It's your first day on the job and you're excited. You will probably want to start right in and go to work, but first you must learn the layout of the law firm, find out who the important players are, and about certain procedures peculiar to this firm.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS
During your initial orientation, find out who you should speak to for work assignments, payroll, office services and who to consult when you have problems. Find out the firm's history, office procedures, and billing requirements. It is very important to understand how things are done. An office manager of a large firm told me that there are two things she looks for in a good employee: solid legal skills and an ability to follow office procedures. The firm's legal secretaries and other members of the support staff can be your best allies in the law firm maze. They are a good source for learning how the office really works. Also during your orientation, ask about attorneys with whom you will be working. Later, you should locate their offices and take the time to introduce yourself. Learn where to find the office supply room, copying center, and central files department. (Don't forget to find the lunch room and bathroom!) Get acquainted with the office layout so you won't get lost.
After the orientation, take your own tour of the office space. Introduce yourself to the support staff even if you have met them before. Some firms are large enough so they have staff telephone listings or maps of the offices. If you take these items with you on your tour, you can be sure to put names with the faces.
WORKING WITH LEGAL SECRETARIES & SUPPORT STAFF
It is important, when dealing with the firm's support staff, to be clear and concise in giving directions. If your secretary is working on a project that requires following a certain court rule, make sure that you know the rule, and can communicate what is needed. If you're unfamiliar with the rule, ask your secretary, who probably has more experience, to assist you. If you're unsure, don't bluff.
Assuring the secretary that you want to make the best use of his or her time is vital for a smooth-running operation. You should structure the relationship with your secretary as a matter of teamwork. If you are smart enough to realize how much an experienced legal secretary can help you, you are on the right track.
Respecting the support staff is not only polite but shows that you are considerate of others' feelings. If a secretary works for you as well as other people, cooperate with the others to be certain everyone's priorities and deadlines can be met. You should avoid constantly requesting your secretary to do work at the last minute. Use the phrase 'This is a rush," sparingly, and only when it is truly a "rush" project. Try to work with your secretary to make the best use of his or her time.
ASSERTIVENESS TRAINING HELPS
As a paralegal, you will be interacting with professional and clerical personnel who, for the most part, are thorough and exacting. To be effective in communicating with these people, you must learn to be assertive. By this, I mean that you must learn how to handle difficult situations and how to ask for the support you need.
Attorneys prefer to work with paralegals who are not shy about speaking up. If you are not assertive, attorneys will lose confidence in you. You may find yourself burdened with too many or simply dull work assignments. Paralegals who do not assert themselves are often stuck with low pay, poor working conditions and boring situations.
In order to have a manageable workload, you must learn how and when to say no tactfully but firmly. If you grudgingly accept a new assignment because you are afraid to decline or are afraid you will offend the attorneys, you probably end up being disgruntled and resentful of the situation. But if you tell the attorney that the new assignment will conflict with your other priorities, you will avoid overburdening yourself. Make sure that the person understands that you are not trying to get out of doing the work.
Paralegal: "I would like to do the research project for you, Mr. Jones, but I have to draft a complaint for Mr. Smith that must be filed today. I won't be able to do your research today, but I'd be happy to do it tomorrow. Will that be O.K.?"
You might even suggest someone else who can do the project if the attorney really does need it right away.
If you are asked to take care of an unfamiliar task, do not say okay and then not do it. Ask questions about the project and write down the instructions. It's quite all right to say that you have not completed this type of assignment before, but are willing to try it. An attorney may not be aware of exactly what you do not know. However, don't accept the project unless you really are willing to handle it.
Many employees are afraid to assert themselves because of irrational fears that someone will dislike them. If you constantly seek approval from others, you will find yourself intimidated and unable to do your best work. This is especially true in a law firm, where praise for a job well done is sometimes hard to find.
Learning to assert yourself takes time and practice. There's no question that attorneys can indeed be intimidating. Just remember, as long as you honestly have all the work you can do, you have a right to say no to additional assignments.
KNOW WHAT IS EXPECTED
It is very important to find out exactly what you are expected to do on the job. For instance, if you were hired as a document clerk, you will probably be organizing documents on large litigation cases, and that is all you will be doing. If, on the other hand, you were hired as an entry-level paralegal and all you are doing is number-stamping documents, then you may be able to change your fate. Complete the present assignment to the very best of your ability. Then, if your next assignment is a repetition of the first, speak to your supervisor about increasing your responsibilities.
Be forewarned that your first assignment will not be researching a Supreme Court brief or drafting a multimillion dollar deal. You may organize boxes of documents or assemble closing binders. Do these projects well, and maintain a positive attitude. Remember, attorneys are ultimately responsible for your work. You must first earn their trust before the attorneys will feel comfortable delegating more significant work to you. If you consistently do well, the attorneys will realize that they can trust you with more advanced assignments. If you are pleasant and persistent, I guarantee that you'll get the kind of work you know how to do.
A LAST WORD OF ADVICE
Welcome to the world of paralegals! It is a profession that is constantly growing and changing, offering new challenges and opportunities. Remember, starting at the beginning is starting at the beginning. It takes hard work and perseverance to reach the top.
I'm glad you've chosen this career. You're bound to have exciting, challenging experiences that will allow you to maximize your potential. Being a legal assistant is great career and it's getting better all the time. From an "old" paralegal to a new paralegal, I wish you outrageous success!
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