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As a summer associate, you will be introduced to a variety of departments that support a law practice. Activities of some groups need no explanation: photocopying, messengers, and the word processing department, to name a few. When it comes to paralegals, however, what they do and how to work with them is not as clear. Here is a short overview of basic paralegal functions and some general tips on supervision. Legal professional associations define a paralegal as “a person qualified by education, training, or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, government agency, or other entity, and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Paralegals have become an integral part of the landscape in providing legal services. They keep client fees down, due to their lower hourly rate, and enable attorneys to avoid repetitive work. Paralegals who have long experience with a particular client or in a specialty area are particularly valuable assistants. The educational background of legal assistants varies. In larger firms, most legal assistants have at least a four-year college degree. They may also have a paralegal program certificate, an advanced degree, or even a law degree. These are people who are motivated and interested in playing an important role in legal projects. They bring practical experience and knowledge to help implement attorneys’ ideas. Some paralegals are working at the firm between undergraduate and graduate or law school. Others are career paralegals who may have as much as two or three decades of experience in the legal field. So what does a paralegal do? While the specific role is different at every firm and even between departments of the same office, there are some broad categories of “stuff” that most paralegals ordinarily perform: • Gathering: Locating and retrieving cases, agency documents, and court documents. Paralegals know where things are, where public materials are filed, and the best methods to locate and retrieve required information. • Checking: Proofreading, cite checking, quote checking, Bluebooking, and verifying cross-references in documents. A paralegal can review your memos or briefs to catch potentially embarrassing mistakes. • Organizing: Assembling files, workrooms, binders, filing packages, and closing files in transactions. Creating databases and supervising the maintenance of databases. Paralegals are the gatekeepers of project documents and the best resource for locating any project-related information. • Reviewing: Performing an initial review of documents to flag certain names, events, or fact patterns to focus attorneys’ attention on the most relevant documents. Paralegals save the time and expense of having attorneys review irrelevant documents. • Researching: Factual and some basic legal research using Lexis, Westlaw, the Internet, and specialty research services. Paralegals make excellent investigators for factual issues, and senior paralegals are usually well-versed in practice area research resources. Not all paralegals are created equal. Be aware of the level of your task when requesting paralegal help. If your firm has a paralegal assignment coordinator, he or she will ask for information in order to match the appropriate person to your tasks. Just as a partner should not be doing junior associate work, an experienced paralegal should not be used for entry-level work on a continuous basis. WHAT, ME SUPERVISE? As a summer associate, you likely will be asked to supervise the work of staff with experience in processes that are brand-new to you. Supervising a paralegal is an opportunity to both teach and learn, a balance of trust and caution: You want to give the paralegal the freedom to do the job while ensuring that you have sufficient information on the status of the project to report to more-senior attorneys and the client. Thoughts that may pass through your mind when asked to delegate work to a paralegal are: “But no one told me that I was going to be a supervisor. I haven’t been trained to supervise people. I hardly know what my role is let alone what a paralegal is supposed to do. Isn’t supervision someone else’s job?” Welcome to the work force. Most professionals are not trained how to supervise others. But if you ask appropriate questions, treat people with respect, and are clear about what you need, you are well on your way to being a successful supervisor. While there may be administrative personnel to help distribute work assignments and more, attorneys are responsible for the quality of client work, no matter who does it. Some tips for supervising paralegals: • Communication: Give complete instructions including anticipated deadlines. Be sure that communication lines remain open so that you are an effective conduit both up and down your reporting relationships. Keep everyone informed of any changes to the project or deadlines. • Awareness: Stay on top of the status of each component of a project, any problems that may arise, and the future needs of the project. The paralegal on the matter can help you anticipate any problems and prepare for the next steps in the process. • Responsibility: As an attorney, you are ultimately responsible for producing appropriate and correct work. This does not relieve the paralegal from performing the best possible work, but you will be expected to be the final screen on its accuracy. • Flexibility: Know that project priorities are going to change from moment to moment. Also understand that a paralegal usually reports to multiple attorneys (most likely on multiple projects) and will need your assistance at times to prioritize projects. Sometimes your project is not going to be the biggest priority that day and you need to be ready to compromise. When a paralegal has a project deadline conflict, it is the attorneys’ responsibility to negotiate a solution. A paralegal generally is not in the position to independently determine which project is most important. When attorneys negotiate to share a paralegal’s time, everyone is fully informed as to expectations (another exercise in supervisory communication skills). Supervision involves giving paralegals — and any other support staff — the same information, with the same courtesy, patience, and reasonable flexibility that you expect and want from the attorneys supervising you. A sense of partnership and trust is created when both parties feel valued, trusted and understood, and it helps to accomplish the client’s goals with a minimum amount of difficulty. DO’S AND DON’TS You can help a paralegal to make your job easier: • Understand the partner’s or senior associate’s instructions before giving projects to the paralegal. After all, how are you going to be sure that the work you receive from a paralegal is correct if you are not sure what you asked for? • Keep backup materials when you cite to a particular source so that when you ask for cite- and quote-checking, the paralegal does not need to reinvent your research. You will get your work back quicker and save money for the client. • Do not create false deadlines. Eventually your credibility will diminish and your real deadlines will not be taken seriously. • Do not take without notice documents from a paralegal’s office when he or she is not there. Keeping track of documents is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. Paralegals take pride in their role as custodian of files and need to keep track of all documents. • Do not ask a legal assistant to retrieve documents you have taken without notice and not returned. Eventually, the paralegal will find them in your office. • Do not hoard documents. Get copies of the documents that you will be using on a regular basis so that the file-room set is kept complete for others to use. • Do not make a habit of waiting until the end of the work day to ask for help with an “emergency” assignment. It will only encourage paralegals to stop answering your calls at the end of the day. • Never write on originals of documents. Nothing is more frustrating than having to remove attorneys’ handwritten notes from original documents. • Delegate assignments to appropriate staff. Have your secretary do small copy and distribution projects. Giving feedback is another area where most people feel uncomfortable. Even the most experienced, hard-nosed litigator can be loath to give face-to-face feedback. But remember that everyone needs feedback, whether complimentary or constructive correction, to accurately assess their skills and make appropriate adjustments. Use the paralegal assignment coordinator to give feedback if you are not comfortable giving it directly. Never complain to another attorney about a paralegal’s performance unless you have first tried to give feedback in order to improve their performance. Most problems between attorneys and paralegals can be reduced to one of two things: a breakdown in communication or lack of training. Either of these situations is easily remedied. But the supervisor of paralegals needs your feedback in order to address these issues adequately before they become a larger problem. Your time as a summer associate is a valuable opportunity to put your legal knowledge to work and find out whether a law firm is the right place for you. Learn from the paralegals in your firm the “how to’s” of the practice. Take advantage of their experience and knowledge to make a favorable impression. Gary Melhuish is legal assistant coordinator at the D.C. office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.

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