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Attorney-Client Workloads and a Paralegal’s Organizing Methods

published February 07, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

( 348 votes, average: 4 out of 5)

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Even the most organized professionals in the most organized office can slip up. But if you adhere to the rules as closely as possible, you won't spend sleepless hours tossing and turning over the 5,000 possible locations of Mr. Smith's file in your office.
 
Attorney-Client Workloads And A Paralegal’s Organizing Methods

Client Management
The lifeblood of any practicing law office is obviously the clients. Just as no business could function without customers, no law firm could survive without clients. No matter how you want to look at it, clients are customers.

Unless complexities of the case or personalities of the clients demand special attention, the attorney or attorneys in your office may speak to clients only a few times over the course of the case. You, on the other hand, may need to speak to the clients constantly, updating them on various matters and advising them of deadlines, appearances, and any progress made in the case. Moreover, since the client's attorney is usually busy with other matters, you may have to take on the role of "point man" for most attorney-client conversations and correspondence.

You've no doubt realized this last part can be very draining, both physically and mentally. Each client expects superior service from your law firm. Each client truly believes his or her case should be the most important one in the office. Furthermore, each client feels that his or her phone calls should be answered promptly by someone who can give a detailed status report or at least some words of comfort about the entire procedure. In short, each client expects to receive special treatment from his or her attorney.
Most new clients will have had few previous encounters with either attorneys or the legal profession. Short of a traffic accident, a bankruptcy, or a divorce, few people need a lawyer until they really need a lawyer. For these inexperienced individuals, even the prospect of visiting a lawyer's office can bring up certain apprehensions. And thanks to Hollywood and television, the image of the typical law office brings to mind visions of stately oak rooms, large intimidating desks, and well-heeled attorneys wearing expensive three-piece suits.

Whether or not this is true of your law office, much of the burden of client reassurance may fall on your shoulders. You must be current on the status of the case, be accessible to give information, and even be the hand-holder if necessary.

In his best-selling book Service America!, management expert Karl Albrecht tells of a common theme among service workers: "You know," they often say as a group, "this would be a great job if it weren't for all these customers!"

With attorney-client workloads the way they are, it's easy to fail into this same trap. While some paralegals will admit feeling underused if they aren't swamped with work, most express frustration when their workloads get out of control.

Getting control of your workload begins with sorting the priorities. One of the easiest ways to fall behind is to get into a "fire-fighting" mode, in which you bounce from one crisis to the next trying to deal with minor and major emergencies while the so-called routine cases start to pile up. While some people are proud of their messy desks and their ability to locate a piece of paper instantly even if it's buried under mountains of things, not every one has a knack for this loose efficiency. In many law firms, senior attorneys will admit that a cluttered, out-of-control desk may mean files that are cluttered and out of control. As the paralegal in charge, you are in charge.

Begin at the Beginning
Excellence in client management begins and ends with the file. The files in your office should reflect an overwhelming sense of professionalism, clarity, and above all else, organization. Any qualified member of your office-an attorney, another paralegal, or a secretary-should be able to go to the filing cabinet, find the file he or she needs, and open it with complete confidence that everything will be in its place. The file should be so seamless-with no time gaps or missing forms, memos, letters, etc.-that whoever reviews it will know immediately what will happen next, or better yet, what to do next.

Many successful firms use internal file checklists to keep track of the flow of paper in and out of the file. These lists vary from office to office, but in most firms they relate to the type of case. Tracking needs of cases involving such diverse matters as personal injury, criminal defense, real estate, business contracts, partnerships, or corporations are very different and require different checklists that address those needs.

In paper files, these checklists are attached to the inside left flap and consist of the necessary items to be completed, space for the date the task was completed, and the initials of the completer. As the case nears the settlement or trial stage, an attorney or paralegal can track its progress simply by reviewing the checklist and quickly perusing the file. In a computer file, the checklist comes first, immediately following the caption.

This handy method also prevents embarrassing errors. Since you or the other staffers in your office can't possibly remember the details surrounding every case, the checklist tells you what you’ve already done. Using a typical personal injury car-accident case, for example, you can review the checklist to track the progress: Our letter to the client's insurance company? Yes, it was sent. Our letter to the defendant's insurance company? Yes, it went out last week. A doctor's lien signed by all parties? Yes. Written estimates and photos of client's damaged car? Yes, attached inside. The defendant's insurance company settlement offer? Received and noted. Tracking sheet of billable hours, i.e., phone time, court time, research time, etc.? Finished and filed. You get the idea.

