Attorneys, educators and students often ask the question: “What qualities make for a good paralegal?” The responses are plentiful, including someone who is organized, detail-oriented and ethical. One area, however, that is often overlooked is following up on drafted assignments and pending cases. The failure of a paralegal to take initiative in following up can result in potential pitfalls in a case and place undue stress upon the legal team. However, recognizing the importance of follow-up will not only serve to bolster the success of a case, but also open the door to potential new business and strengthen existing relationships with your supervising attorney, firm and client.
The successful paralegal is one who completes assignments in a thorough and timely manner. Being thorough, however, encompasses more than merely completing an initial task. Instead, it is a fundamental part of a paralegal’s responsibilities to follow up on previously drafted assignments and imminent deadlines to avoid tasks falling through the cracks.
Unquestionably, no paralegal wants to hear, “Why didn’t you follow up?” For some paralegals, however, follow-up is a gray area resulting from a lack of communication within the legal team. This lack of communication causes friction and uncertainty regarding delegation of responsibilities and assignments. Effective communication is the cornerstone of teamwork. The contribution and value of all members of the legal team should not be overlooked. Therefore, it is important early on in the case for the supervising attorney to define responsibilities and expectations for each member of the team. This will alleviate any misunderstanding among the members in a particular department.
Paralegals juggle numerous assignments in multiple cases on a daily basis. In addition to completing these tasks, follow-up by a paralegal is crucial and can make a difference in the course of a case. A few of the areas that require follow-up include:
• Statutes: A solid understanding of the importance of pending statutes cannot be overstated. When reviewing a file in pre-litigation status, a paralegal should immediately take note of the applicable statute. The legal team should be familiar with the overall firm policy on the monitoring of statutes via meetings, assigned case managers or paralegals. The statute should be logged on the appropriate calendar along with reminders. In cases where the statute is quickly approaching, a paralegal should follow up with the supervising attorney to verify that an appropriate writ or complaint is being filed. This follow-up will properly protect the interests of the client.
• Appointments: The process of scheduling appointments may vary from firm to firm and, in fact, lawyer to lawyer. The scheduling of events such as client meetings, medical examinations or depositions may involve multiple members of the team, including an administrative assistant, paralegal or another member of the department. Thus, internal follow-up within the legal team is essential. Once an appointment is scheduled, the task is certainly not complete. The paralegal should collaborate with administrative staff to review the attorney calendar at least a week in advance to confirm all appointments. This confirmation should include the date, time and location of the appointment as well as special accommodations, directions, etc. A paralegal must remind the supervising attorney of upcoming appointments. Also, prior to the appointment, a paralegal should coordinate the proper organization of the file, including all mail and filing. This preparation will safeguard against last-minute confusion.
• Investigation: The role of the paralegal involves various investigative assignments to assist the attorney in developing or defending a case. Paralegals often take the lead in completing case assessments, requesting police reports, obtaining photographs and authorizations, as well as conducting intakes of clients and interviews of potential witnesses. Periodic review of the file to ascertain the need for additional investigation including identification of missing facts or documents and potential conflicts of interest is crucial.
• Court-mandated deadlines and filings: Litigation revolves around deadlines that cannot be missed. A paralegal should be cognizant of all deadlines in a case. The docket entries should be reviewed to ensure that all filings have been accepted and docketed. Oftentimes it is at this juncture that mistakes such as missing pages, fees, forms or exhibits can be rectified. In cases where petitions for extension of time or requests for leave to file a pleading are pending, the docket should be consulted for a ruling on the petition. Once the petition is ruled upon, the paralegal should inform the legal team and calendar the appropriate deadline.
Similarly, in most cases, the court will issue an order setting forth appropriate deadlines with respect to discovery and trial of the case. These deadlines, as well as all court-imposed deadlines, should immediately be recognized by the paralegal (either via review of the mail or dockets), circulated to the legal team and appropriately calendared to ensure compliance and prevent missed deadlines. Both the actual event as well as a warning notification should be logged on the calendar to allow sufficient time to prepare a document or response.
• Records requests: After records are requested by either subpoena or authorization in accordance with the local rules, a file cannot merely be returned to the cabinet. It is essential for the paralegal to monitor the requests (or assign another member of the legal team in accordance with firm/company guidelines) in order to identify any issues (i.e., fees or special authorizations) and to ensure compliance with all demands. Additionally, a paralegal should calendar the request to follow up with the provider or organization for the receipt of the records. The failure of the paralegal to follow up on a records request could result in delaying the matter or failing to comply with established deadlines.
• Discovery: Once discovery is initiated, a considerable amount of follow-up is required. Discovery requests, such as requests for admissions, cannot merely be filed. Instead, a paralegal should calendar the response date and arrange a meeting with the client and/or supervising attorney in a timely manner to draft responses and obtain a executed verification. Any deficiencies or missing items must be identified. All responses should be reviewed by the attorney. In cases where discovery is propounded upon opposing counsel, appropriate follow-up is required for compliance with local rules and response time. It may also be necessary to propound supplemental discovery requests.
• Experts: When a liability or damage expert is retained in a case, a paralegal is usually assigned the responsibility of organizing and assembling documents for review by the expert in order to formulate an opinion. Following initial contact, additional steps must be taken, including production of supplemental records and communicating deadlines. Similarly, the matter should be monitored for receipt of the expert report. The expert report should immediately be provided to the supervising attorney for review.
• Arbitration/trials: The need for follow-up is never greater than when an arbitration or trial is quickly approaching. While a paralegal may be charged with the responsibility of preparing exhibits and binders, additional time should be allotted for follow-up with respect to indexing file contents, coordination of witnesses and trial preparation meetings. Follow-up on confirmation of service of subpoenas as well as attendance and pre-meetings with expert witnesses are also of great importance. Additional follow-up is also required with respect to coordination of visual aids and presentations by the attorney at trial.
What makes a good paralegal stand out in the profession? The main components of knowledge, education and experience are necessary. Cases are won and lost based upon the collective skills of the legal team. However, of equal importance is the responsibility of a paralegal to follow up in all aspects of assignments and pending cases. A paralegal should never underestimate the value of initiative and hard work. Be proactive in your position and put forth the extra effort. Not only will it increase the chances of success in the case, it will make all the difference to your firm, supervising attorney and client.
Christine M. Flynn is a litigation paralegal with the personal injury firm of Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith in Philadelphia. She has over 24 years of experience in the field. Flynn is the past president of The Philadelphia Association of Paralegals and currently serves as board adviser and director of membership.