Paralegals: 7 Steps to Career Happiness

It’s time to do some soul searching. Do you see the glass as half empty? Are the majority of your posts on Facebook negative? Do you hold a grudge forever when you think you’ve been wronged? Are bad things always going to happen to you?
If you answered "Yes" to those questions, you're probably not a happy paralegal.  Do you want to be happy? Absolutely! But how? 

A person can’t just decide to be happy. So how are happy paralegals different from their miserable, pessimistic counterparts? They take actions that add up to a happy, well-lived life. 

These seven actions make the difference: 
  1. Happy paralegals laugh often. Laughter generates positive emotions and sets the mood for your day. So lighten up, relax, and laugh to enhance your mood, as well as that of the people you associate with.
  2.  Happy paralegals F-O-C-U-S! Stop doing so many things at once. Happy paralegals can focus (not just on work, but on their family and friends) for extended amounts of time. When you multitask, your brain leaps from one unconnected thought to another, piling stress on your shoulders.
  3. Log off Pinterest and quit posting cute pet videos on Facebook. Happy paralegals understand that not everything is important. Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang said, “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”
  4. Happy paralegals don’t obsess over the small stuff. Happy paralegals take a take a long view of life and don’t obsess over every short term setback or problem. Are you having a bad day? Tomorrow will be better. You didn╩╝t win that election? Nobody will remember this time next year – and you may even get another chance. You didn’t pass the certification exam? Just try again. No one needs to know how many times you tried...passing is the big news.
  5. Happy paralegals engage in meaningful activities. Physical activity will reduce stress and boost your mood. There are many other “meaningful activities” that will also help with happiness. Time spent practicing yoga or meditation may work for you. For others, religious activities will be important. Reading, writing, quilting, knitting, scrapbooking, volunteering, etc. will give you a sense of calm.
  6. Happy paralegals develop positive relationships. Companionship and love create a sense of belonging that will enhance your life. When you have compassion for the people in your life and know you are cared for in return, you will be happy. Be sure you share quality time with others and nurture your friendships – reconnect with that friend you haven’t seen in years; plan a movie night; invite friends for dinner.
  7. Happy paralegals manage their expectations. Do you remember being terribly excited about an event (say a New Year’s Eve party) and, once it was over, you were disappointed because it didn’t live up to your expectations? Managing expectations is about eliminating the gap between what you expect and what actually happens. Focus on simply enjoying the moment.

    Managing expectations isn’t easy but when you are realistic about what will probably happen, you will save time, energy and disappointment should your expectations not be met. Consider your expectations and determine what areas of your life are frustrating. Perhaps you should manage your expectations for those areas.
While you can’t decide to be happy, you can decide to engage in actions that will bring you happiness. Do your soul searching. Consider this list and decide what is missing in your life. Then choose to take steps to fill that gap. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Vicki Voisin, "The Paralegal Mentor", delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by setting goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She is the co-author of The Professional Paralegal: A Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success. Vicki publishes Paralegal Strategies, a weekly e-newsletter for paralegals, and hosts The Paralegal Voice, a monthly podcast produced by Legal Talk Network.
More information is available at where subscribers receive Vicki's 151 Tips for Your Career Success.

Nailing the Client Intake Interview

Purpose of the Intake Interview: 

A primary purpose of the initial client interview is to identify the client’s problem and to gather enough facts to identify a range of appropriate ways to address the problem. However, the interview also serves as an opportunity to develop a relationship of trust and open communication between the lawyer, paralegal and client. 

intake interview techniques for paralegals

Preparing for the Intake Interview: 

Before the initial client interview, you should review the client’s file, draft (or at least have prepared) questions for the interview, and prepare the interview location. A. Review the file: You should review any documents or correspondence that you have in your possession regarding the client’s case before the initial interview. If there are additional documents that the client is likely to have in their possession that will be important to the case, you should ask the client to bring them to the intake interview

Draft questions for the interview: 

Use the “funnel” approach. Begin with open-ended questions to generate broad, general information. To the extent that you can predict that the client’s case will implicate specific causes of action or legal theories before the interview, focus some of the open-ended questions on topics that will elicit broad, general information relating to the prima facie elements of those causes of action or legal theories. Follow up the open-ended questions with narrower questions that clarify specific facts relating to those causes of action or legal theories. 

