Search This Blog

About Me

My photo
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Team Work at the Law Firm

I was recently asked to phrase my blog in less of a lawyer v. paralegal style with a better focus on the fact that we are all on the same team. This entry, therefore, includes hints and tips which will in fact make the practice of law a team event.

Go to court with your attorney. Every firm is different, but even if you ask to attend a trial and the answer is "no" you have at least shown interest and given the decision-makers a reason to think about it. Just be prepared if the answer is yes. The office dress code may be a bit more casual than that of the court. Also, courts differ on where paralegals may sit when accompanying attorneys to a trial. I have heard that a few states will allow paralegals to sit beside the attorneys at the table, but the vast majority of courts will require you to sit with the public. No matter where you sit, though, being in the courtroom during a trial can give you valuable experience, and every once in awhile, it's just plain cool.

Sit in meetings with your attorney. Again, every firm is different, but perhaps your attorney has never thought of having you in a client meeting. Ask. One of the attorney speakers at a recent conference I attended stated that it is a mistake for lawyers to conduct initial client meetings without their assistants. The reason he gave is that the lawyer takes in information by calculating legal angles and gathering the necessary information for such. The paralegal is more inclined to be thinking about what vital statistic information he needs to draft documents or get information from third parties (social security numbers, release forms, contact information, etc.).

While I have never asked to sit in a client meeting, it is not because I don't think it would be helpful but rather because of lack of space and time. I could probably attend the meeting, but then that is taking up time that I could be working on discovery or making calls while the Boss is busy. In our office, it makes more sense to me that I am working on something different while the Boss is conducting his meetings. Also, our office is nice, but small. If the Boss were meeting with one person, it might be intimidating for that person to have both of us sitting in the meeting. And if he were meeting with more than one, there would be no room for another warm body anyway.

Become competent in everything you can do so that your attorney can focus especially on those tasks only he can do. I have said it before, and here I've said it again. While the attorney should be able to do all the things you do, he shouldn't have to. Learn how to effectively research and stay on top of the best search practices. Know procedure, so that when a client calls for an update, you can give her dates to look forward to. I get calls all the time, especially right after I send a status letter with a notice of service, asking what happens next. They are not usually looking for a legal answer but rather for the next step, the next important date on the calendar. A client's matter will usually feel urgent to him, so letting him know that the defendant has thirty days to answer, and that we will not be able to move forward until we receive the answer or reach the expiration of the thirty days, will help ease his mind.

Do it right the first time. Sometimes I am tempted, especially when I've been staring at a computer screen for several hours, to just hand a rough draft of a complaint or brief or motion to the Boss and let him figure out what to edit. However, this won't save anyone time, and it won't save the client money. I take a deep breath and perhaps a five minute break before diving back into the issue. When I finally give the document to my attorney for review, I have overlooked it at least twice. He will still inevitably want to change my wording here or there, and sometimes he finds a blatant copy-paste error I've missed, but if I have taken my time and put forth all my effort, he is usually satisfied with the draft I bring to him.

Be the go-to person. Every team needs someone they can rely on for almost anything that needs to be done, just in case. This kind of fits into being proficient at all tasks nonattorneys can do, but here we're taking it a step further. Be willing to take on any project, large or small. Or at least don't act as if you are above it. If you feel like your talents and skills are not being utilized, or if you feel like your billables aren't being met because you've been asked to make copies twelve times today, approach it from that angle of "I'm not going to be able to meet my billables" rather than "This is not in my job description." If your supervising attorney keeps sending you to pour his coffee, perhaps you should ask her nicely if she wouldn't be better served by using you in a more substantive capacity. (Personally, I would probably ask her if she wouldn't be better served by getting her own coffee, but I realize that not every lawyer is as self-sufficient as mine.)

Demand team work. Or at least subtly demand it. If you have a secretary, utilize him to the best of his abilities. If you are about to work on a nonbillable task, ask yourself if you could delegate it to him. Talk to everyone at the firm, make them all your friends, find someone in each role you can use as an emergency resource or for uplifting discussion. Don't associate with only those individuals at your "level." Team work requires mutual respect and positive thinking from everyone in every role. Being "above" someone in the ancient hierarchial system does not exempt you from treating that person with respect and expecting the best they have to give. That means that the people "above" you are not exempt either. Perform as if you assume everyone on the team knows this, and if they don't already, they should eventually come around.

So there you have it, my six tips for teamwork. Let me know how they work.


  1. All great points for excelling as a legal team member. I do get to sit beside my attorney in court - at the very same table, keeping up with exhibits and testimony, among other duties. I do get a thrill when my boss, before he finishes his witness examinations, quietly leans over and asks me if I can think of any more questions - and then asks the witness some of the questions I think needed to be answered.

  2. Lynne, can I adopt your state bar and bring it home with me? ;^)

  3. Your six tips are terrific. Just like Lynne, I attend many of our trials and sit at counsel table. So long as my paralegal status is clear, that's just fine. I also regularly attend client meetings and find this to be more efficient because I have a good understanding of the client's issues from the get go.

  4. Great post, Mel. Those would be my $.02:

    Go to court with your attorney: Agreed. Unfortunately the Old Dominion doesn't allow for Paralegals to sit at the counsel table, or even in the row behind them (reserved for witnesses AFAIK). This makes it rather cumbersome to dig through volumes of pleadings and try to hand the right on to your atty etc. Still very helpful, especially if you're pulling exhibit lists & binders together and didn't have a course on Evidence yet.
    I would expand that section by one more point - try to attend depositions. Being there can be very helpful for you to keep up to speed on the facts of the case as they develop, and you may be able to write down a few more question while you listen and hand them to the atty.

    Sit in meetings with your attorney: Absolutely. In my firm paralegals routinely meet with the client without the atty present - in P.I. matters that would be about gathering details about physician billing, Medicare reimbursement, timelines of treatment etc. In divorce matters that would be tracing of funds through multiple accounts etc. I have also conducted witness interviews by myself and put the result into a memo for the atty. This can be very helpful if there are many potential witnesses and you want to gather a first impression about who-knows-what etc.

    Become competent in everything... Right. I think in our firm the division of labor moved very much towards leaving factual investigation mostly to the paralegals, as well as drafting of Motions, Complaints, Answers, Discovery, Orders, Decrees, Settlement Agreements and the like, and attorneys do the fine-tuning. However, once the division of labor works like this, as a Paralegal you *have to* be involved in client meetings etc., or no one knows all the facts of the case, and a train wreck is bound to happen.

    Demand teamwork. This is a good one. However, this might be difficult to implement as there may be firm-internal rules to prevent that from happening. I.e., there may be a rule that paralegals are disallowed from offloading any work to secretaries. You may think that it's a waste of resources to have to write a cover letter for client copies and do the mailing etc. yourself, but if the powers that be decide to do it that way, there is not a lot you can do about that.

    And I want to add one point: Have regular staff meetings, where the partner(s), associate(s), paralegal(s) and secretaries discuss division of labor, procedures and grievances one group may have with another. This can be very helpful to keep a good climate in the firm (probably most helpful in mid-sized firms - in small ones you can talk informally, and in big ones you can't fit all people around a conference table).