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by Christopher Coe on April 12, 2022

4 Qualities Firms Consider Essential for a Great Paralegal

Introduction

Recently, our (now former) Director of Business Development and one of our founders, Christopher Coe, had the opportunity to speak with graduating paralegals at Capilano University. He spoke at the invitation of one of the Program Directors, Ms. Deb Jamison, and had the opportunity to share some of the things that he has learned over the dozen years he has spent working in various aspects of the legal industry.

The presentation has been divided into two blog posts and pertains to what makes an excellent LAA in a real-world situation. Part one, below, outlines the four major qualities of a great paralegal. Part two presents two strategies paralegals can use to maximise these qualities.

The text of his presentation follows.


What I hope you take away from this introduction is that I started my career working for paralegals doing just about everything on the file-handling side at a law firm. By the time I stopped working in law firms, I was in Management; I hired paralegals and had a chance to learn how the business of a law firm works. In between these two jobs, I provided a file-relevant service to paralegals. Today, I work at a company that helps law firms run more efficiently, both on the file side and on the business side.

When Deb invited me to speak, I thought for some time about what I could offer that would be really useful to you. I wanted something to supplement the great education you've had here. Capilano University will give you the theory part of the education you need, but I often find that new paralegals have the same question — what makes an excellent paralegal in practice. This question gets asked by almost everyone, almost everywhere I have worked.

I understand you are about to undertake your practicums, which will be the first actual in-office experience for many of you, and the first in-office experience as a paralegal for others. So, I thought I would try and give you an answer to the question that must be running through your mind.

Over the course of my time in the industry, I have had the opportunity to get to know a lot of lawyers, a lot of people in the legal industry (inside and outside law firms), and a lot of paralegals. I have taken what I know from my various experiences within the legal industry, and then I and the rest of the team at Tracument reached out to a group of trusted lawyers, firm managers, paralegals, and LAAs. The advice we received was surprisingly uniform, and it breaks down into four key areas.

Here they are:

For each one, I want to talk about what I mean by it, why it's important (or, more to the point, what happens when it breaks down, what you get out of it, and how to hone it).


Attention to Detail

The first and most critical quality of a great paralegal is attention to detail. Every person I spoke with, no matter their job, level of experience, or firm/practice type included this in their list.

What is it?

Attention to detail may seem obvious (many of these qualities are), but you would be surprised at how attention to detail will affect everything. What the people who answered our survey meant most was precision, and caring about every last percentile of the small details. When we get busy, most of us will settle for good enough (and, most of the time, good enough works), but there are times in the practice of law when you will need to make sure that everything is as close to perfect as you can get. The important thing is to know when that is.

Why is it important?

In the emoluments clause of the US Constitution, there is a comma that was there for the first three printings but omitted for the final one, and it changes the meaning of the text. People's lives turn on litigation and legal work, and the outcome can turn on sometimes very small changes to process or letters that you will draft. Further, what a lot of my colleagues noted is that they feel their name and professional reputation are at stake whenever they send a letter, or do anything on a file for that matter. When small details are wrong, it looks sloppy even if the errors do not make much difference, because it indicates that more important errors might also have been missed.

What do you get out of it?

This was the most important quality because it allows the people on your team to trust you. If they know you will take care of the details correctly, it will cause the people you work with a lot less stress and worry, and it will save them time spent reviewing your work. Additionally, it will save you the time of having to go back and correct work you have already done. There is nothing more valuable than the trust of the people you work with.

How to hone it?

The most important thing is to make sure your focus is the best it can be. Set up your office to tune out distractions, put phones and other media away. When you are concentrating on a piece of work, and a text or telephone call breaks that concentration, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get it back. Insist on quiet hours, where you can work on detail-heavy work without interruption.

Responsibility

What is it?

Number two on our list is responsibility, which almost everyone included when we asked. By responsibility, the foremost thing is to take responsibility for a file and move it forward. In order to do that, a paralegal must understand their role on the file and what the piece of litigation needs from them (conceptually). On a practical level, it means knowing the status of a file, keeping track of deadlines, requirements, and obligations so that nothing falls through the cracks.

Why is it important?