Note: The interview should include a combination of open-ended and narrow questions. The client generally does not know what information is relevant, so you need to ask enough general questions to identify all of the potentially relevant discussion areas. Once you have identified those broad areas, you can drill down to obtain specific facts through narrower questions. If you only ask narrow questions, you may fail to learn about important facts, but if you only ask general questions, you may fail to identify important details.  

Prepare the interview location: 

The location for the interview should be clean, comfortable and non-distracting. This will help to build the relationship of trust and open communication and will help your client build confidence in you.

Structure of the Intake Interview: 

When conducting the actual client interview, remember that the interview is a conversation and your goal, throughout, is to develop an open, trusting relationship while eliciting factual information. Active listening will be essential to the interview. You may find it useful to use the following structure for the interview: 

Introductions and Interview Roadmap:

Introduce yourself and allow the client to introduce themself. Explain the purpose of the interview and indicate whether there are any time limits or other restrictions on the interview. Let the client know that their conversations are confidential and that you will discuss legal rights and solutions at the end of the interview. You may want to discuss formalities regarding fees and the attorney-client relationship at this point as well.

Open-ended questions: 

Ask general questions that prompt the client to tell their story in their own words. You can keep the client talking with prompts like “what happened next”? At this point, you will be able to preliminarily identify the client’s problem. When the client has completed their response to the preliminary general questions, you should summarize your understanding of the problem and the client’s interests and concerns for the client. You may have some thoughts regarding potential causes of action or legal theories that the client might pursue based on their responses to the initial questions. After this initial phase, you will probably want to ask additional general questions, but focused a little more directly on elements of the causes of action or legal theories that you have begun to identify as potentially relevant. 

Specific questions: 

After asking the open ended, general questions, you should ask more specific and narrow questions to fill in important details that were not addressed by the client in response to the general questions or to clarify facts that were addressed by the client. You should avoid asking leading questions unless you are confirming facts that were previously provided by the client or you are trying to obtain information that the client may be reluctant to provide. 

Summarize and identify clear next steps: 

Summarize your understanding of the facts that the client has provided to you, provide the client with a brief summary of their rights, and identify any issues that you need to research before providing additional information to the client. You should also develop an action plan for the case, describing to the client what you plan to do next and when you will get back in touch. In addition, you should indicate to the client when and how you will communicate updates on the case to them.

Conducting the Interview

Listen to the client: 

One of the most important things that the lawyer must do in all of their communications with clients is to be an active listener. In the initial client interview, you should give the client the opportunity to fully explain the facts, as well as their interests in resolving the dispute. Don’t cut off the client. The interview is an opportunity to build a relationship of trust as well as to obtain necessary facts. The client needs to feel confident in your abilities and you need to know that you can work with the client. 

Listening Techinique: 

Throughout the interview, you should let the client know that you are listening through non-verbal and limited verbal communication that demonstrates engagement. (i.e. head-nodding, eye contact, responses to the client that reflect 2 the client’s concerns and respond to the client’s concerns) 

Be professional: 

Exhibit a professional manner at all times. Be friendly, courteous and polite, but confident. Speak to the client in terms that the client will be able to understand. After developing a communication plan, follow through with the plan, return calls and e-mails promptly and keep the client informed and connected.  

Manage expectations: 

In your communications with clients, don’t make promises that you can’t keep. If a client presses you for advice regarding the likelihood of success in a case or for a prediction of the likely outcome of a dispute, remember that the ultimate outcome may depend on a variety of factors that are outside of your control or may be uncertain. Don’t build up unreasonable expectations. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell the client that you don’t know the answer and will look into it and get back to them.

