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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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Living Vicariously Through More Experienced Colleagues

In my first couple of years, I often wondered why so many paralegals and legal secretaries worry so much about the "cya" rule. Perhaps I have not been in the business long enough to develop the paranoia that comes with working for people in high-stress positions who might be tempted to blame the "little guy" when things go wrong. The longer I work in this field, though, the more stories I hear about assistants being thrown under the proverbial bus.

It makes sense. Blaming the assistant is the easy thing to do. Attorney saves face, and Assistant is none the wiser. I have been lucky enough in my nearly three years of paralegaling to have avoided attorney supervisors who would fall into such easy temptation. (You may remember stories of the Boss in which he rose to my defense with foul-mouthed clients and the like. The Boss always had my back the same way I had his... ah, the good ol' days of solidarity and teamwork in the rural law office.)

But part of my career education involves learning how to cover my back side, especially when working in the bigger legal world with more than a handful of attorneys. It is not that any one of my lawyers would purposefully slander me or unreasonably grow angry, but rather that in a busy mid-size law firm, as assignments get passed up and down and back and forth, figuring out where a mistake was made or a deadline missed is much trickier. When so many hands are touching any one case, five fingers per hand add up quickly. You better bet some of those will be used for pointing.

Today I was lucky enough to receive some good advice from a secretary who has been in the legal business since before I was born. The advice was simple: cover yourself. Get into the habit of documenting everything. Not just to yourself, but to the file itself. Did you arrange for a court reporter? Take a few moments to tell the file what you did, when you did it, and who your contact is. If the file knows, everyone working on the file knows, too. This way, if the court reporter fails to show up, you can at least point to the Monday three weeks ago when you arranged for the deposition. Or if opposing counsel swears the settlement figure she gave you to pass to your attorney had one less zero, you know where you find your conversation.

The secretary today was speaking from hard won experience as she suggested I document my work. While I have always made date-stamped notes to myself in Outlook tasks and calendar, it never occurred to me how important it might be to have those notes date-stamped in the file for everyone to see. Thankfully, I did not have to learn this lesson through the harsh reality of personal experience. While I have never been falsely accused of botching an assignment yet (and hopefully never will be), this secretary may have very well saved Future Me from that embarrassment.

Of course, a practical, less self-serving reason to write memos to the file is to remind oneself of important landmarks in the case while making sure that anyone else on the case, even a newly assigned colleague, can easily figure out which stage it is in.

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