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Summary: This article uses real experiences from paralegals to illustrate the job and its processes to those who are just entering the legal profession.
The purpose of this article is to walk you through the first thirty days of your new job as a paralegal. It describes what happens once you are hired and walk through the door, based on actual accounts of people who have been there.
Most of your time and energy up until this point has been devoted to the job search and all the tasks that are required. Once you have a job, you can begin to think about what you will be doing when you start working. You may understandably have questions about the job and the organization, concerns about your capabilities and overwhelming anxieties about starting a new position.
This article includes many questions that other paralegals have asked or wish they had asked as they began working. Some may seem obvious, and others may not have occurred to you. You may wonder where to begin asking. The questions included here are general in nature. Responses to these questions and additional advice from paralegals are also given. Obviously, each job is unique and each new paralegal will have questions about his or her particular situation. Add your own questions, issues, and concerns to those raised in this article.
As you think about your questions and concerns and read these personal accounts, the anxiety you feel about your first days at work will probably lessen. Remember to rely on the same principles you used in the job search: The better prepared you are, the more successful you are likely to be.
What is the exact location to which you should report?
What is the name of the person to whom you should report?
Before the first day of work, be sure you know the answers to the above questions. When you leave for work, allow enough time to arrive early. It is not proper to be early for an interview, but you don’t need to be afraid to be too early for work. You cannot afford to be late. Excuses are not acceptable. If you know that a train or bus sometimes runs late, take an earlier one. If you will be driving during rush hour, allow plenty of time to make the trip and to find a place to park.
Remember that your demeanor on the first day of work is the first impression you will make on your colleagues. They will expect you to be a bit nervous, but if you are late, you will make a negative impression, and in the early stages of the new job, you want to do everything you can to create a positive impression. Initial impressions are very important, so make every effort to make a positive one by what you say and how you behave.
Questions to Ask as You Begin Working
Some information is essential for you to know when you start a new job. This is the time to ask all the questions you need to ask to clarify your position. The other employees will expect you to ask questions. If you have thought through these questions before you begin working, you will not have to interrupt anyone over and over. If you do not understand the answers, now is the time to clarify any confusion about your duties or responsibilities. You will not be faulted for asking questions, many questions, especially in the beginning. You will be responsible for knowing the answers to important questions, particularly as you gain experience on the job. It is up to you to find out where to get these answers.
1. Find out where things are:
What is the layout of the office?
Where are the attorneys’ offices, especially the attorneys with whom you will be working?
Where are the washrooms and lunchrooms?
Where are the most convenient restaurants?
Where is the best place to park?
2. Find out about office policies and procedures:
How is the payroll handled?
What deductions will be taken out of your paycheck?
What forms do you need to fill out?
What is the policy on sick days and emergencies?
What insurance benefits are you entitled to receive?
3. Find out about your supervisor and work assignments:
Who are the attorneys with whom you will be working? (Find their offices and introduce yourself.)
Who is your immediate supervisor?
Who will be giving you work assignments?
Who is the best person to talk to when you have questions about your work?
4. Find out about policies regarding confidentiality:
What are the guidelines on confidentiality?
Can files be taken out of the office if you want to work on them at home?
What can or cannot be discussed outside the office?
5. Find out about billing procedures:
What is the billing procedure for time and materials, including photo-copying materials and phone calls?
Are these expenses billed to the client?
If so, is there a billing code that should be used?
6. Find out about support services:
Where are the offices of the secretarial and other support staff? Are you entitled to ask for clerical assistance?
7. Find out about office supplies:
Where are the office supplies kept?
What is the procedure for requisitioning supplies?
How do the photocopying and fax machines work?
Who do you ask for assistance on these matters?
8. Find out about other things you’d like to know.
Many other questions will arise once you begin working. Try to identify a reliable person and ask if it is all right to consult with him or her when you have a question.
A Word about the Support Staff
Learning to work with the support staff is extremely important! They can be immensely helpful to you. They usually know everything there is to know about office procedures and protocol. Respect them, and don’t for-get to thank them for any assistance they give you.
In a large organization, the secretary or secretarial staff may work for several attorneys. Take into consideration the deadlines of others in the office, and be cooperative in establishing your own deadline. A secretary can be a great ally, so any effort you make to be considerate of his or her situation will eventually pay off.
Questions on Sensitive Issues (and Advice from Paralegals)
Some questions may be delicate, and they deserve special consideration here. The suggested responses are from experienced paralegals.
What if you receive one answer to a question during the job interview but a different answer when you start working?
