Paralegals: Tips for Working Better With Your Attorney

First and foremost, it is helpful for a new paralegal to have a general understanding of their attorneys and what makes them tick. As in most professions, it takes a certain personality type to become a lawyer and continue to successfully practice law. Never expect an attorney you work for to see things the way you see them; attorneys see everything very differently than most folks.  

Psychologists have noted that the majority of lawyers are the first-born child in their family; and that the most successful attorneys are the ones born in the middle of their sibling ranks -- the middle child. First-born children supposedly carry the family's expectations for high performance and success; they also tend to have more natural-born qualities of leadership than other siblings in a family. They are used to being the boss and they expect to boss everywhere they go. An attorney who doesn't have some bossiness in his soul is not a good attorney.

 Attorneys who are born as the middle child in their family do exceptionally well professionally, because they are forced into the negotiating position by the facts of nature. In essence, these attorneys are born into a negotiating position for their lives. From birth they learn to negotiate everything in life with everyone they encounter. Remember an attorney who does not negotiate is not really an attorney. The purpose behind lawsuits is to negotiate something that restores a wronged party and/or is a reasonable middle ground for both parties. Middle-child attorneys "get it" in a very personal and powerful way and they are easier to work for than first-born attorneys, since they are more open to both sides of any relationship than are their first-born colleagues.

 Understanding your attorney, or group of attorneys, also involves understanding the attorney-paralegal dynamic that is expected in most firms, as well as the individual's personal attitudes. In my own first days as a paralegal, my attorney pulled me inside his office and commanded me to, "Stop apologizing for everything I correct you on. I don't expect you to know everything on your first day, and a continuum of apology is grating. Please stop." It was immediately apparent to me that if I wanted to continue to have my boss's favor, then I needed to smile, shake my head agreeably and say nothing. And I needed to make sure I offered up no more apologies, for anything.  The dynamics of such things are important to roll around in your head, especially when first starting at a new firm.

Attorneys understand power, position, pecking order, and discretion. If you don't, then take notes in your first days as a paralegal. Do not assume you understand them in the same ways an attorney understands them. 

 In the first instance, the appropriate response to a managing attorney is either a simple, "I'm sorry," or, "Let me fix that for you." Sometimes it is both, but never more than that because the attorney just wants the situation fixed. In the second instance, humility in the context of an attorney-paralegal relationship has nothing to do with groveling until the attorney feels guilty for saying anything to you about your error. Appropriate humility for a law firm is to simply smile, agree and correct what needs correcting.

It is said that attorneys have really large egos. For the most part, this is true. If you plan to work in law, then get used to it. Accept it. If you can't, then you don't belong in this profession. This should not be an area for you to criticize, even privately among family. The reason is simple: An attorney's ego is much like other requirements in professions, and that it is  the negative side to the necessary quality required for success.

In a similar way, an attorney must have a strong ego to get through law school and to win cases in his profession. Without a strong ego, he is not a very good attorney. When his ego slips into the toxic zone then he will need a ton of patience and tolerance from you, his paralegal. This is why you must accept an attorney's ego.  Your job requires you to manage your ability to practice patience and tolerance with him when he invariably hits this place. You will never see this in a job description for a firm, and the human resources folks will never mention it to you. But you must "get it" when it comes to handling your boss's ego.

 Here are some important things to remember about your managing attorney:
Never assume that you can catch him in the hallway for anything unless he has a publicly understood "open-door policy".  Attorney's are busy people! 
Never take his company policies personally unless he sits you down in his office and tells you that he is implementing something because of you, or unless he publicly recognizes you for your idea and his implementation of it. 
Never expect him to side with you in any disagreement you may have with any attorney or manager, he might, but don't be surprised or take it personally if he does not. 
Never expect him to defend you to a client.  Again, he might, but you shouldn't expect it as part of the job. 
Language and Business Philosophy That Brings Favor From Attorneys
Language and business philosophy are two things that an attorney focuses on in his everyday dealings. He makes it his business to understand the core values of those he interacts with, and to communicate accurately and clearly. When you make these your business also, and when you learn to practice your communications in a similar way, then you will invariably gain favor from attorneys.

