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Your First 100 Days On The Job As A Paralegal

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 469 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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Your first 100 days as a new paralegal will be a whirlwind of activity and learning. Not only will you be getting used to a new office, new people, new procedures, and a new boss, but also you will be trying on your career "for real" for the first time. You may never have been a "boss" yourself before, so you may be unsure of how to treat the secretary who has been assigned to you. The best advice is to take a deep breath, keep calm, keep your ears open, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.
Your First 100 Days On The Job As A Paralegal

  • 8:00 Arriving in the reception area, you are greeted by the office manager and shown to your office. You are introduced to your secretary.
  • 8:10 You are taken on a tour of the firm and introduced to all available personnel. You are shown the various departments, including the file room, library, employee lounge, bookkeeping, word-processing department, and mail room.
  • 8:30 The personnel manager takes you to his or her office, where you fill out all necessary legal and tax papers and are given a copy of the firm's employee manual.
  • 8:45 You are turned over to your secretary, who helps you equip your desk with supplies and shows you how to log onto the firm's computer network.
  • 9:15 Your supervising attorney pokes her head in the door and welcomes you. She sits down and gives you an idea of what she expects from you and asks you what your goals and interests are. She gives you your first assignment, a small research project.
  • 10:00 You go to the library to start working on your research project. You are interrupted by the office manager, who wants to show you how to work the firm's telephone system.
  • 10:30 You get back to work on your research project.
  • 10:45 One of the firm's associates comes into the library to work on his research project. The two of you chat for a little while, and then he asks you to come down to his office so he can give you some depositions to summarize for him.
  • 11:00 You get back to work on your research project.
  • 12:00 You retire to the employee lounge with your brown-bag lunch.
  • 12:45 You resume your research project in the library.
  • 1:30 You complete your research project and go back to your office to prepare a memo. You realize that you don't know the proper format for the firm's memos or which directory you are supposed to save the document in. You call your secretary, who comes in and gives you a rundown of protocols on how information is stored in the firm's computers.
  • 2:00 You are working on your memo when you are interrupted by the office bookkeeper, who wants to show you how you are supposed to keep your time sheets.
  • 2:30 You are interrupted from working on your memo by yet another of the firm's attorneys, who comes in and introduces herself. She asks if you know how to use the firm's database program so that you can enter some documents for her on a case she is working on. You tell her you have used similar programs in school but not that particular one. She tells you to call the office manager and arrange to get some training on this database so you can help her with her case.
  • 2:45 You finish your report and begin working on the deposition summaries. You realize that you don't have a sample of how this attorney likes his summaries done. You contact the word- processing department and have them print out some samples of previous summaries that have been done for this particular attorney.
  • 3:15 The supervising attorney comes in and asks if you have finished your research memo yet. You tell her you have and that you have given it to your secretary for finalization and copying.
  • 3:20 You call the office manager and ask her to get you trained on the firm's database program. She puts you down for Thursday at 10:00.
  • 3:45 While working on the deposition summaries, you have a ques tion on something that happened in the case. You realize you don't know the name of the client or where the file is kept. You contact your secretary, who shows you how to look up a client on the firm's computer printout and learn the file location.
  • 4:30 One of the firm's other paralegals pokes his head in and invites you to a welcome lunch the next day so that you can meet all the paralegals. He has a large project due the next day and asks you if you'll have time to help him tomorrow.
  • 5:00 Your secretary pops in to see if you need anything else for the day and tell you good-bye. She gives you a copy of the research memo that has been finalized.
  • 5:15 You get a call from one of the attorneys in the firm asking if you have time to come down and see him first thing in the morning for a project.
  • 5:30 You prepare your time sheet for the day's work. Realizing you are going to have a busy day tomorrow, you take one of the depositions home with you to summarize that evening.


Attorneys, like any other people, are individuals, and it is impossible to generalize about them. Having said this, however, there are a few common characteristics that many attorneys seem to share. Knowing these characteristics in advance will give you an edge in working with them.

First of all, most attorneys, by the nature of their work, are pressed for time. It is important for you to understand that nowhere is the phrase "time is money" more important than in a law office. Attorneys (and paralegals too, for that matter) are judged, evaluated, and valued on how many hours they can bill each day to clients. Time spent sitting and chatting is time that must be made up elsewhere, probably over a lunch hour or in the evening when the attorney would rather be heading home. Keeping this in mind, when you are formulating questions to ask attorneys or preparing to go over with an attorney the information you have gathered for him or her, you must be organized and succinct. Ask your questions, note the answers, and then withdraw to continue your work. The attorney will appreciate it when you are not a time-waster.