You will have asked many questions during the interview, but the person who interviewed you may not be the person for whom you are working, and you may get different answers to the same question. Your responsibility is to the person for whom you are working. If this causes confusion, it is important that you ask for clarification immediately.
What if the job you are asked to do is not the job for which you were hired?
If you are asked to work on an assignment for which you are not prepared, it is important for you to ask the right questions. Don’t agree immediately to do the assignment, but don’t refuse to do it. Write down the instructions exactly. Tell the attorney that you have never handled such an assignment before (the attorney may not be aware of your experience or training) but that you are willing to do it with some guidance. If you don’t think you are prepared to handle it, it is far better to be honest about this than to agree to do the assignment and fail. If you give the impression that you are willing to work and learn but are also honest about your skills and abilities, you will be establishing a reputation for reliability and conscientiousness.
What if you are working for several attorneys and each has an urgent deadline? How do you set priorities?
Learn to say “no” tactfully to a new assignment if you are working to meet a deadline for another attorney. You may tell the second attorney that the new assignment will create a conflict for you because you are working on another assignment with an urgent deadline. At the same time, present another option. Ask if you could do it the next day, or whenever your deadline for the first assignment will have been met. By offering to work on the assignment at a later time, you will not give the impression that you are trying to avoid more work. You will let the attorney know that you are trying to establish a schedule so that you can complete all the assignments you are asked to do.
What if you are given two assignments simultaneously?
Talk to the appropriate person about which one should have priority. In the early days on the job, there will a great temptation for you to try to do everything to impress your new employer. And while it is important to establish a reputation for conscientiousness, it is just as important to demonstrate how you work with varying deadlines and how well you can set priorities. In order to do this, you must know what is expected of you and understand your employer’s priorities. You must find out this information as soon as possible if you are to succeed in your new position.
More Advice from Paralegals
Here are some general comments from paralegals regarding their first days on the job, how they felt, and what they wished they had known.
1. The most difficult or confusing aspects of my first few days on the job:
I didn’t know the organizational structure (the name of the managing partner; the hierarchy of attorneys and support staff).
I didn’t know the other paralegals. I wish someone had introduced me to them.
I didn’t know where to find supplies.
I wondered where everything was. A lot of law firms do not give orientations. Some have manuals, but the manuals may be outdated. Ask if your name should be put on a mailing list.
It was hard to get to know people (peers). You need to make the effort to network. Don’t wait to be introduced.
2. Things I wish I had known or someone had told me:
How to use the phone system.
How to use the computer system.
How to address the attorneys in the law firm, whether some or all should be called by their first names.
That I had to sign in and out every day.
How much clerical work (i.e. typing) Id have to do.
How to dress professionally.
How much overtime I’d be working.
That if you worked on Saturdays, you were entitled to a free lunch but that your name had to put on a list for this.
Exactly what my job duties would be. I would have asked more questions during the interview.
Where to find answers and how to find a mentor.
When preparing documents, how to date stamp documents and put them in chronological order.
That I had been more flexible.
That I had listened more and talked less.
3. Tips on what to avoid:
Don't be too opinionated or critical about the way things are done. You may have some good ideas about improving efficiency, but re-member that things have been done a certain way for a specific reason and even “constructive criticisms” may alienate those who have been at the organization for some time.
Don't make judgment calls about your work. Ask for advice if you are not sure what to do.
Don't be unprofessional in your appearance, behavior, or the manner in which you address others in the organization. If you are not certain how to address someone, ask.
Don't make excuses for being late.
Don't think you must know everything at once. You will be expected to know how to do your job, but it is far better to ask questions than to demonstrate false confidence and make errors.
Planning for the Future
It is never too early to look toward the future, no matter whether you are an entry-level paralegal or an experienced one. Continuing legal education will help you succeed in your job and enable you to move ahead in the profession. These courses or programs, frequently offered as seminars and designed specifically for paralegals, can be extremely valuable. They can help you to develop or update your skills and expertise, or to discover a new area you would like to pursue. Generally, the focus is on current issues and legislation in a particular legal specialty, such as real estate, the environment, intellectual property, consumer fraud, medical malpractice and many others. Check with your local universities or paralegal association for the location and availability of program offerings.
The Excitement and the Challenges of Your New lob
The first days of a new job can be exciting and even a bit overwhelming. Keep in mind that this is the job you worked so hard to get. You have the professional qualifications, training, and personal traits that convinced your employer to hire you. That should give you the self-confidence you need. You now have the opportunity to become the best paralegal you can be. Meet the challenge and enjoy the experience! Good luck!