 Here are some language and philosophy tips for this short section:
 1.    Keep your language positive. Your entire communication style must become attuned to a positive style.
2.    Positive communication is communication that reflects a "can-do" mentality. It is a communication style that focuses on solving the problem rather than who is at fault
3. "To whom much is given, much is required." Memorize this motto; say it out loud to yourself each morning. It is even okay to occasionally repeat this phrase to an attorney, but only when he praises you for your hard work on a project. This communicates to him that you understand your privilege; it communicates that you do not take your privilege for granted and that you are appreciative. 
4. "Go where you're celebrated, not where you're tolerated." This is a philosophy that, if practiced, will keep you in a positive direction for your life. Attorneys generally operate from this philosophy, since they are focused on the dynamics of winning. Of course, the converse of this philosophy is that if you find yourself simply tolerating someone-- including your attorney -- it is probably time to move on, out of the relationship.
5. "A man who will lie to his family has no problem lying to you." This is a philosophy that will serve you well. It is good to understand that your attorney is watching for integrity in the client on all turns because it gives him comfort about working on the client's behalf and helps to give him confidence about being the client's attorney.
6. "Work hard, play hard" is a philosophy that reflects most attorneys' work ethic. If you adopt this work ethic, most attorneys will become generous with you in the kudos department. 

      Your business philosophy also needs to be well-developed. If you have never given a second thought to business philosophy, then you will want to get yourself to the bookstore or library and read up on the popular gurus. One of the most personally motivating books I have ever read is Zig Ziglar's classic, See You at the Top, written more than two decades ago. My personal copy of this book sits on my desk shelf even now. Whenever I am having a hard time getting the morning steam in my work engine brain, I pull it down and read a chapter. Zig is a classic himself and it is impossible to read this book and not feel like today will be better than yesterday and you can handle anything life throws at you.

Another business philosophy-type book that I find indispensable is Kenneth Blanchard's management classic, The Power of Ethical Management. This little treat helps to underscore the importance of keeping your integrity intact in business, especially when you are tempted to throw it out the window and give someone a 'tit for tat'. He gives tangible examples of how managing your position with ethics will never fail you, even when it appears to temporarily.

Lastly, it is my opinion that Stephen Covey's now classic book,The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is a must have for a successful paralegal. This jewel of a book is essential for you if you have never been in a position to manage a professional, such as a doctor or lawyer. If you implement Covey's tactics, you will gain your attorney's favor by sheer efficiency alone. This book takes you through a step-by-step process that will cause you to handle your work load with organization, priorities, and ultimately, effectiveness. If you "listen" to the underlying message of this book, you will begin to understand how executives and professionals, such as your new attorney, think in the priorities and management of their day-to-day schedules. The book is also one that will help you in every area of your life – personal and professional. On a very practical level, this book will help the slightly scatter-brained or right brained paralegal to focus, sort and prioritize her work.


Lori L. Robinett said...

I would add a caveat to this - do not let your attorney cross the line from ego to abuse. I've seen more than one attorney become abusive to his assistant, verbally and emotionally, and the more the assistant takes, the worse the abuse gets. That is unacceptable. The attorney should not get a "pass" simply because he or she has an ego, or brings in a lot of money for the firm.

In my experience, when an attorney crossed the line, I simply said something like, This behavior is not acceptable. After you've calmed down, I would be happy to discuss how to fix the issue. Then I left the room. Both times I did that, the attorney responded positively (later). If you aren't comfortable saying something, talk to your office manager.

Jenny Tucker said...

Great advice and good point Lori! I have watched an attorney throw a telephone at a paralegal, which to me borders on assault. I have also had my own attorney ask me if I was just plain stupid. I think both extremes are unprofessional and I agree that none of it should be tolerated. On the other hand, I have heard attorneys say "if you don't like it too bad, that's just the way it is so deal with it", and that to me is a cue to find other employment.

Wilma said...

This is an excellent article! It is invaluable advice. Thank you!

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