The American Bar Association recognizes that a person can become a paralegal in several ways, through either “education, training or work experience.”2 In other words, an attorney can choose to hire a paralegal who has not earned a degree or certificate, but who has “on-the-job” training or other relevant experience. For an attorney who is hiring a graduate of a Paralegal Studies program, we recommend that they request from the candidate, in addition to a resume, cover letter, and references, a transcript indicating the courses they took and the grades they earned. Equally important to consider is whether the job candidate has a natural tendency toward the traits and attributes listed below, which cannot be taught in a college class. This requires careful discernment and even “sixth sense” intuition on the part of the attorney. We believe that the attributes that an attorney should be seeking in a paralegal candidate are as follows:
Ability to Pay Attention to Detail Paralegals need to pay close attention to details. They routinely and carefully proofread each document they draft. They should present documents to their attorney that are properly and professionally formatted and “signature-ready.” Errors and typos on a document, in either words, numbers, or decimal point placement, can be devastating–even resulting in malpractice charges. A good paralegal has an eye for catching errors–even ones that an attorney might make–and fixing them before documents leave the office.
Ability to Organize. While attorneys are not always organized, paralegals need to be. Paralegals need to be able to sort through piles of documents and organize them logically so they are retrievable for court hearings or client meetings. An ideal paralegal is one who sees a large number of bankers’ boxes stuffed with documents and immediately has ideas for sorting and organizing them into binders. For the “paperless” office, the successful paralegal will organize all digital files into properly marked folders and subfolders so that everyone else in the office can easily find them when needed.
Ability to Meet Deadlines. Paralegals have to deal with constant deadlines. Missing a deadline could result in a lost legal claim for a client or a malpractice lawsuit for a lawyer. When an attorney gives a paralegal a deadline for completing a task, whether it is a pleading, a response to discovery, a research project, or something else, the paralegal needs to meet that deadline without fail. The law firm’s reputation depends on it.
Ability to Work with People A paralegal is in the customer service business. Having good listening skills, a positive attitude, and a friendly but professional demeanor is critical to the position. Most paralegals work with a variety of people: lawyers, clients, legal secretaries, other paralegals, witnesses, court clerks, government officials, and so on. Very often these people are under stress, such as clients who are buying an expensive home, involved in a custody battle, or have been arrested for a crime. Paralegals need to be able to sympathize with those under stress and help reassure them. Also, paralegals may be required to deal with difficult people. They must be able to maintain their poise and not demonstrate an impatient or judgmental attitude toward the person with whom they are communicating.
Desire for Standard of Excellence in Communications Paralegals need to be able to communicate information and ideas clearly and concisely, using good grammar, good spelling, and good language skills. They must be articulate and precise in both verbal and written communication. They need to recognize that they are a reflection of their law office, and
therefore they should take pride and use care in all of their communications, both within the law office and to the outside world. They need to have a standard of excellence for their own written and oral communications.
Ability to Keep Client and Law Firm Information Confidential Paralegals need to be able to keep other people’s secrets. Confidentiality is critical. An individual who likes to hear and repeat the latest gossip should not be hired as a paralegal. An attorney’s career depends upon being discreet and trusted with the most sensitive information. A paralegal’s career depends upon this as well. “Loose lips sink ships”–in the military as well as in the legal profession. Also, within a law office, paralegals may have access to financial information and bank accounts belonging to clients or to the law firm. Under no circumstances can they use this information to benefit themselves or others who are not entitled to it.
Ability to Exhibit Calm While Working Under Pressure In order to meet deadlines and manage workflow, paralegals may be under a great deal of pressure. Even when multiple deadlines are looming, paralegals need to maintain inner calm and exhibit an unruffled demeanor. Otherwise, their anxiety can not only spread to others in the law office, but affect their judgment and ability to accurately complete their own tasks.
Ability to Multi-task and Prioritize Paralegals need to be able to do more than one thing at a time–for example, talk on the phone and respond to e-mail correspondence simultaneously. Paralegals must be skilled not only at doing two things (or more) at once, but doing multiple tasks concurrently without compromising accuracy. In addition, when they are dealing with multiple projects, they must have the ability to correctly prioritize their projects to make sure the most urgent matters get taken care of first.
Ability to Be Flexible and Adaptable Paralegals need the ability to “shift gears” and jump quickly from one task to another during the day. They may get interrupted from a project by the phone ringing or an unexpected client appearing at the door, and must be able to leave that project and later return to it without losing focus. In addition, lawyers may assign a paralegal one project, then supersede it with a more urgent one. A paralegal needs to be able to interrupt their work on one project and move swiftly to a new one. Also, different lawyers within an office may have different working styles and different preferences for the way in which they like their work done. A paralegal needs to adapt to these different working styles and modify their work product to fit the needs and preferences of the individual assigning the work.