Don't make the mistake, however, of being intimidated into not asking enough questions to properly perform your job. If after asking your questions and receiving some answers you are still unclear on what is wanted, you need to make a decision. If the attorney appears to be relaxed and willing to spend time with you, go ahead and ask for clarification. If, on the other hand, the attorney has the phone in his or her hand and is giving you one of those "are you finished?" looks, you may want to retire and either try to figure out the answers yourself or seek clarification from another attorney or paralegal.

Checklist of Information to Get about an Assignment
  • Who is the client? What is the file number? (You will need this information so that you can properly bill your time.)
  • Legal and factual background of the case. (The more you know about the case, the better job you can do.)
  • What task are you being given to do? (If the assignment seems vague, ask for more specifics.)
  • How does that task fit into the big picture of the case? (If you know how your finished product will be used, it will help you focus your work.)
  • Does the attorney want a written report of your work, or will an oral report suffice?
  • How much time should this project take to complete? (This will help you budget your time for the day. Also, it will help you know if you are spending too much time on a particular task. See the section on billing, below.)
  • What is your deadline for completing the project? (This will help you prioritize your many ongoing tasks.)

The second thing new paralegals need to know about attorneys is that they want things done their way. One of your jobs when you are assigned to work for a particular attorney is to learn all of his or her idiosyncracies when it comes to preparing forms, drafting documents, taking messages from clients, organizing files, keeping his or her calendar, or completing any of the myriad tasks you may be called upon to do. For example, some attorneys want you to put the client's file number on each phone message. Some want the correspondence to go on the left of the file, and some want it to go on the right. Each attorney has his or her own writing style that you will have to learn when you are drafting legal documents for his or her signature. This task is compounded when you are assigned to work for more than one attorney or when you are part of a "pool" where all attorneys in the firm have access to you. A paralegal who memorizes each attorney's preferences will be very valuable indeed.

One of the best things that a fledgling paralegal can do is locate an attorney mentor within the firm. A mentor can be an invaluable aid in a number of areas. If you are stuck on a legal question, a mentor can help you through the maze of the library or the on-line research. If you have a sticky ethical question or a political problem with a firm employee, a mentor can be a precious sounding board or source of insight. A mentor can stand up for you if someone registers a complaint against you or give you an idea of your chances for a promotion you have been wanting.


Depending on the size of your office, there will be a number of different types of support staff available to assist you in your work. In most offices, there will be at least one secretary and a receptionist. In larger offices, there will be "gophers," whose job is to deliver packages to clients, file documents with the court, and run the other countless errands that a law firm generates. Your office may employ file clerks, whose job is to keep the stacks of letters, pleadings, and other documents filed away in their proper places. Some very large law firms have law librarians to manage the stacks of legal books and computer media, mail room clerks to sort and deliver mail, copy room personnel, who save you or the secretaries from having to stand at the copy machine, and case clerks, who perform some of the more mundane tasks that sometimes get delegated to paralegals, such as Bates stamping and data entry.

Although the firm may stress a teamwork concept, the larger the firm, the more likely that a social strata will develop, with attorneys at the top, paralegals and secretaries somewhere in the middle, and all other support staff at the bottom. Although this may very well be the reality of the firm, it is important that you not buy into such a notion. There are both humanistic and practical reasons for not doing so.

First of all, remember the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Would you appreciate being considered a less valuable employee? Then don't make others feel that way. Do you enjoy being left out of the lunch crowd because you are a paralegal and not an attorney? Then don't leave secretaries and runners out of your social circle.
On a more practical note, the law office does function on teamwork. If you are too proud to help out a secretary in the middle of a dire rush to get a bankruptcy petition on file before a deadline because it's not "paralegal" work, you can bet word of this will travel around the office. And may heaven help you when it's your turn to meet a deadline. If, on the other hand, you attain a reputation as a team player, the team will be there to back you up when you need it.

