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The key to success in any new endeavor is understanding what the people around you expect of you, what you can expect of them, and how those expectations can be made to work together so that you will not only succeed but be comfortable and maybe even enjoy yourself as well. In this article, you’ll find tips on fitting into the legal work environment as well as resources from which you can get general information about fitting into your working environment and dealing with difficult people.
Fitting Into the Workplace Culture
People who have entered the legal profession in the last several decades have introduced new ways of doing things. Many of the old traditions have remained but have been adapted. For example, it would be difficult for a law firm today to state that "all partners and associates must wear ties," because many partners and associates are now women. However, in most law firms, both men and women dress conservatively. Until you find out otherwise, you should dress and behave on your new job in accordance with the idea that you are working in an old, established profession.
Of course, if you go to work for the legal services/environmental law/nonprofit crowd, you will find a much less conservative, much more casual work culture. In offices like these, except on days when you go to court, jeans and T-shirts may be appropriate attire.
Somewhere between the old established firms and the politically active organizations are the small firms and solo practitioners, where style is determined much more by the individuals in the firm than anything else.
The safest thing is to take your cue from those around you. You may not meet any other paralegals in the interview and hiring process, but if you do, dress according to their style for your first couple of days. If you‘re uncertain at first, wear businesslike attire. Once you’ve worked in a place for a while, you'll know what s acceptable.
Fitting into the workplace culture is about a lot more than what you wear, however. Law firms have very well established traditions, and it will be to your benefit to figure them out. There may, for example, be unspoken rules about who works for whom and when you drop everything to do a particular partner's bidding. In particularly traditional firms, you may be expected to call the attorneys Mr. or Ms. Or maybe that's only required for the partners, not the associates. In a legal services office, the attorneys are probably known by their first names.
There are two ways to ensure that you will fit into your workplace culture. Realize that there is a culture and that you may not know what it is.
Then keep your eyes open and act the way other people act. If no one brings a sack lunch and eats it in the law library, don't immediately take it upon yourself to start a new trend. The other way to learn the ropes is to get yourself a mentor as soon as possible.
Power in Numbers
In addition to the changes to the profession that resulted from the influx of new attorneys, the poverty law movement and the plain-language movement led directly to a greater number of paralegals. These movements empowered legal consumers so that they realized they didn't always need to hire an attorney to accomplish a legal objective. With some information, people who have not been to law school can write divorce decrees, articles of incorporation, and bankruptcy petitions. However, most people still feel unsure about doing these things on their own, and paralegals fill the gap. Either within a legal organization or on their own, paralegals can assist their clients with many of the rudimentary legal activities. What they cannot do—as you know by now—is practice law. Once legal decisions are made, however, they can take over most aspects of a case. They also can tell you when you do need to consult an attorney.
An unfortunate result of this growth of the paralegal profession is that some attorneys are suspicious of paralegals. The number is shrinking all the time; nonetheless, the tension still exists. The concern among attorneys is that paralegals can easily slip over the line and begin practicing law. As you go through your paralegal studies, you'll see that this can be a difficult line to draw. Especially as you become a more experienced paralegal, you'll be tempted to answer when your client says, "Do you think I should do X or Y?" But legally, you can't answer those questions.
Lawyers aren't just worried about losing business to paralegals—although, frankly, I think that was a large part of it in the beginning—they're worried that people will receive bad legal advice. Over the years, though, paralegals have conducted themselves in such a professional manner and have been so conscientious about understanding their role that lawyers are, for the most part, now welcoming paralegals into the legal culture.
But as a result of this tradition of tension, you may encounter (particularly in a large organization) an attorney who, at best, doesn't understand what paralegals do, or, at worst, is openly hostile to paralegals. The ones who don't understand may just need to be gently reminded that you are not a legal secretary—that other, very competent and talented people in the firm do that joh. The hostile ones, obviously, are more difficult. I'll talk about this in more depth in the next section.
In the end, you will fit in on your first paralegal job the same way you have any time you went to a new school or did something for the first time. You'll watch people around you and behave as they do, and when you can t figure something out, you'll ask somebody. And you will find that lawyers aren't necessarily scary.
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