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Mentors and Mentoring in a Paralegal’s Life

published February 12, 2013

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As a paralegal professional, your employment entails many diverse duties and responsibilities. Your role largely depends upon the type of law practiced at the office where you work. Small firms may handle any case that comes in the door. Midsize firms may specialize in one kind of law and may in fact be quite well known and successful at it. Larger firms may offer a diverse range of legal services with a bank of specializing attorneys.

Your job duties largely depend on the law firm. Some firms spend a significant amount of time preparing for and completing major trials. Other firms may rarely appear in court, choosing instead to settle nearly every case. And while some firms may handle only business or corporate clients, others may serve clients ranging from mega-conglomerates to municipal entities to indigent welfare recipients to undocumented migrant workers.

If your firm is heavily involved in trial work, you'll probably spend most of your time in court, filing writs, briefs, and motions or helping the attorneys prepare for court. In other firms you may be asked to offer administrative support and help run the whole office in a smooth and orderly fashion. You may be asked to offer limited legal assistance to clients in standard divorce cases, bankruptcy, pro bate, etc.

Some firms hire paralegals strictly to help with legal research. Still others use paralegals mainly in a production role: typing and editing briefs; preparing contracts, wills and trusts; tracking the bill able hours for each case; and managing the filing systems.

Whatever your role or duties, the best way to establish yourself as a true paralegal professional is to seek out mentors. The dictionary defines mentor as a "wise counselor or loyal advisor." The concept of business mentors has really become popular only in the last ten years. The idea first involved new managers and executives who looked for support, advice, and wisdom from colleagues with more time in the field. Mentor relationships offer younger or less experienced employees a way to learn the system and grow and develop as professionals in a way not unlike the apprentice-journeyman relationship you might find in a construction trade.

In your context, the right mentors can give you careful direction, choice assignments, and even occasional protection during rampages by angry senior partners.

You should look to build two types of mentor relationships, one with an attorney in your firm and (if you work in a firm with a big support staff) one with another paralegal. Each person can help you do your job more effectively by offering advice about the work from his or her own perspective.

The attorney can help you identify the issues to focus on with a particular case, how to solve a complex problem, and most importantly, what the other attorneys need from you for everyone to work more effectively.

Attorney and paralegal mentors can help you understand the corporate culture by offering suggestions concerning office politics, potential "danger zones," and the overall direction of the firm. This information can be priceless for you because the more you know about working effectively with the different personalities in your office, the easier your job will become. Some attorneys want minimum help from you but maximum paperwork in the file. Others may want large amounts of help from you, including research, brief preparation, and trial help. It pays to know how to give the kind of assistance that makes you valuable to individual attorneys and to the firm. After all, as noted business management expert Harvey Mackay so succinctly points out in his bestselling book Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt, "If you aren't helping your firm bring in at least as much money as they are paying you, why should they keep you?"

If you work in a large to midsize firm staffed with several paralegals, it helps to choose an appropriate mentor from the group. The best way to begin any mentor relationship is from a position of total honesty. There is nothing wrong or dishonorable about finding an experienced, compatible paralegal colleague and saying, "I like the way you do your work. Can I get some help from you when I have a problem with a case, a client, or someone in the office?"

As with your attorney mentor, your paralegal mentor doesn't have to be your closest friend in the world, your symbolic shoulder to cry on, or the subject of hero worship. You should always maintain a dignified, professional relationship while in the office.

What if you are the senior paralegal in your office? What if everyone comes to you for help and advice? What should this suggest to you? In terms of the paralegal mentor, if you don't have one, be one. Make yourself available to new office staffers, new attorneys, and new paralegals whenever you can. Give advice, give direction, and make yourself completely irreplaceable and invaluable to the firm.

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