the intensity of trial.
Five Attributes of a Great Paralegal
To be a great paralegal, one must have patience, understanding of rules and procedures, a broad range of abilities, organizational skills and flexibility.
As the law is never static and always changing, so is the work of a law firm. Every day presents new challenges, with shifting priorities and varying strategies. Paralegals must be patient with the ebb and flow of the attorney’s direction and easily change course as needed.
2) Understanding of Rules and Procedures
An exceptional paralegal must have a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of local court rules, State and Federal procedural rules, and judicial standing orders. A full understanding of how courts operate and how the parties are to function is the foundation for negotiating the legal system. A paralegal can be an incredible resource of practical knowledge to support the attorney in achieving case goals.
3) Ability to Collect and Assimilate Information
Paralegals must possess a broad range of abilities, including digesting large amounts of information and assimilating it in a fashion that makes it readily available for the attorney’s use. An attorney can only find and remember so much, so paralegals assist in information-collection, processing and presentation.
4) Organizational Skills
Organization is the process of putting the different parts of something in a certain order so that they may be found and used easily. This is paramount to efficiently and effectively meet attorney needs. Attention to detail and an understanding of how the subject information will be used are crucial to organizing the facts, documents and testimony in a usable fashion.
Finally, a great paralegal must be flexible (i.e. able to make or deal with changes). Developing a strategy to resolve a case is fluid and changes throughout the litigation. Due to the fluctuating nature of litigation, a paralegal must deal with assignment and project changes on a daily if not momentary basis. Also, a word of advice, if you accept that change is part of the job it will help maintain a positive attitude.
Based on the predicted growth of the paralegal profession, it is clear that those who have the attributes of a great paralegal will be sought-after by attorneys in the know.
Cindy McClelen is a litigation paralegal at McManis Faulkner. She assists attorneys and legal assistants throughout discovery, case management, pretrial preparation, and trial.