Responsibility is the other element in building trust among your team. When your team trusts that you have conduct of a file, it frees them to do other work (on that file or others) without worrying that something will get missed. It means that your lawyer can hand you a project and know that it will get finished on time and with a high level of quality.

What do you get out of it?

Many of the lawyers we asked said that their paralegal's willingness to take more responsibility was the greatest determining factor in their decision to offer promotions, pay raises, and more serious and interesting work.

How do you hone it?

The ability to be responsible for a file comes from organisation and it comes from confidence. There is endless advice dedicated to better organisation, but the key is to use tools. It is impossible for you to remember everything. At a simple level, a good to-do list and calendar will take you a long way. When it comes to the confidence to take control of something, great mentorship is key. Find someone to show you how it's done.

Efficiency

What is it?

Efficiency is the ability to get great work done quickly. Simple as that.

Why is it important?

I have never met a paralegal who did not have too much to do. Even if you clear your desk, you learn there are whole areas of practice that could use your attention. Working when you feel overwhelmed is not fun in the abstract, but failing to meet deadlines because you have too much to do will frustrate your team and sometimes lead to negative file outcomes.

What do you get out of it?

The good news is that there is usually more income on the other end of improving your efficiency. Many of the firms we surveyed pay paralegals a bonus, and that bonus is directly tied to the number of billable hours (or the number of files managed, or revenue produced). If you spend too much time on non-billable tasks, or even are limited in the number of billable tasks you can accomplish because you are constantly reinventing the wheel, at best your ability to make a bonus might suffer and at worst you might fall behind.

How do you hone it?

I can give you three tips to avoid repeating actions unnecessarily. Use templates — if you are writing to your client, save a version of the letter as a template so you can more easily write the next one without starting from scratch. Batch like-tasks together, even across files (for instance, making all your scheduling calls at once puts you in that mindset and means you have the necessary materials at the ready)--you would not believe how much time and mental energy switching between tasks takes. Finally, delegate! Get tasks that can be done by an LAA off your desk, and those tasks that require a lawyer, delegate them upward!

Team Mentality

What is it?

This quality governs how a paralegal interacts with their team, and is primarily concerned with helpfulness, a keenness to contribute, protecting those on your team from making mistakes or missing important items, and generally bringing good energy, positivity, and calm in the face of stress to the job.

Why is it important?

Law firms, and even more so lawyer-paralegal-LAA groups are tight-knit teams that rely on each other, spend a lot of time together, and must work in concert to accomplish significant goals. Legal work is by nature complex and chaotic, and there is always a lot to do. The demeanour of those around you can make a huge difference in concrete ways, but also in making the workplace much more pleasant.

What do you get out of it?

In this, the people we surveyed were quite clear — generally, members of a team get what they give. If everyone on the team is respectful, helpful, and cheerful, this usually cycles upward and creates an excellent place to work. It can cycle downward too, causing people to become more protective of their time and less caring about those they work with.

How do you hone it?

The best advice I can give here is to start on the right foot and carry on from there. As the saying goes, every relationship (even professional ones) is made up of someone doing 40% and someone doing 60%. The best ones are those where both team members are the one trying to do the 60%.

We invite you to join us in our next blog post for the second half of the presentation where Christopher discusses strategies any paralegal can use to improve these qualities.


Before Tracument, Christopher worked in several capacities across the legal industry. He started in 2010 when he was hired at a small insurance defence litigation firm called Swadden & Company (now a much larger firm called Meridian Law Group). There he worked in basically an LAA capacity, often directly for paralegals and providing assistance and support on file-related tasks.

After that, he was responsible for opening the Vancouver office of an IME (independent medical examination) provider called AssessMed. AssessMed would organise and conduct IMEs primarily for firms involved in personal injury litigation. Here, he was given a chance to work directly with paralegals a lot, since they are often the deciding force behind booking an expert for a file. He helped acquaint paralegals with experts in the industry and helped them select IMEs that would strengthen their case. At the same time, he learned a lot about the general conduct of litigation files and how to bring about successful outcomes.

From there, He was hired as Director of Operations at Virgin Hickman.

He left Virgin Hickman and took on his current role at Tracument, which was a happy step for him because Tracument is a company he co-founded in 2013.

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