I read a lot of magazines and newspapers of varying genres and I am always drawn to the articles with headlines like "What your insurance agent doesn't want you to know" and "What your flight attendant will never tell you" and "Your mechanic wished you would ... ."
The information in these articles always intrigues me. I got to thinking, "What do I really want to know?" For starters, I really want to know what my Comcast bill is every month, but I'll never get to the bottom of that dilemma. Another thing I want to know is, "What do attorneys wish their paralegals knew?" It's clearly a question I should have posed 25 years ago, but better late than never.
To find the answer, I polled attorneys at three Philadelphia firms, asking a simple question: "What do you wish your paralegal knew?" These are their responses:
• I wish my paralegal knew, or at least had a basic understanding of, all the new software and technology used in law offices now. I just don't have the time to learn it myself.
• I wish my paralegal knew how to file a complaint in federal and state court, knew how to get and serve subpoenas in federal and state courts, knew how to manage an online database, knew how to search and retrieve dockets, knew how to cite-check, proofread and create a Table of Citations.
• I wish my paralegal knew how to clearly and concisely digest a deposition and describe relevant documents in a short memo.
• I wish my paralegal knew how to research any topic and find the information I need.
• I wish my paralegal knew the difference between collated and uncollated copies, and that copies should always be the latter when they are made for the purpose of serving as exhibits at a deposition.
• I wish my paralegal knew that I don't like to work on the weekends either, but sometimes it's just necessary.
• I wish my paralegal knew that whining is not professional.
• I wish my paralegal knew that it's OK to make mistakes and that I should be told immediately if a mistake has been made.
• I wish my paralegal knew that I have no idea when Paralegal Day is, but appreciated you every day.
• I wish my paralegal kept up to date on latest case law regarding our practice.
• I wish my paralegal would dress professionally.
• I wish my paralegal wouldn't leave in the middle of a work emergency.
• I wish my paralegal knew the parties, parties' counsel, co-counsel and judges and their contact information in every case, preferably off the top of their head.
• I wish my paralegal knew how important it is to get along with other people in the firm. It makes my life easier.
• I wish my paralegal knew it was OK to ask questions.
• I wish my paralegal knew Alan Ball and would give me "True Blood" spoilers.
As you can see, the list is pretty diverse and every word came from an attorney. Some of the wishes seem to be common sense but all too often paralegals get complacent, especially if they've worked for a firm for a long time. Take the time to look at the list and highlight some of the areas where you may be weak. Then do something about it.
For instance, if you are a weak at proofreading -- as I am, no one in my firm would ask me to proofread anything unless everyone else suddenly went blind -- now may be a good time to take a proofreading seminar. Or at the very least, learn some proofreading tips, find some at this link: http://www.lrcom.com/tips/proofreading_editing.htm.
If you need to learn ECF filing and docket retrieval you can find a great resource at www.pacer.gov/psc/qresources.html.
Learning how to write clearly and concisely may be a bit more challenging, but there are classes you can take online or at your local community college. A class that may be helpful is technical writing, which is offered at most community colleges. I know it is offered at Community College of Philadelphia.
Learning how to research any subject may also seem daunting, but if you don't like research and you are not curious by nature, you may have made a poor career choice. The Internet, even a basic Google search, is always a good place to start. From there you can get to more sophisticated research or at least get a direction for your research.
As a paralegal, one of the most important skills you can master is research, not just legal research. A crackerjack researcher can save the firm time and money. You always look good when you find the needle in the haystack.
Knowing how to get along with others you should have learned in kindergarten. But if you forget what you were taught ask any 7-year-old you know. They will be able to tell you how to play nicely with others.
A person's true character is seen in two situations, one of them is how graciously one can admit making a mistake. Mistakes are great, they teach you lessons and help you learn. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone makes them!
Not sure how to dress professionally? For starters, "business casual" is not the same as "home on the weekend." You can look at Wikipedia for one explanation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_casual.
Keeping abreast of the latest technology should be on the top of your priority list. It goes without saying that you should already know how to manage an online database, online deposition repository and any software that is geared toward your particular practice area. Not only should you know it, but you should keep updating with training. These software packages change rapidly. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
Another thing about technology to be aware of is that LexisNexis and Westlaw are buying out smaller companies and making that company's content part of the Lexis or Westlaw content. It's always a good idea to know where to look for information. So, signing up for some free Lexis or Westlaw training every few months never hurts.
Quick! Off the top of your head: Do you know when Paralegal Day is? I didn't think so. That attorney gets a pass.
Two points I want to drive home are that you need to take control of your skills and you are responsible for learning all the new tricks of the trade. The second is no one is good at everything. Work on your weak skills, but it's OK to ask for help from co-workers that do something better than you do.
Just for the record, I wish I was the paralegal that knew Alan Ball!
Kim Walker is a senior litigation paralegal with Berger & Montague, where she specializes in complex class action lawsuits. She has been a paralegal in Philadelphia for more than 25 years. Walker is on the board of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals, is an instructor for the Institute for Paralegal Education and blogs at Paralegal Pie.