Being a new paralegal or a paralegal student can be overwhelming. Getting your paralegal education can be extremely gratifying and it can even provide a bit of an ego boost. The legal industry is revered and we all know that it takes a lot of intellectual ability to survive.
The problem is that the closer you get to finishing your paralegal education, the more you realize how much you just don’t know. Don’t feel bad. New lawyers go through a similar time. Even if you somehow escape feeling inadequately prepared, you’ll experience it ten-fold once you start your first job as a paralegal. Here are 4 success tips from an experienced paralegal.
A Learning Curve Exists
No matter if you attended a post-college certificate program, a technical program, a two-year degree program, or a four-year degree program, if you don’t have former legal experience, there is a learning curve when you get into the office. If you attended an online program that was not located in your state, you probably spent your time researching laws in a state given by your instructor. So, you may not be all that familiar with the laws in your state, where to find them, or where to find important court rules such as the font size and margins you should use on a document that must be filed with the court.
It’s something we all go through. The best way to minimize the way you will be affected is to start getting answers to those questions now. Find the website associated with the district courts your future employer will likely practice in. Court websites often have a link to your state laws. There are also a lot of great websites managed by law firms that discuss recent changes in the law. Just make sure that you can decipher opinion from fact and that you know where to go to read the actual law. You should also find and bookmark your appeals and state superior or supreme courts. These courts often have extremely particular rules that you must follow in regards to how a legal document should be formatted.
One of the best things you can do as a new paralegal is to use templates. Ask your supervising attorney or managing paralegal if they use templates. Sometimes, there is so much that they want to teach you that the small things get overlooked. So, asking if there are templates and where you can find them provides an important reminder for the person training you and you’ll know where to find them in the future.
No templates? No problem. Most law firms now keep digital copies of client files. This means that you should be able to find recent copies of different types of motions, responses, interrogatories, complaints, and even letters. You can use these documents to create and save templates. Be very careful not to overwrite another file. Give it a separate name. You should also make sure that you know how to scrub out the meta-data to remove any and all confidential information.
Seriously. This is especially important if you’ve had no experience in a law office. Ask your supervising attorney or the person who is training you. Asking questions has a couple of important benefits.
- You’re able to learn what you need to know in order to do your job. In fact, if you keep notes on the questions you ask and the responses that you receive, you can create a reference manual for yourself and others.
- You make sure that you’re on the same page as your supervising attorney. If asking questions makes you uncomfortable, consider the fact that it allows you to clarify the goals of your assignment. You could even phrase your question like, “Just to clarify, you want me to _____________, right?” They will answer and if you’re not correct, they can explain it to you again.
Do Not Give Legal Advice to Clients
When you’re in school, you learn fast that your friends and family want you to give them legal advice. Of course, you also learn early in your academic career that giving legal advice is a big no-no. It violates the law. We’d all like to think that our friends and family wouldn’t turn us in or sue us, but it’s not a risk you should take.
It’s also not a risk you should take when you work in a law office. As a paralegal, you’re going to be exposed to the same legal issues and defenses over and over again. After a while, dealing with them will become second nature. Clients will call you on the phone because they either want to talk to the attorney or because they are more comfortable talking to you. No matter what, do not give them legal advice…even if you know the answer to a basic legal question they are asking. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to say, “Let me ask and I’ll call you back as soon as I know.” Then, ask your supervising attorney. Once you have the answer (even if you knew it), call the client back, identify yourself (and the fact that you are a paralegal) and say, “I spoke with (name of your supervising attorney) and asked. S/he said that _______________________.”
If the client has more questions, make a list of them and repeat the process.
Being a paralegal is an extremely rewarding experience. For many of us, it isn’t just a job or a career path; it is a calling. However, the first couple of years can be trying (particularly if you don’t have previous legal experience) for new paralegals. Always continue to learn and reach out to more experienced paralegals in order to acclimate and improve.