New paralegals sometimes complain that they are treated with contempt by the experienced secretaries in the office. This attitude stems back to a time before the paralegal profession had established a stronghold in the law office. Senior legal secretaries were actually performing paralegal work along with their secretarial duties. In fact, before there were many paralegal schools, most paralegals were secretaries who had moved up the ladder. Some secretaries who have the skills and experience, but not the title, are resentful over the perks and status that paralegals receive in the firm. Paralegals often have their own offices, don't usually have to punch time clocks, and are often on a higher pay scale than are secretaries. To add insult to injury, the secretary is assigned to work for this upstart paralegal. Paralegals must be aware that the seed of such resentment can be there and take care not to do anything to foster its growth into a full-fledged power struggle. Be compassionate and appreciative of your secretary. Don't lord your status over anyone in the firm. The self-importance may feel good at first, but the price you pay is much too high in the long run.

Another important thing to remember is to respect the firm's procedures and rules. They are usually there to make life easier for the staff that is in charge of that particular function. For instance, if you are expected to turn in time sheets daily or weekly, do it. If you turn in three weeks' worth of time on the last day of the month, it will not endear you to the book-keeping department. If the firm wants you to forward your telephone calls when you are working in the library or another office, take the time to do so. Nothing frustrates a receptionist more than to search all over the office for you when a call comes in. Following these rules reinforces the fact that you are courteous and a team player. It shows your coworkers that you want to make it easier for them to get their jobs done.


In a small office, you might be the only paralegal. In a large one, you may be one of dozens. Your relationship with the other paralegals in your office is vital. They will be your best source of information on a number of subjects. They will teach you many things that your attorney may not have time to. They will pinch-hit for you when you are ill or on vacation. In fact, it is a good idea to find a paralegal mentor as well as an attorney mentor. It is your fellow paralegal who will truly know what you are going through because he or she has been there too.

Sometimes it happens that competition may come up between paralegals for the "juiciest" case or to work for the "best" attorney. You should strive to keep these feelings from arising. Don't forget that you are on a team. After you have established yourself and your reputation for quality work is known, you will be rewarded with good cases of your own. You must be ready to pay your dues and work your way up. There are few shortcuts to that road.


You may have heard that employee turnover is expensive for employers because it costs thousands of dollars to retrain a new person. This expense is due to the learning curve, the amount of time it takes new employees to grasp enough information about their positions to be able to work with minimal supervision and begin to pull their weight. Until new employees are "up to speed" on what is expected of them, they are more of a liability to their companies than an asset. The company knows this and is willing to make the investment in the time, money, and energy it will take to train an efficient employee.

It is good to keep this in mind when you begin your new paralegal job. Your firm is investing its time and money in you in the hopes that you will become profitable and helpful to the firm down the road. Your job is to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. If you can speed up the expected learning curve, you will rise in the esteem of your employers and coworkers. Have you ever heard the expressions, "She's fast on the uptake" or "He's a quick study"? This refers to someone who has zoomed through the training and left the learning curve in the dust. Do you have to have natural smarts to accomplish such a feat? Not necessarily. There are some tricks you can use to help you speed up your own learning curve.
  1. Take good notes. Make a vow to yourself that no one will ever have to tell you something more than once. During your first 100 days in the law office, take a pen and pad of paper with you everywhere you go. Never get caught without them nearby. Every time someone explains how to use a particular computer program, how to use the phone system, what the procedure is for retrieving a file out of storage, how to keep track of the facsimile transmissions for billing purposes, any-thing at all, write it down. Don't think to yourself, "Oh this sounds easy. I won't have to write this down." It may be true, but when it's added onto the other two-dozen things you learned that day about office procedures, it will get lost in the shuffle. Plan to keep your notes indefinitely. Some procedures you may only perform once in a blue moon, and you may need to refresh your memory occasionally.
  2. Keep samples of your work. Whenever you draft a pleading or other document that is new and different, save a copy of it in a file that is kept at your desk. If you receive a well-written document from opposing counsel, save a copy of that too. Once you have built up a good "form bank" of your own, you will have a formidable library from which to draw for future projects.
  3. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. New paralegals often think their tasks represent the first time such assignments have ever been given. What you should keep in mind is that whatever you have been asked to do has probably been done in that firm once before. Instead of trying to draft a set of interrogatories or prepare a grant deed from scratch, ask one of the other paralegals if he or she can point you to another case where this has already been done. It will give you a great starting place and save a lot of time. (Don't forget, time is money!) That does not mean you don't need to learn how to use the form books to prepare a document yourself if need be. It is merely a way to become more efficient. Once you are efficient, you have mastered the learning curve.
  4. Be willing to do a little homework on your own time. Take home the employee manual and read it. Become familiar with the local rules of the courts nearest you. Spend a lunch hour browsing through the firm's library to see what resources are available. Have someone give you a tour through the office computer network. There may be all kinds of forms or legal research banks that have been loaded onto the computer. If your firm uses a type of software with which you are unfamiliar, take an evening course and learn how to use it. Any of these tools could help you move from "freshman" to seasoned paralegal in record time.
  5. Volunteer to help on firm committees or projects. Firms often put together a group of volunteer employees to accomplish certain administrative tasks within the firm. Some such projects may be creating and maintaining a database of case law on a particular subject, organizing the firm's Christmas party or summer picnic, serving on an employee relations committee, or orchestrating a reorganization of the firm's storage warehouse. Employees from a wide area of the firm are sometimes grouped together to accomplish these tasks, and it will give you an opportunity to get to know and work with individuals whose paths you might never otherwise cross. This may help you later if you decide, perhaps, to transfer to a different department. It will also get you recognized by the firm higher-ups, who will appreciate that you are willing to go beyond the call of duty.


