Attorneys spend a lot of time working with support staff, particularly paralegals, but get no training in law school on how to successfully navigate this important relationship. Here are some tips to help you get the most effective assistance from your support staff.
First off, know what you can and can’t ask of a paralegal. A paralegal can’t provide legal services directly to a client without being under the direction and supervision of a lawyer, law firm, or other entity that employs or contracts with the paralegal. Bus & P C §6451. Among the specifically banned activities for paralegals are giving legal advice, representing a client in court, and drafting a legal document for anyone other than the supervising attorney. Bus & P C §6450(b).
Your paralegal can be an invaluable asset and ally, but don’t expect him or her to be a mind reader. If you make assignments and expectations clear, and get confirmation that the paralegal understands what’s expected, you’ll get the most useful assistance with the least frustration.
Here are ten tips for working with paralegals (and other support staff):
- Provide background information. Most individuals understand an assignment better if they’re able to appreciate how the assignment fits into the overall case and objectives.
- Describe the result expected. It’s frequently helpful, for example, to provide a copy of a similar product, pointing out strong and weak aspects.
- Provide time guidelines. Tell the paralegal how much time to devote to the assignment. If the guideline is only an estimate, indicate that. Direct him or her to inform you if significantly more time is required than was initially anticipated.
- Set priorities. Inform the paralegal about the relative importance of the assignment and whether it should be placed ahead of or behind other matters previously assigned. If there’s a conflict with an assignment received from another attorney in the office, contact that attorney to work out the priority between the two projects.
- Set a date for completion. Make sure the project deadline is clearly stated and reasonable.
- Direct the paralegal to potential resources. These resources should include other attorneys and files that have addressed similar problems.
- Delineate the paralegal’s responsibilities. Make clear the division of decision-making between you and the paralegal.
- Discuss the assignment. Give sufficient detail to ensure an understanding of the assignment and an opportunity to raise any questions.
- Keep in contact. Inform the paralegal at the outset how and when you’ll check on progress—and then do it!
- Be respectful. Paralegals are professionals and should be treated as such. Both the relationship and the work product will suffer if you forget this last, but critically important, tip.
Consider putting everything in writing—creating a written assignment sheet with much of the information suggested above can be very useful.
For advice on the many things they never taught you in law school about implementing law office procedures, turn to CEB’s California Civil Procedure Before Trial, chapter 1.
Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:
- Opening a Law Practice? Pay Attention to Tax Issues
- Mmmm…Donuts! But Can You Bring Them to the Courtroom Staff or Jury?
- What Form Should Your Law Practice Take?
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