The checklist prevents you from sending duplicate letters, making unnecessary phone calls, and generally doubling your workload. It also allows you to give accurate briefings to the attorney should he or she need to speak to the client. This can save embarrassment for both of you, as clients will be assured the firm is on top of their cases and they are getting the "white glove/red carpet" treatment they deserve. Other law firms use different-colored files as a way of tracking the progress of each case as the client moves from one legal area to the next. Continuing with the personal injury case, some firms will use red files to indicate a new client (needing to sign representation forms, report requests, medical waivers, etc.); blue files for cases in progress; and green files for settled, "dead," substituted, or other wise closed cases.

It may sound tedious to change from one file folder color to the next, but in a high-volume law office with several hundred cases, it's an organizational lifesaver. It offers everyone an immediate update for the cases, telling which are new, pending, or complete. It aids your file storage decisions and serves as a constant reminder about the progress of every case in the office.

For more help in organizing the office, the paper flow and the communication processes, consider this list of all important factors-what is called "The Paralegal's Five D Organizing Method."

Ask yourself the following questions every time you encounter a new case, a new problem, new correspondence, puzzling phone calls, or a time management dilemma:

Deadlines-Is the clock ticking?
Ask yourself if any part of the case involves deadlines relating to filing times, court appearances, depositions, hearings, arbitrations, conferences, or settlement offers.

Is this a fast-track case, meaning that any civil or criminal motions have to be filed within a strict court-imposed deadline? Are there any specific deadlines relating to the client? Will he or she be leaving town, going on vacation, moving away completely, etc.?

Ask yourself the same questions about the witnesses and defendants. Is there anything about their movements that may create time conflicts?

How about the attorneys assigned to the case? Do they have conflicting cases or other important court dates? Will they be in town to attend meetings, run depositions, or appear in court?

Finally, consider the many different rules and idiosyncrasies that cover our court system. The rules pertaining to municipal court dates, appearances, and continuances are different from those relating to the superior or appellate courts. The filing deadlines, fees, clerks, and other assorted legal hurdles relating to federal court differ widely from those relating to bankruptcy, probate, or even small claims court.

Data-Do you need more information?
Can you solve the problem or settle the issue with the information already in front of you? Do you need to do more research in your office or at the law library? Make phone calls? Hire an expert to find the information?

While you're deciding if you need more information, you should ask yourself if you can get that information or start the information-gathering process right now. And if you have the information, can you solve the problem immediately? Time management experts like to espouse the "handle it once" method for solving problems. Can you grasp the problem, discover the solution, and handle it completely, all in the first pass?

If so, do it, because to put it off until later is to add to the original problem. This doesn't mean you should make hasty decisions just to clear your desk but rather that you should try to solve office and case problems as efficiently as possible. We all know people who can take two days to hand write a half-page memo.

Remember the popular TV show "The Honeymooners"? Jackie Gleason's character would get infuriated as he watched Art Carney's character go through many "warming up" motions just to do some thing routine, like reading the newspaper. Once you've gathered enough ammunition to solve your problem, don't procrastinate. Fix the problem and move on.

Dollars-Is this a money issue, either for your firm or the client?
Some law offices give their people a spending limit- under $500 means that you can make the decision yourself, and over $500 means that you should seek approval from the powers that be before you act. Whether you have carte-blanche or a set dollar limit, you must always consider the financial impact of your decisions upon your firm and your clients.

In many cases, you'll be able to handle routine dollar amount decisions with little or no resistance from your superiors, but in others, it's safer to ask for the go-ahead. This caveat definitely applies to any high money amount that affects the firm's costs system or the client's bottom line, including: retaining potentially high-priced expert wit nesses like doctors, investigators, adjusters, and assorted scientific-studies people; scheduling depositions with large numbers of wit nesses or defendants; bringing in outside trial attorneys, litigators, or specific legal research subject experts; and spending money to conduct extensive asset searches or to create video evidence, scale models, or aerial photographs.

Any decision involving these kinds of issues should be approved by your boss, the senior staff member, or someone else who can take the responsibility.

Delegate-Can or should you ask someone else to do the work for you?
Start by asking if the problem or task is more suited to someone else in your office. While this may sound like a classic example of buck-passing, it really makes better sense to ask your office-mates to help with projects that may match their level of expertise more than yours.

