How to Maximize the Potential of Your Legal Assistant

You are an attorney. It is late afternoon and you just learned an Answer is due today. To make matters worse, Requests for Admissions were propounded and served with the Summons and Complaint. You are out of town, so who will you turn to in order to get the job done timely and to get it done right?

Not ALL legal assistants or paralegals are qualified for this task. But ALL of them could be with proper training and utilization. Attorneys wrongfully assume that a paralegal certificate or a four-year degree prepares a paralegal for all of the demands of a legal practice when real training actually begins on-the-job.

Since most attorneys have little time to devote to personal training, new paralegals are often left to begin a new job on a trial-by-fire basis. Under these conditions, mistakes are easily made and once confidence in your assistant is displaced, it may take weeks or months for both of you to recover. Once burned, you may indefinitely turn to an associate to complete tasks that a qualified paralegal could perform.

What should you do to maximize the professional potential of your legal assistant? First and foremost, do not wait until the workload is out of control to make a hiring decision. The job interview is the first step to proper utilization. Interview several candidates and choose someone well suited to meet your particular expectations. Aim for evidence of initiative and demonstrated professional accomplishments. Once hired, take the time to explain how you prefer for your expectations be met. It is never wise to assume that your paralegal knows how to perform certain tasks, so be careful to spell out your expectations, thereby avoiding any misunderstandings about the role he/she will play.

Second, involve your paralegal in case strategies. Invite your paralegal to client meetings or take ten extra minutes to explain the facts and legal premise behind the lawsuit. This gives your assistant a global understanding of the case and seeing the big picture means a better work product. A paralegal that feels married to a case is much more likely to put more into the end result, just as you are. Conversely, receiving varying tasks on a number of different cases disassociates him/her from the total work product.

You may delegate on the basis that some paralegals are better suited for certain tasks than others, and perhaps they are, but if you want to develop a well-rounded and competent professional, it is important to give your assistant exposure from start to finish in a case. Frequent fragmenting of case work merely keeps a paralegal from developing a sound understanding of the legal process and/or the natural ebb and flow of your legal practice, and it gives you a task-oriented paralegal rather than a motivated professional with drive and initiative.

Third, allow your paralegal the opportunity to flex his/her potential with new assignments. The first project may require some tweaking or steering by you in the right direction, but once done, your assistant will have added confidence. Allow your assistant to do some legal research if nothing more than shepardizing a case in Westlaw or Lexis. Allow him/her to search for a witness. Give hints about where they can find the information they need and then watch them as they grow and take pride in their accomplishments.

Paralegals can provide a myriad of services to an attorney and/or client. Assistants can prepare motions to dismiss, motions to compel discovery, motions for protective order, notices of removal, interview witnesses, and answer discovery just to name a few. Legal assistants can also prepare deposition and trial outlines, as well as pre-trial orders. While legal assistants cannot or should not give legal advice, they can give clients information or instruction about when or what government forms to file, and other adminstrative requirements. Perhaps the greatest possible benefit your assistant can lend is in calendaring. Specify when you like to receive reminders on case deadlines and let him/her take charge of keeping you on task.

Once you have a well-qualified professional, don’t forget that he/she needs to maintain his/her professional growth. Foster this growth by allowing your paralegal to train others and by encouraging him or her to share knowledge in professional settings and seminars.

Reprint. Originally published in “The Mississippi Lawyer.”