‘My Paralegal Knows More Than I Do’

Do not be intimidated by a legal assistant's expertise.

My Paralegal Knows More than I Do
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View any inexperienced attorney’s relationship with a career paralegal up close and you may well be introduced to nuances of law firm politics with a dash of elitism and ageism thrown in. A junior associate joining a firm may discover that rather than hiring her own support staff, she will be relying on those team members who are already there, the very ones who already know firm policies, understand firm procedures, appreciate the boss’s mood swings and navigate them to their advantage, and demonstrate a solid command of the minutiae found in client folders.

Oh, and those paralegals might also be better, stronger, and faster at legal research.

Potential for Conflict

That a newly minted attorney with a whole lot to prove — and, possibly, an undeserved sense of accomplishment and superiority — could possibly be ever-so-slightly intimidated by such a situation comes as no surprise. What a smart new lawyer at a firm will do, though, is build her relationship with that so-very-knowledgeable paralegal. You are, after all, on the same team. If she knows more than you do, more power to her, and more power to you for acknowledging that fact, accepting it, and then enlisting that paralegal’s help successfully.

Insecurity

Lawyers often do not learn a whole lot about how to manage members of a legal team, and those new to the practice likely have not had much world experience where they were overseeing the activities of workers far more experienced than they.

What can be challenging for a lawyer negotiating such a relationship is the ego-smackdown he might just be experiencing in this new scenario. In the minds of some fresh-off-the-campus law grads, paralegals know their place, on a rung very clearly, at least these lawyers believe, below their own. Young lawyers might also be uncomfortable with the age difference between them and the paralegals.

No one ever told them they would be supervising someone their mother’s age.

Leadership

Supervising people well is not easy, and it’s not for everyone. Ease into the relationship. Set your ego aside, and pursue the working relationship with your paralegal with an open mind. Learn from that paralegal. Put his expertise to your good use. Do not let the paralegal’s superior command of your firm’s business upstage your ability to work collaboratively. Be professional in your interactions, not snotty. Never utter the sentence, “You would understand this if you went to law school.” Refrain from one-upping the paralegal. In short, be human. Be kind. Be inquisitive. Offer praise. Forge a good working relationship, one of equals with differing roles. Yes, your paralegal may well know more and better places to eke out information or have an impressively detailed catalog of the facts of any given client matter. Use that expertise to help you practice law better. You are not a competitor with your paralegal; you are two members of a legal team.

Superstars

A star paralegal is one to cherish and who can very much enhance your own career. The paralegal is present, after all, to ease your way, to handle tasks that you do not need to, to help you build your case for a client.

Bad Paralegals

Still threatened by someone so knowledgeable in your sphere? Consider the converse: the do-nothing, know-nothing, lacking-in-motivation paralegal who got the job because his mother is the managing partner. Envision days requiring micromanaging, frequent reviews and even redos, uncomfortable conversations, and negative feedback. Imagine reaching the point where you wished you had no paralegal at all rather than the one you are currently assigned. Suddenly, working closely with someone who is more knowledgeable than you are seems a whole lot more palatable, doesn’t it?