Needless overwork is the unhappy consequence when a competent individual feels he or she must do every task and couldn't possibly let someone else carry the load. Some people feel irrevocably ruled by the phrase "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

In defending this stance, they may explain that other colleagues have let them down while helping on past projects. While this can affect their feelings, it shouldn't always stand in the way of the delegation process. Noted management and organizational effectiveness experts have always offered the same advice: Find out what the people around you like to do and can do well; then let them do it.

If you work in a large office with other paralegals, you can recognize some work traits almost immediately. Some people like to do legal research, others may enjoy attending depositions, and others may like to handle the peripheral office matters that drive you crazy. Whatever the case, learn to spot colleagues who can take some pres sure off you by helping out. No one has asked you to work like a machine. Delegate your chosen projects wisely and let other people help for the common good of the firm.

Decisions-Is this a decision you can make alone?
Most of the important decisions surrounding a case require some thought and some research before you act. Focus on the key issues and ask yourself these questions: How important is the decision? Do I have the authority to make the decision alone? Can I get an answer by talking briefly with the attorney in charge of the case, or do I need to schedule a meeting and give a complete update?

Here are some other factors that may influence the way you make your decisions:

The type of case: Is it a personal injury case? A criminal defense, insurance defense, or worker's compensation case? Does it pertain to real estate, probate, divorce, family law, legal or other professional malpractice, patent law, tax law, wills and trusts law, labor law, environmental law, construction law, finance law, bankruptcy, immigration, corporate and business law, civil litigation, or international law?

Knowing the type of case can point you to the proper attorney, the office expert on the subject, or the firm's research library. If you aren't competent to make the decision, don't.

Client location: Can you contact the client easily? Do you know the client's work schedule, home and work phone numbers, and general availability?

Witness location: Have you identified and located any potential witnesses? Can you contact these people in a short time? Because many civil and criminal cases take literally years to unfold and develop, witnesses can move to other cities and even to other states without your knowledge. Few problems offer more of a legal night mare than losing witnesses just before important depositions or court appearances. Decide early on if you'll need to keep track of your important witnesses and if so, establish a procedure and timetable and follow through.

Defendant(s) location: Do you know everything possible about the defendant(s) in the case? Is it a person, a group of people, or an organization? Are there jurisdictional issues within your city or state to consider? Have you started any process service maneuvers? Will you need to serve multiple defendants? If the defendant is a corporation, have you located the agent for service? Have you considered when and how to serve defendant(s)? What is the overall cooperation level of the defendant(s)? Are there any noticeable delaying tactics from the other side that should come to your attorney's attention?

Discovery and evidence availability: Will you need to help prepare for a trial? Are there deadlines, appearances, meetings, and conferences to plan around? What about the existence of any evidence? Will you need to meet with opposing counsel? Conduct private lab tests? Hire professional examiners?

Forms and paperwork: Even the smallest, most matter-of-fact case can generate forests of paper. Do you have "all your ducks in a row" so the attorney can begin to prepare the case for settlement, trial, or final submission of billable hours? Have you reviewed the checklist in the case file for all the appropriate office forms, documentation, correspondence, memos, briefs, court information, depositions, employment records, waivers, medical reports, etc.?

Dollar amounts: Are you aware of the dollar amounts surrounding the case? Are the settlement figures accurate? Can the attorney make informed decisions about the settlement offers, dollar amounts, and related legal fees surrounding the case?

Insurance policy information: Many civil cases revolve around insurance. Who has it? Who doesn't have it? And how much or how little does everyone have? Much of the insurance information-gathering responsibility will fall on your desk. Be sure the client file contains policy numbers, coverages, issue and expiration dates, and dollar limits for everyone involved in the case. Check on the existence of "floaters," homeowner's property coverage, homeowner's personal injury coverage, business liability insurance, errors and omissions insurance, business property insurance, deductibles, and most importantly, issues that relate to quickly repairing the client's personal property damage.

These "Five D's" should help you solve even the most intricate problems. Remember that every case is different; every law firm chooses to do things in its own way; and the people around you are diverse and multifaceted, with their own skills, energies, and talents. Clients, the attorneys, and the surrounding support staffers all bring their unique perspectives to a problem. As with everything in this article, focus on what applies to you and take what you can from it.

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.

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