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Four Office Management Tips for Paralegals

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It's good news-bad news time. The good news is that the law firm you work for has a whole roomful of new clients, and business couldn't be better. The bad news is that the law firm you work for has a whole roomful of clients, and business couldn't be better.

More work for the attorneys in your firm certainly means more work for you. It's easy to get bogged down as the case files pile up on your desk.

Worse yet, if two or three cases involve specific challenges that take you away from the more standard cases, you can find yourself giving short shrift to your clients. This can only lead to missed deadlines, angry phone calls from clients to your boss, and a feeling that you're swamped with work and up against the wall.

If this scenario fits you and the office where you work, you're not alone. The legal industry in the U.S. is picking up. More and more lawyers are graduating from law school, passing their state bar exams, and entering the workforce than ever before. Along with this continuing rise in the number of attorneys comes another significant rise from within the paralegal profession. As attorneys start their own practices, become associates at large and midsize law firms, or join the government or major companies as corporate counsel, they require an increase in the staff support offered by paralegals.

Since the legal profession is on the upswing after a long time, it makes sense that the paralegal profession is too. But as you've probably already noticed, new clients, larger dollar-amount cases, and the growing number of court suits mean more work for everyone involved. And if you've worked as a paralegal for even a short time, you already know how hard the work can be. So how do you fit 10 hours of work into an eight-hour day? Three words: Organize, organize, organize.

The secret to successful case management, client management, time management, and (just as important) attorney management is to organize yourself and your office before the firestorm of clients, cases, and attorneys hits. The best way to establish a marching plan for each case is to create an ideal office environment. Easy to say and hard to do? Not if you concentrate on a few important organizational basics.

Keep track of paralegal work and office records

If you work for a midsize to large law firm, most of the organizational problems you'll face can be easily solved by the case management systems already in place. Someone has probably come before you and created filing systems, copying procedures, and similar tracking methods to run the office in a seemingly smooth manner.

If this is the case where you work, by all means learn these systems as rapidly as you can and stick to them. There are probably dozens of reasons why this case management system is in place to begin with: maximum attorney convenience, maximum paralegal convenience, space and office size limitations, attorney and staff limitations, and most importantly, because everyone recalls case management problems in the past.

Learn established case management systems and adapt to them

Few things will turn an attorney's hair gray faster than a missing file and the resulting client anger it can cause. In most cases, the file "miraculously" appears after a few frantic hours of searching, and then all's well that ends well. However, if this becomes a common occurrence in the office, serious problems can arise.

I've read shocking accounts of lawyer malpractice in various attorney magazines. A common theme is the reckless mismanagement of client records. In some cases, this flagrant malfeasance has led to the dismissal of clients' multimillion-dollar lawsuits. In other cases lucrative contracts have fallen through; in still others massive probate problems have been created. Professional relationships are often ruined when successor attorneys try to salvage a lost client from a disorganized lawyer or law firm.

All horror stories aside, if your office uses a file and case management system that proves useful, stay with it. Some systems run via computer software programs specifically created for law practice management. Other paper-based tracking systems are so streamlined that even an earthquake couldn't disrupt them. Whatever system your office currently uses-computerized client files, standard paper files, or whatever-learn it well and add value by constantly searching for ways to improve it.

Take part in installing new case management plans and systems

Some progressive law firms encourage their employees, attorneys, paralegals, and support staff alike, to come up with new and better ways to track cases, handle clients, and run the office more efficiently. Keep alert to contributions you might make with respect to record keeping systems.

If you work for a firm with an efficient system already in place, you are in luck. But what if you work for a young, small firm, for a new single practitioner, or for an attorney who has broken away from an established firm to start a private practice with good legal skills but no familiarity with office infrastructures?

What do you do if you're called upon to create and maintain a case management and file-tracking system for you and other support staff to follow? Don't despair. Help is always available, and the solutions are relatively easy to implement. Putting case management plans into effect requires three important tools; some money, some time, and some rules. Notice the keyword in this last sentence is "some." Good small-practice management, while certainly not free, does not require a huge outlay of money to introduce.

In most small-practice offices (and in larger firms wishing to change their current procedures) your choices come down to two options: a computerized system with minimum paper backup or a paper system alone. Here, the phrase "paper system" refers to the use of file folders to keep track of all correspondence, depositions, contracts, etc.

The choice depends largely on the volume of the practice and the skills, needs, and requirements of the attorneys and their support staff. Is the practice based on a high-volume, high-turnover personal injury clientele? Or is it more methodical and sedate, preferring to concentrate its efforts on the needs of a few high-dollar clients? Are the paralegal and associated support staffs geared toward paper systems, or do they have enough computer knowledge to make extensive training and retraining unnecessary?

Use Computer-Based Practice Management

By now, even the worst technophobe among us has come to the conclusion that he or she must have at least a budding familiarity with the green-glowing box of microchips known as the personal computer (PC). If you're not so much computer-literate, a basic course will be a real asset to your career. Ideally, you want the flexibility to operate as an effective paralegal in any office with any filing system and the eventual expertise to introduce improvements. Some law firms have made the inevitable switch to computerized systems with hardly a sigh. Others have had to drag their employees kicking and screaming into the future.

A computer-based system offers several unique advantages over a paper-file system for a firm of any size. Consider the following reasons to move into the Information Age:

Speed: You can get instant updates on the status of a case at the touch of a button. Most software programs allow you to keep track of individual files by entering the client's last name or file record number. In seconds, the entire electronic file appears, giving dates, deadlines, and court appearance and deposition information. With this system in place, you can get an entire case history right on the screen.

Accuracy: While it's not true that computers never make mistakes, the structure of most legal and practice management software programs won't allow you to enter improper data or make many mistakes. Storing client information on computers forces you to follow careful data entry procedures. It's a powerful asset when combined with good computer-use habits such as finishing each entry task in order, updating the cases when necessary, and protecting the computer from harm just as if it were a living member of the office staff.

Safety: With the prudent use of all-important backup floppy disks, hard disk drive backup systems, and careful handling of the software and hardware, the computer can work for years and years without failure. Some law offices lock their computerized client files (the backup disks or tapes themselves) into a sturdy safe at the end of each business day. This protects the client files-truly the lifeblood of any law firm-from fire, water damage, or theft.

Confidentiality: Paper files left in standard filing cabinets don't offer much security from theft or sabotage, nor do they keep prying eyes away. Some legal software programs offer encryption protection, meaning that if you don't enter the proper password, employee ID number, or literally the correct key for the lockable keyhole, you don't get in. This protects the files from accidental or deliberate era sure and from any other electronic eavesdropping that might take place.

With such a wide range of computer software programs designed specifically for the needs of a law practice, it just makes good sense to take advantage of the power offered by a personal computer. Some more sophisticated software programs allow you to create so-called boilerplate forms for use with attorneys and clients. Using form-creation software, you can set up an infinite number of in-house forms, contracts, waivers, leases, agreements, medical and information releases, wills, trusts, etc., that relate specifically to your firm and the type of law it practices.




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