The first rush of beginning a new career is an exhilarating experience. You have finally realized a dream or accomplished a goal that you had set for yourself some time (possibly years) ago. You may be tempted to take on more projects than you can reasonably handle. This is done for a variety of reasons-for example, to speed up the recognition process, to be viewed as a hardworking, standout employee, or merely to immerse yourself in the sheer excitement of it all. While these are all worthwhile goals to accomplish, it is better to achieve them at less than breakneck speed. Too much too soon too fast will lead to burnout. Also, incomplete or hurried work or unmet deadlines will reflect poorly on you, no matter what your intentions were.

Sometimes, especially when you are working for multiple attorneys, you may be pulled in too many directions with multiple rush projects. Once you realize that you will not be able to get to everyone's assignments, let the attorneys know immediately. Of course, everyone will say that his or her project is the most important one on your desk. However, a determination can usually be made that some projects will take priority over others, perhaps because of a looming deadline. The most urgent ones will be taken care of first, and the truly less important ones will be assigned to someone else or placed on the "back burner" to wait their turns. Although you may be very capable of making this determination yourself, it is often wiser to let the attorneys fight it out amongst themselves. That way, you won't be accused of favoring one attorney over the other or exercising poor judgment.


There are fewer sources of anxiety for paralegals (or attorneys for that matter) than billing. As we have said before, time is money in the law firm, and the billable hour rules the office. Because it is so important to your life as a paralegal, it is something you should know about and be aware of during your first 100 days.

Although billable time is kept for a variety of management reasons, the two most important purposes of logging time are to create revenue for the firm and to track the productivity of firm employees.

Creating Revenue for the Firm

Your firm's managers have determined how much money clients can be billed for your time based on your years of experience, your specialty, and the going market rate in the area. Billing rates for paralegals range from $30 per hour in small towns for general practice paralegals to more than $150 per hour in big city firms for specialized work. Your billable rate says a lot about your experience and your status within your firm, and an increase in your rate is as high a compliment as any promotion.

Let's say the firm sets your starting rate at $35 per hour. That means if you spend four hours researching databases looking for a missing witness, your firm will charge that client $140. You have now created income for your firm. It is a wonderful feeling but also a great responsibility. You are now a profit center for your firm, and those employees of the firm who bill their time have a special status over the employees who don't bring in any revenue. Your compensation is usually tied to how much income you produce for your firm, so the more hours you can bill, the better. The money you bring in is used to pay your salary and your overhead (your office space, supplies, secretarial help, etc.), and the rest is considered profit for the firm's partners.

Now, for example, say that after you complete your first year with the firm, you are working very quickly and efficiently on projects. The firm ups your billable rate to $40 per hour. Now that same four-hour research project will cost the client $160 instead of $140. You are bringing in more money for the same effort. Your value to the firm has just gone up.

Tracking Productivity

Now, let's return to the first scenario, where you have a $35-per-hour billing rate. Suppose the attorney who is reviewing your time decides that it shouldn't have taken you four hours to do that research project, it should only have taken three. He will reduce your billed time to three hours, and the client will be billed $105. One hour of your time that day will have been thrown out the window. Suddenly it looks as though you worked only a seven-hour day instead of an eight-hour day. This process is known as being "written off" (e.g., the attorney just wrote off an hour of your time from the client's bill). There are many reasons why a firm may reduce your time on a client's bill:

You may not have worked as efficiently as you could have.
  • The attorney had made a deal with the client that the bill would not be more than a certain amount each month.
  • New paralegals and attorneys are often written off to compensate the client for their learning curves.
  • You may have spent longer on a project than the attorney had intended.
  • Some attorneys have a reputation for writing off their paralegals' time so that the attorneys don't have to write off any of their own.