Performing a top notch initial intake interview sets the tone and relationships for the entire case and builds trust with the client right from the start.  In the long run it will make a paralegal's job easier.  

Doing Well by Doing Good: Law Firm Social Responsibility

Corporations increasingly subscribe to the principle of corporate social responsibility. CSR is based on the belief that a demonstration of concern for the environment, human rights, community development and the welfare of their employees can make a corporation more profitable. And if not more profitable, at least a better place to work.

corporate social responsibility for law firms

Law firms can learn from corporate experience to create their own social responsibility programs. Such programs can help law firms to do well by doing good. They can strengthen the firm's reputation and market position. They can help the firm identify with the culture and CSR activities of clients and potential clients. They can help lawyers and staff find more meaning in their work and improve as human beings.

In the words of the social responsibility Karma Committee at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck: Be kind. Be generous. Be concerned. Donate time. Donate effort. Donate money. Just find a cause and give. You'll quickly discover giving is also receiving.

A panel discussion about how law firms can learn about CSR and introduce some of its elements into their own models was sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. 

Panelists included Sarah Hogan, vice president of Barefoot PR; Bruce DeBoskey, lawyer and founder of The DeBoskey Group, which focuses on philanthropic advising; Joyce Witte, Community Investment Advisor and director of the Encana Cares Foundation, Encana Oil & Gas (USA); and Amy Venturi, director of community relations & karma at Brownstein. Moderator was Cori Plotkin, president of Barefoot PR.

At law firms, the product is the people - the lawyers and support staff who provide high quality legal services. It is an easy fit. There are many ways that this 'product' can contribute time, talent and treasure to socially responsible activities.

Social responsibility: Focus and strategy

Law firm social responsibility is all about making a difference within the community and the profession, and within a firm. Even the best efforts will make no impact if spread too thin. You cannot maximize the value of your contributions or tell your story if your efforts are too diluted. To decide how to most effectively invest its resources, a law firm needs a social responsibility focus and a strategy.

Social responsibility efforts must be authentic. Law firms and other entities should always avoid 'green-washing' - telling a story that is aspirational, but not really true. Know yourself. Let your firm's unique culture and skills determine which efforts to pursue and which to avoid.

When examining your culture, don't limit yourself to partner input. Law firms are small communities, almost like families. Any effort to define culture and social responsibility should represent not only the interests of lawyers, but the interests of all levels of support staff. Efforts must be meaningful throughout the firm. The benefits to employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction can be remarkable.

DeBoskey outlined three types of community involvement and stated his belief that a good social responsibility plan includes elements of all three.

In a traditional model, an organization 'gives back' randomly to the community when asked - as a good citizen, rather than for any strategic purposes. In a social responsibility model, these efforts align with the capabilities of the business - like the legal skills of lawyers. Every non-profit needs legal advice.

At it's most sophisticated, a social responsibility program involves using your core product - legal services - as a tool for social change. Volunteer with organizations like the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, or the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center.

A strong focus makes it much easier to make decisions. Encana, for example, focuses its charitable giving strategy on issues surrounding its product -- natural gas. Brownstein will donate money only if the request comes from a client, or if one of their attorneys is a member of the organization and on the board.

Law firms looking for additional advice can find valuable resources within the Corporate Community Investment Network. CCIN is an association for professionals whose primary responsibility is to manage community investment programs in a for-profit business setting.

Many corporations and a few law firms have actually created separate foundations to mange some of their giving. A foundation comes with more restrictions and different tax methods. As entities with a life of their own, however, foundations are more likely than one-off efforts to continue a useful existence.

Social responsibility: Good policies make good decisions

Strategy and focus provide the foundation for an effective social responsibility policy. Most law firms are inundated with requests from good causes asking for their support. A policy helps you know when to say "yes" to and when to say "no."

In the law firm model, where all partners are owners with a sense of entitlement to resources, it can be very difficult to say no. A keenly focused policy makes it much easier to do so and keep the firm's efforts on track.

