For Women in Law By Women in Law

“Dear LiL: I am a paralegal with so much to offer my team and the lawyers that I work closely with, but I find it frustrating when those lawyers don’t call on me for support. Especially when I can see that they already have so much on their plates. Any suggestions as to how I can convey that I’m here to help?” Signed ~ Looking to Support

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Guest Blogger and Harper Grey Paralegal, Sheryl Watson, discusses effective strategies for working in a cross-disciplinary team and how – as always – communication is key.

Dear Looking to Support:

Before transitioning into my role as a paralegal, I worked as a legal administrative assistant with many different lawyers. In those early years, I learned that it takes time to gain lawyers’ trust and confidence in the abilities of their support team. I had to remind myself of that when I became a paralegal. In my new role I was very eager to use my new skills and become an even greater asset to the lawyers I was working with. But honestly, in my first two years as a paralegal I struggled to keep busy. My capabilities weren’t being utilized to their fullest and even though I would send out daily emails and knock on the lawyers’ doors to let them know I was available to assist the work was sparse. For many months, I was frustrated and dreaded going into the office knowing it would be another day struggling to keep busy. The turning point for me came when one lawyer in the group realized what an asset I could be in supporting him in his practice. Until then he hadn’t realized the full scope of how we could work together. Other lawyers soon followed and before you know it I had a full plate, sometimes too full – but that is the topic of another post!  It’s important to remember that there is a learning curve for both you and the lawyers you work with.

I was and continue to be fortunate enough to work with a wonderful group of lawyers. I work with partners, associates, and even newly called associates. I believe the key to having a successful group to work with is respect and teamwork.

Some lawyers have strong opinions about how files should be organized. Some assistants and paralegals also have strong opinions on their end. For a group to work effectively, there must be open communication and compromise. Getting the group together to discuss how files should be organized can be an efficient way to have everyone sync up.

The way files are organized and run has to make sense for everyone, which means it has to be a collaborative effort. While certainly assistants and paralegals bring their own experience and best practices to running files efficiently, the lawyers must understand the system and be able to quickly put their hands on what they need. Newly called associates should lean on assistants and paralegals and not be afraid to ask for their assistance or rely on the many years of experience they have. Now is the time for them to learn the ropes as we all had to do at one point. Lawyers should learn how to effectively delegate to their assistants and/or paralegals, that’s what they are there for. The key is to function as a team and help each other out. When I am busy and overwhelmed with work, my lawyers delegate the tasks to others to help alleviate the load. When I have a bit of free time, I will offer to assist another paralegal or ask a lawyer if I can help out. Again, it’s all about teamwork.

Here are a few ways that paralegals and lawyers can help support their team:

1. Ensure your team is aware of what is happening on files. An easy way to do this is to copy the team on emails keeping everyone informed so they don’t have to dig into the file to see what has or has not been done.

2. Summaries are also helpful in keeping the team informed. For example, a summary of dates for discoveries, trials, and assessments. This will reduce the time in digging through the file to see what has been set down.

3. Communicating priorities to the support team will enable them to assist you in the best way possible.

4. Having a good BF system is important to stay on top of files. Even better, the entire team should have one.

Hopefully you will find these tips useful in creating the cohesive working environment you seek. At the end of the day, your team just needs to tap into what is the most efficient and effective way to run and organize files and you can play a big role in guiding them.

About the Author 

Sheryl Watson joined Harper Grey in 1988 and transitioned to her role as a paralegal in their Insurance and Health Law Groups in 2006. Sheryl provides a wealth of experience to her supportive role in all aspects of the organization and management of files.

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