Being written off can be devastating because you feel as though you are not worth your salt. While write-offs can be a sign of trouble, sometimes they are done more for client relations or political reasons. If your firm shares its billing reports with you and you notice that your time is still regularly being written off after your first 100 days, you should make a point to talk to your supervising attorney or the office manager. It could be a sign that you are not working at an optimum level, and such write-offs will reflect poorly upon you during your next review.

When you were hired by your firm, you were probably told how many hours you were expected to bill per year. A common target figure for paralegals in mid-sized to large firms is 1,800 billable hours per year. Dividing this figure by 52 weeks gives us approximately 35 hours per week that you will need to bill to one of the firm's clients or another. At first, this does not sound particularly difficult, considering that you will be working at least 40-hour weeks. However, you will quickly come to learn that it is harder than it sounds. Here are some of the drains on the day's billable hours
  • Stopping to chat with coworkers
  • Forgetting to account for all of your time during the day
  • Inefficiency, which leads to write-offs
  • Volunteering to work on too many administrative projects
  • Arriving late, leaving early, or taking long lunch hours.

Large write-offs and failing to meet billing quotas are common sources of reprimands for paralegals (and attorneys, too). Both indicate the employee is not productive enough and therefore does not bring in enough revenue to pay for his or her salary and overhead at the firm, let alone have enough left over to provide a profit for the partners.

You will learn about billing in paralegal school. There are also good books on the subject.1


Your first 100 days will be spent trying to survive. Your next 100 weeks will be spent honing your skills and really finding your stride. But what comes after that?

By the end of your first 2 years on the job, you will have a fairly good idea of whether you are happy in the specialty and the environment you have chosen. What if you're not? Or suppose you like what you are doing OK, but you are getting a little bored. If you are working in a mid- to large-sized firm, here are some things to explore:
  • Approach an attorney in the firm for whom you have not yet worked and tell her you would like to learn more about her specialty.
  • Strike up a friendship with a paralegal in a different department and offer to cross-train each other.
  • Approach your supervising attorney and let him know you are ready to take on new responsibilities.
  • Volunteer to work on a pro bono project at your firm in an area of the law that is unfamiliar to you.

By learning a new specialty area, you can either relieve your boredom or find a new niche within the firm. Some paralegals in large firms switch through several departments before finding a permanent "home."

Paralegals in small offices or working for sole practitioners don't have as much freedom of movement. If they are unhappy with what they are doing, their only option may be to look for another place of employment.

What about the future? What if you have other goals over and above your paralegal career? What if you have always wanted to try your hand at teaching? At writing? At going into management? Many paralegals have dreams of going on to law school. Others want to start their own freelance businesses. All these aspirations can be accomplished while continuing your paralegal career. Hone your writing skills by volunteering to author articles for your local or state paralegal association newsletters. Some legal newspapers also accept articles for publication. If teaching is your goal, stay in touch with the instructors from your paralegal program after you graduate. Offer to do some tutoring or volunteer to serve on an advisory committee for the program. Take some teaching courses at your local college. After you have enough years of education, some community colleges and business schools may desire your expertise.

If you are interested in becoming a manager, you should take some college management courses. You will also need to work in a city that has firms large enough to require paralegal managers. The Legal Assistant Management Association (LAMA) is a national organization made up of people who manage paralegals. For more information about the association, contact LAMA at 2965 Flowers Rd. So., Atlanta, GA 30341, call them at 770/457/7746 or visit their website at www.LAMAnet.org.

If you hope someday to become a freelance paralegal and contract your services to attorneys on an as-needed basis, you should begin to lay the groundwork as soon as you begin working for your first law firm. The key to being a successful freelancer is (1) to be very good at what you do, and (2) to have as many contacts as possible. Get to know all the attorneys in your office and keep in touch with them when they leave for other firms. Join your local paralegal association and mingle with as many of the members as you can. Each one may be a source of future work. Build an excellent name for efficient, thorough, and ethical work, and your reputation will precede and sell you.

Good luck and happy Paralegaling! We wish you outrageous success!

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 469 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.