Paralegal Career Problems: Office Politics, Downsizing, and Mergers


 You may think this segment wouldn't belong in a article on paralegal studies, or you may think office politics is just common sense. In some ways it is common sense. But a new paralegal should never believe that office politics do not count in a law firm. 

In many small ways, law office prestige is eked out by collecting little endearments and favors over time. These are achieved best through steady and productive quality work and smart office politics. It does matter with whom you run in a law office. It matters what you say, and to whom. It matters when you say things. It matters whether you gossip or snitch. And, yes, it matters whether you are generally liked by many in the office, or if you are the one who silences the room when you enter because everyone was gossiping about you. 

            Here are some tips on office politics that will serve you well in a law firm: 

1.    Keep your conversations at work short and light. Never get into a long discussion about a "deep" subject during your office hours – even if the boss doesn't appear to be around. You would be surprised how many law firms have phone and room monitors, and how many regularly read or purge your email files. Oh, yes they do, and don't let anyone in your firm suggest to you that they don't. In the rare event that you go to work for such an old-timer, it is still a good practice to keep conversations light; it helps people to better like you. 

2.    Beware of the office troublemaker. He or she will always have negative things to say about someone. The sophisticated troublemakers will wrap bombastic words in something that sounds like a sincere concern. They are poison; politely flee, but flee immediately, and don't be seen around the firm [or at lunch] with them or you will get passed over for perks, special assignments, and recognition. 

3.    Another troublemaker tactic is to bait you into saying something that can be easily exported out of context and used as an example of your "bad attitude." They may complain to you that they are is so very tired and have been working a lot of overtime on a boss's project, and then wait in hopes you will make some personal complaint that can be extracted and reported back to your attorney or human resources. 

4.    When you are given a special privilege that others do not get, keep your mouth shut about it. If it is something that excites you, then tell your family. But never talk around the office about such things. Your talk will create jealousy and make you seem prideful to your office mates; you can do without either of these factors in your career. 

5.    Never allow yourself the luxury of being even slightly rude or curt to an attorney's spouse or significant other. Regardless of what you think of this person, keep it to yourself and treat him or her with respect. 

6.    Give respect to everyone around your office, even if they do not give you any respect; even if they disrespect you. Don't let your pride rule you in your emotions and simply give it, even when you don't get it. People will notice, and attorneys, especially, begin to think of you as "the bigger person," and you will gain their favor. 

7.    Never underestimate the power of excellent manners. If your career move to paralegal work is a move upward for you, or if you are the first in your family to become educated, then take the time to check out some books from the library on business manners. Remember, what you learned from home does not have to dictate your success or failure if you have the spunk and internal motivation to take steps to identify and correct your areas of ignorance [we all have some]. In a legal career as in other professional level careers, the degree of your success is greatly determined by your ability to learn the applicable manners and faithfully practice them. 

8.    Two cardinal rules are practiced by successful people, and they are closely related to consistent manners. 

Never take anything anyone says to you personally, regardless of how hard it is for you to hear it. If you always assume that others who speak to you do not intend to hurt your feelings or insult you, then you will not take their remarks personally. 

Never allow yourself the luxury of becoming offended by someone else's remarks. When working in a professional environment, forget any compulsion you may have to force anyone to speak to you in a politically correct manner. In fact, just forget political correctness in terms of what others say or do to you. In other words, don't get suckered into the victim mentality of offense; it will stop your career dead in its tracks. Remember, no matter what anyone says to you – even things that rattle your emotions – forgiveness helps you to keep going the next day without carrying yesterday's little bag of garbage with you. 

9.    Listen closely to your attorney's little personal mottos. All of them have some, and they repeat them often to remind themselves how they should focus in certain situations. Write down their mottos and memorize them. If a situation occurs in which you can use their motto, then do. It will help you to "team" with them, and it confers respect upon them. Your attorneys will recognize that you are listening to them and that you value their personal values. Some of the mottos I have heard from attorneys over the years include:
"You can say anything to me. I'm not easily offended."
"To whom much is given, much is required."
"The early bird gets the worm."
"Never mistreat your family; they will be the ones to pick you up when life kicks you, so why hurt them?" This is often spoken in family law.
"Dead men don't tell lies."  (Spoken in probate law.) 

10. If your managing partner is politically active and does something like host the DNC [Democratic National Committee] inside the firm, treat these folks with the same respect you treat the managing partner. Anything less and you will be viewed as politically opposed to the partner. Never allow any of these folks to engage you in a political conversation. It's a dangerous career trap for you in most cases. 


 In many respects, law firms are no different than other companies when it comes to downsizing. Before starting with a firm, you will want to find out [preferably by research] whether the firm uses legal assistant contractors. Now, in medium-to-large-sized firms [those with 20 or more attorneys], it should be expected that the firm will use a small number of temps to offset season fluctuations in their case load. The number of temps a firm uses should be no more than 5 percent of its legal assistant/paralegal total staff in order for it to be a good match for you, and one in which you will have considerable job security. 

  When a law firm downsizes it usually has to do with changing laws that affect their particular practice of law, or a reduction in cases as a result of some broader social event. Pay attention to your world, your politicians, and your society in order to get a feel for what may affect your firm's business. For example, when the Republican Party regained the White House in 2000, my firm began doing the paralegal shuffle. They were a personal injury firm, and with George W. Bush came an onslaught of tort reforms in the legislative branch. Those reforms directly impacted the ceilings on settlement amounts and thus their profits. So, they were left to do what must be done when a company's profits are chopped – they steadily chopped a good number of their highest paid paralegals over the next five years. 

If you find yourself downsized, one of the easiest ways to get back into another firm [without a professional introduction] is to sign into one of the larger contracting companies. This helps keep a good chunk of your income flowing in while giving you opportunities to "meet and greet" the decision makers at some hiring firms. The exchange is that they get to see your quality work first-hand before negotiating with you for a position. One of the largest contracting companies in the United States legal profession is Robert Half and Associates.  


Firm mergers are not extremely common in the legal field, but neither are they completely foreign in the law firm world.  Sometimes one firm will merge with another because a managing partner wants to change up his practice or leave his current field. Most times, a merger will go hand in hand with a downsizing party. Anytime you hear of a firm merger, you should immediately begin posting your resume and conducting a very quiet job search. 

Until the dust has settled, you do not know if you get to stay or go. So, if you are happy in your firm and position, then ride it out. But do so wisely, with a quiet job search running in the background of your life. 

 Another factor that will affect you in a merger is whether your attorney is staying or exiting. If he is staying, then you are fairly secure until he indicates otherwise. If he begins a job search for himself, or if he offers you a position with him because he plans to exit into his own practice, then your position is very insecure for the long haul. Plan accordingly. 

Your concern will also rise or fall depending upon whether your firm is being bought or if it is the one buying the other firm. If your firm is the one buying another, then you are more secure than if your firm is bought. However, never think of a merger as having any sort of security for you until after the dust settles. The reason is that one of the many corporate benefits of merging with another firm is that human resources and the attorneys get to pick and choose the best and the brightest from among the ranks of both firms. 

One last note about mergers: common sense dictates that you cannot afford to slack in any way when a merger comes down the pike to your firm. Merger season is a time to be on your best behavior and best performance. Keep your job search extremely discreet and continue to perform at your highest level. 

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