Ability to Work in a Support Role as Part of a Team Paralegals do not work alone. They work as part of a legal team, led by a lawyer. A good paralegal will be able to mesh with the other members of the team to achieve desired results. Paralegals should recognize that they are in a support role, not on center stage, and obtain job satisfaction by knowing their efforts contribute to the success of their supervising attorney and the office as a whole.
Ability to Accept Individual Responsibility Paralegals need to be able to assume responsibility for their own work. They should ask for help when they need it, but they need to be able to work independently and responsibly without requiring detailed directions for every task. They should have the attitude that they will attempt to “figure it out themselves” before asking for assistance from others in the law office. They should be familiar with online resources (especially free ones) and use them to answer routine questions and find solutions to problems before asking for help.
Ability to Demonstrate a “Thick Skin” (to a point!) Attorneys can sometimes be brusque, short-tempered, and impatient. This is often the result of too much stress and reacting to the anxiety of others in what can be a very “high stakes” business. Attorneys may occasionally have an emotional outburst that has nothing to do with the paralegal. A paralegal cannot be overly sensitive in these situations, but needs to understand that “This, too, shall pass.” However, if it rises to the level of constant berating without being offset by praise, encouragement, and expressions of appreciation, the paralegal should consider finding employment elsewhere.
Having Confidence to Speak Up When Appropriate Attorneys sometimes make mistakes. A good paralegal will have the confidence to speak up when they think a mistake is being made by an attorney or someone else in the office. If the paralegal saves the attorney from acting–or not acting–in a way that harms a client or a legal matter, the attorney will be grateful. The good paralegal will also know to raise any concerns appropriately, discreetly, and in private. In addition, a good paralegal will have ideas about how work can be accomplished more efficiently. They must have the confidence to make suggestions that will result in the better service to the client and overall improvement of the operations of the law office.
Ability to Persevere Paralegals do not abandon projects if they get too difficult; they stick with them until the problem is solved, even if that means working longer hours than usual. Being a quitter in the face of a challenge does not align with being a good paralegal.
Desire to Keep Learning and Growing The law is always developing and changing. A good paralegal enjoys the intellectual stimulation that comes from learning new things and acquiring new knowledge related to the law. Individuals who are “life-long learners” will enjoy the continued intellectual challenge and growth that is available to all legal professionals, including attorneys, paralegals, and administrative support staff. This enjoyment of the intellectual growth that the law provides is the “spark” that sustains us through the parts of law practice that are not as enjoyable.
Final Advice for the Attorney Hiring a Paralegal The paralegal profession requires more than just having learned legal procedures in a paralegal studies program or elsewhere. It requires a specific type of individual that has a predisposition suited to the work. The traits and attributes noted above will be present in an exemplary paralegal. For optimal results in hiring an outstanding paralegal for your law office, you should look for these attributes as much as you look at a candidate’s education and job experience. You can always teach your paralegal how to research or how to write a legal memo, but you will have a harder time teaching them the inherent qualities that make for a superior paralegal.
Look at what characteristics the individual demonstrates beyond “book learning” to increase the likelihood that there will be a mutually satisfying and long-term working relationship between the attorney who is doing the hiring and the paralegal being hired.
1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Paralegals and Assistants, Jan. 8, 2014, available at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
2. American Bar Ass’n, Current ABA Definition of Legal Assistant/Paralegal, Aug. 14, 2008, available at http:// www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals/resources/current_aba_definition_of_legal_assistant_paralegal.html. See also, Statute on Statutes, 5 ILCS 70/1, §1.35 (1996).
Sally Newton Fairbank is a Professor and Program Coordinator of Paralegal Studies at the College of DuPage. She earned a B. A. from Northwestern University, a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, and an M.S. Ed. degree from Northern Illinois University. Prior to joining the faculty at COD, she was a DuPage County Assistant Public Defender and worked in the law departments of Motorola and Navistar. She is a member of the DCBA.
Todd C. Holes earned his AAS degree in Paralegal Studies at the College of DuPage in fall 2014.
While a student, he was President of the Paralegal Club as well as the Technology Officer. He was
inducted into the LEX Honor Society and was an officer of LEX. Todd plans to obtain a certificate in E-Discovery and the use of technology applications in the courtroom.