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Qualities of a Paralegal

November 26, 2008

One of the fastest-growing professions in today's job market is the paralegal field. As more and more law firms attempt to save money by delegating essential tasks to legal assistants, the opportunities for employment increase each year. Even so, it's not always easy to obtain a job as a paralegal. The highly demanding position requires a unique combination of skills and qualifications, many of which can't be taught using books and curriculum.

How do you know if you're cut out to be a legal assistant?

Seeing paralegals in action on your favorite courtroom television show isn't enough. Before embarking on the path to become a paralegal, you should carefully examine your characteristics and motivations to determine if you have what it takes.

 

Below are some of the most important qualities that today's law firms demand of their paralegals:

  • A thirst for research. Digging into details is an integral part of any legal assistant's role. You'll be tasked with looking up previous cases, using the Internet, legal publications, old clippings, and piles of files as your tools of the trade. To excel in this field, you'll need to truly enjoy investigative research and possess a natural sense of curiosity.
  • Impeccable organization. As a legal assistant, one of your primary duties will be managing countless files and documents that will be used by lawyers during depositions, hearings, and trial cases. Not only will you need to maintain an orderly filing system, you'll also need to quickly locate specific pieces of data the moment the attorney needs them. Many paralegals are also responsible for keeping their boss’ calendars in order, scheduling the attorney's meetings and court appearances and then making sure he or she makes the appointments.
  • The ability to work autonomously. Attorneys are extremely busy, often traveling on business and spending long days in court. Your employer will probably not have time to micro-manage your efforts. To succeed as a paralegal, you must be able to work independently and self-prioritize your own tasks. Even in your boss’ absence, you'll need to adhere to all deadlines and anticipate what he or she may need next.
  • A thick skin. The paralegal profession isn't for the faint of heart. It's a fast-paced, often stressful position that will most likely not offer a great deal of coddling. You'll need to be able to take direction, feedback, and constructive criticism, sometimes delivered brusquely. Legal assistants will need to maintain self-control, keeping their emotions and anger in check during trying situations.
  • The ability to deal well with stress. In the ever-changing legal field, the entire course of a case can change in minutes. You'll need to be adaptable to shifting tasks, open to new approaches, and able to meet tight deadlines by working efficiently.
  • Great people skills. In addition to corresponding with attorneys, you'll also be required to communicate regularly with clients and witnesses. Paralegals often pre-screen clients, conduct witness interviews, and field phone calls. As the intermediary between the client and the attorney, it's crucial that you are able to confidently interact with a diverse range of people, and that you project an air of professionalism and tolerance.
  • Attention to detail. It's the attorney's job to see the big picture and think broadly. It's the paralegal's job to stay attuned to the finer details of each case, ensuring that all bases are covered.
  • Strong reading and writing skills. As a legal assistant, you'll be tasked with drafting an array of legal documents, from client correspondence to financial statements to pleadings. You'll also need to communicate clearly via email. An excellent grasp of spelling, grammar, and sentence structure is critical to earning the respect and trust of your employer. You'll also be proofreading existing content and records, which requires a sharp eye for errors. A simple typo in a legal document could potentially result in a lost case.
  • Strong ethics. In the legal field, a respect for confidentiality and high ethical standards are imperative. You'll be expected to adhere to the ethical guidelines set forth by the ABA and other respected industry organizations.
  • A love of learning. Depending on your location, your employer, and your level of certification, you may be required to earn a set number of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits in a specified amount of time. Even if CLE is not mandatory for you, it's still in your best interests to pursue ongoing learning opportunities. Not only will this help you stay abreast of ever-changing laws, court rules, and filing requirements, it will also demonstrate to your employer your strong initiative and commitment to excellence.
  • Patience. As a legal assistant, you'll be dealing with many different types of clients, not all of which will be easy to work with. Even when communicating with confused, disagreeable, or emotional people, you'll need to maintain a positive, empathetic demeanor and do your best to help.
  • Dependability. Your employer will not have the time or the patience to wonder about whether you'll be on time for work, or whether you'll show up at all. As an attorney's right hand, you should strive to arrive at the office early and stay as long as he or she needs you, even if it requires putting in extra hours. Your dedication will most likely be rewarded in the form of more generous pay raises, bonuses, and the respect of your supervisors.
  • Computer Skills. In today's high-tech age, a majority of legal research is done online. Today's paralegals should feel comfortable navigating around the Internet, as well as using web-based legal tools and specialized software. You should also be familiar with the basics of communication systems, including email, shared calendars, and CRM databases.

If you meet most of the above qualifications, the paralegal field may be for you. Once you've made the decision to pursue a career as a legal assistant, the next step will be to build upon your core strengths with formal training or certification.

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