What Does the Sole Practitioner Need?

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Strategies that work with sole practitioners are ones that demonstrate an understanding of their particular world. The world of the sole practitioner is different from the lawyer in the large firm. Same profession, different lives. The sole practitioner must worry about the business end of the practice, so the more accounting, balancing, bookkeeping, and/or cash handling you have done the more practical and "real world" you will appear. The sole practitioner needs clients coming through the door, and values people who have had exposure to the public or been in customer service situations. A background in which you have learned that "the customer is always right" actually has meaning to a sole practitioner.

Although you will not be relied upon to get clients or keep them, the sole practitioner is often concerned that clients will be impressed with your professionalism, appearance, and conduct. In some practices, the main support paralegal has close and continual contact with many key clients, in contrast to a large law firm where client contact is often minimal. (When paralegals in large firms are given client contact responsibilities, it is a sign of great trust)

Successful sole practitioners have probably stood at the copy machine until midnight once or twice. They expect the same flexibility from you. Sole practitioners often make their own coffee and prepare their own documents. They have purchased their own equipment, or leased it. The sole practitioner does not see work separated out like a union shop in which certain individuals will not do this and others can only do that; he or she sees an end result-getting work out the door and keeping clients content. Work is what everyone pushes out the door. A sole practitioner knows how to interview for the quality of flexibility. They will ask "what if" questions and hypothetical to determine what kind of worker you will be. Expect questions such as:
  • What do you consider your most important attribute as an employee?
  • Are you willing to make filings in court occasionally or run an errand or two?
  • You probably have some favorite practice areas. How would you feel about working in a general practice like mine?
If you exude the qualities of enthusiasm, flexibility, energy, and "roll your sleeves up" gusto, then you will outmaneuver paralegals who go to their interviews touting their high marks in legal research class.

Approach: Friendly and Personal, Even (If You Dare) in Person In general, you will find handing out resumes in person from office to office walking down Main Street to be an unsuccessful and discouraging exercise. You get so few interviews for all of your effort. Applicants with resumes are generally stopped at the front desk by the receptionist. However, it might work with the sole practitioner.

Approaching a sole practitioner on your feet with a cover letter and resume in hand takes a degree of boldness that most do not have, and it may seem to be a nonproductive use of time. In many cases it is. But because the sole practitioner is often in a small office, is more accessible, and is often more egalitarian and less stuffy than his or her big firm counterpart, showing up in person with a resume and a cover letter properly addressed could get you an interview.

If the sole practitioner is not around or cannot be made available to you, be very warm to the person who takes your letter and resume. Do not push. This is the very reason you must have a cover letter prepared ahead of time. If you do not get an audience, you have a letter that explains your purpose. By simply dropping off a resume without a cover letter, you are signaling that you are unprepared and you are just "trying your luck" blitzing a certain part of the city. If you succeed at having a chat with a sole practitioner who just might greet you at the door or give you a casual interview, then you have reached a decision maker-someone who can hire you!

One paralegal candidate discovered that if she called between 5:00 and 5:30 in the afternoon, the attorney would answer the phone. She concluded that a visit might have a good result. She walked into a law office in a small shopping center at 5:15 one day and struck up a conversation with the only person there-the sole practitioner herself, sitting at the front desk, writing a note. She got a short friendly interview that led to an offer three weeks later.

Word processing and the Sole Practitioner: ''Can You Type?"

Today's paralegal must have a reasonable typing speed and be willing to learn any software programs to which they are exposed. If you obtain employment that does not require much word processing and computer utilization, get ready, because your next job will. That being said, if you are writing to, speaking with, and networking amongst sole practitioners, be sure that they are going to want you to fit into their computer and word processing needs. Sole practitioners will hire people who fit into their situations with enthusiasm, skill, and versatility.

When I obtained my first entry-level employment in 1985, a sole practitioner looked me over at an interview in a cafe. The attorney looked over his steaming cup of coffee and out the window as he asked, "Can you type?" I assured him that I could, since I had done some editing and writing in a past profession. I also assured him that I did not mind typing and that I could get the work out that needed to get out-and that I would stay late to get it out.

Word processing and computer proficiency is demanded of paralegals at every level nowadays, but for sole practitioners it is an absolute requirement. This does not mean you will be typing all day. The strategy you must employ with a sole practitioner is to convey an attitude of confidence, ease, and comfort with word processing. Usually, they do not want to train you; they want the technical aspect of the practice to be a "given" going in.

They are concerned about it because they do not want to have to worry about it. Sole practitioner #1 might have no other support personnel besides you. This means you will be responsible for all the word processing apart from that which the attorney produces. Sole practitioner #2, however, might have a secretary and an associate. In this situation, you might be responsible for occasional secretarial work, your own work, and pleadings preparation. Let's look at how that might happen in a hypothetical office with a sole practitioner, an associate, and one secretary:
  1. Fill in for the secretary on sick days, vacation days, and lunch hours, and be capable of handling everything that the secretary does. Answer the phone, deal with clients, and handle notices and communications with opposing counsel.

  2. Always be able to perform all of your own assignments so that the secretary is not burdened with an additional workload. Remember, if you are a burden to the already overworked secretary, then the sole practitioner does not benefit from hiring you.

  3. Volunteer to handle the docketing if they do not ask you to first. This will relieve the secretary, give you an automatic view of the entire case load, and make you immediately valuable.

Remember, sole practitioners tend to focus on your technical abilities so that when filing deadlines are looming and late afternoon hours approach, they know that everyone will contribute. The message is simple: Do not let a lack of computer skills be an obstacle to your hiring,

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