What happens before a brief gets filed or a case gets argued? The visible, exciting, and sometimes glamorous parts of legal practice are built on the hard work of a behind-the-scenes team. In this interview, veteran paralegal Shawn D. Andrews explains how litigation paralegals keep the judicial process moving forward and provides tips for how you can be a high-value member of the legal team.
What is your role, and how did you get to where you are today?
I have been a litigation paralegal for 20 years. I chose the paralegal profession to expand my writing, editing, and technological skills. Essentially, I wanted to master the hard skills necessary to become marketable and in high demand. The hard skills are the building blocks for excellence. They are equally as important as the soft skills of problem-solving and decision-making. I wanted to make all those moving parts operate cohesively.
At my first paralegal job, I was placed within a small law firm that taught me the essential skills for superior execution. This experience laid the foundation for the future experiences that followed. I have learned that once you build a strong foundation, new challenges and opportunities build on themselves. Your applied knowledge allows you to become more valuable to a law firm specifically and to the profession generally.
What advice would you give to legal professionals who are just starting in the legal world?
As a paralegal, you are a member of a team, and the people on that team are your primary customers. So, you must have excellent customer service skills that reflect your willingness to assist, be responsive, dependable, and reliable. Legal professionals do not want paralegals on their team who are ill-tempered, unapproachable, and unfriendly, so as you evolve within the paralegal profession, maintain a positive, team-focused attitude.
Also, be sure to connect with other like-minded paralegals willing to show you the correct procedures for superior execution. Educating yourself and asking questions will allow you to grow as a paralegal and expose you to more opportunities.
What are the top 3 skills a paralegal must have for success?
The top three skills a paralegal must have for success include excellent time management, communication/documentation, and follow-up skills.
- When you have extraordinary time management skills, you can effectively document your productivity and make a stronger case for promotions and salary increases during your annual performance reviews.
- Communication and documentation are critical as a paralegal. Build rapport with your lawyers to establish teamwork and open dialogue. It is vital that you become familiar with the cases on your caseload and be prepared to handle assignments and meeting deadlines.
- Following up is an essential part of any position. For example, stay ahead of calendar deadlines. Always look at your calendar and the lawyer's calendar ahead of time to complete assignments before they are due.
Where can paralegals make the most difference in legal practice?
Paralegals helping individuals become better professionals enhances the legal community as paralegals help themselves become recognized experts. In a global economy, paralegals must become more sensitive to the market forces that drive the economy in a knowledge-based environment. This understanding makes you more marketable, valuable, and sought-after.
As you think about the impact you want to make on the world and the legal community, consider LinkedIn as the platform where legal professionals look for resources to become better and more proficient in their careers. Keep creating, curating, and sharing new information that favorably affects the legal community. You will become the change in the world you are looking for.
What should a new lawyer know about working with paralegals?
A new lawyer should know that paralegals can be very resourceful. Paralegals are a large part of how people find justice in society. We are the behind-the-scenes workhorse that keeps the judicial process moving forward. Yes, lawyers are the law practitioners, but paralegals are the glue that holds everything together. Just think how slow justice would be if we didn't research or file documents within the court quickly. In the hierarchy of law firm operations, we are between legal assistants and lawyers. If you remove paralegals from an organizational chart, you leave a large hole within the legal system.
How do paralegals help raise the standard of work in a law firm?
Paralegals help raise the standard of work within a law firm through dependability, proficiency, and excellence. These traits are essential because you want lawyers to rely on you, trust your judgment, and create a secure environment.
What are some of the best practices for paralegals to communicate more efficiently and effectively?
One best practice is to respond promptly and provide a time frame for a more substantive response in the near future. It works like this: When I get an email from a lawyer, I always respond in a timely fashion, which for me means reacting immediately. Even when you don't have an answer, say, “I don't have an answer right now, but I should be able to get you an answer by [then list the reasonable time frame].” Follow through by that stated time. If you still don't have an answer (because sometimes things may take a little longer), promptly inform your lawyer. Use this approach with anyone within your professional network. It is professional and courteous to respond promptly to any form of communication; it is customary to respond by the end of that business day or within 24 hours.
About Shawn D. Andrews
Shawn D. Andrews has been a paralegal for over 20 years and is the author of The Perfect Paralegal: A Quick Guide to Maximizing Your Efficiency & Income. She currently works in litigation in the Atlanta, Georgia area. You can connect with Shawn on LinkedIn.
About the Paralegal Interview Series
This interview is part of a collection of interviews about paralegal work. By producing this series, we hope to shine a light on some of the most important but often undervalued people in law: paralegals. Paralegals are key contributors to a high-value legal practice and are more effective when they’re empowered. Let’s start working better together.
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