Encana, for example, uses a five-step tool to determine the level of fit between a request and the company's strategic goals in the field of natural gas - with level five being the largest commitment and level one the lowest.

Level five efforts integrate core product or service and often involve natural gas vehicles and energy efficiency initiatives using natural gas. These efforts contribute to best practices and leading trends in the industry, while enhancing the company's reputation as a leader.

Level four efforts focus on strategic partnerships and often involve sustainable and long-term solutions like workforce development initiatives, signature programs (which can be repeated in other markets) and multi-year grants.

Level three efforts include strategic grants to assist with projects, programs or initiatives made to local non-profits aligned with natural gas.

Level two efforts include responsive giving, which is a one-time gift for a broad community effort that has local support. Participation of company representatives is required.

Level one efforts include the "t-shirt and banner" category, which contains one-day items like dinners, receptions, golf tournaments, events and races. These offer the least impact and awareness for the money, and therefore the least support.

At Brownstein, requests made to the firm are judged by two factors. The firm considers only requests made by clients and requests made by organizations where one of its attorneys participates at the board level.

Social responsibility: Engagement

Effective social responsibility programs involve not only checkbook involvement, but personal and professional involvement.

At Brownstein, the brand has always been about being out in the community. Six years ago, Venturi was asked to formalize this essential component of the firm's culture into a social responsibility program that would further energize lawyers.

She started by spending 15 minutes with each of the attorneys, to discover their passions - which were used to identify a good non-profit match. After all, lawyers and staff will stay involved and do their best only when an organization is something that they care deeply about. If there is no engagement, the placement will backfire.

Finally, Venturi offers the lawyer's services to the non-profit in some capacity - but it must be at the board level. Otherwise, she won't make the match.

Project Karma is a Brownstein program dedicated to volunteer opportunities, and maintains a committee in each of the firm's 12 offices. It sponsors informal lunch & learn presentations by local non-profits to encourage interest.

The message about active engagement by lawyers and staff must come from the top. Brownstein makes it very clear that the path to partnership for a new attorney is based not only on legal skills, but also on engagement and involvement with the community.

It is important to add a community involvement component to lawyer reviews, even if it is only one goal a year. That lets the lawyers know that you are serious. The Colorado Supreme Court asks every lawyer in to contribute 50 hours of pro bono work each year. Integrating these programs leads to win/win results for the firm.

Not every firm can match the efforts of a large company like Encana or a large law firm like Brownstein. However, there are good matches for firms of every size. Once again, it is all a matter of focus.

In fact, it is much easier to get five members of a small firm to focus on a strategic initiative than 500 lawyers in a huge firm. If a law firm has $10,000 to donate, that money goes a lot father and has a lot more impact to one organization than do $100 donations spread across 100 organizations.

corporate social responsibility for law firms

Smaller law firms can also multiply its impact by partnering with others in an industry, like vendors or clients, to support a particular non-profit.

Social responsibility: Return on investment

Corporations measure the results of their social responsibility programs, and use these results to make decisions on efforts going forward. Law firms should do the same.

At the end of the year, Encana uses its five-level model (outline above) to analyze our charitable giving. How much was given at each level? Then the company sends a form to each non-profit, asking the recipient to evaluate outcomes (statistics for what was accomplished), process (did efforts meet the intended audience) and impact (what difference did it make).

Encana asks recipients to reply within 60 days, and uses this information to calculate return on investment. Those who do not report back are not eligible for further contributions. The non-profits might gripe at first, but they seem to change their minds once they've been through the process - finding that it has useful strategic value.

It is entirely appropriate to ask a non-profit to document the results they've achieved based on your contribution. It lets them know that you are truly invested in the organization. They will see you more as partners and engage you differently.

Most corporations have created and benefited from well-thought-through and strategic social responsibility programs. Law firms are starting to do the same. A program with tight focus and strict guidelines guarantees maximum impact and awareness in exchange for a law firm's commitment of time, talent and treasure.

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