When I first began practicing law, I was truly that: “practicing.” Day by day, week by week, I gained my footing and began slowly to understand how the practice of law truly differed from the study of law. And of course it does. I had always been a strong student, and my previous professional foray had been a successful one, but that challenge was nothing like the challenge of first practicing law for me.
Truth be told, and this will severely date me, but I felt like Captain Wilton Parmenter in the 1960s TV show F-Troop. Remember him? He was played by Ken Berry, and as the commander of “Fort Courage,” he was repeatedly decorated despite, not because of, his actions. This is the guy who won the Medal of Freedom when his allergic reaction accidentally set off a successful command to charge and who was (fictitiously) the only person in history to get a medal for getting a medal when he received the Purple Heart for being pricked while getting another medal pinned to his chest. Yeah, that still makes me laugh.
I could go on all day about 1960s TV sitcom humor … but the point of all of this is to say that I was used to doing pretty well, and beginning the practice of law single handedly threw me off of my game.
And then came Nina. Nina was my first paralegal, who I adored. Nina was my lifeline to how the practice of law should be done. She was approachable, gracious and polite. She had patience for my questions when my colleagues often did not. I knew how to study the law, but Nina taught me how to practice it. And she wasn’t even a lawyer. If stranded on a desert island in 1991? I’d have wanted a good pair of Spanx and Nina.
So I have to say I was at the very least saddened if not a bit dismayed and downright annoyed when I learned that of all of the groups of folks that don’t like lawyers, apparently paralegals are rising to the top. A few years back, the IndyBar Professionalism Committee under the leadership of Judge Tim Baker formed a task force that came to this conclusion and that same committee in 2013 under the leadership of Brian Zoeller has been working to address why.
Why are we losing favor among our paralegals and more importantly what can we do to correct this? With the help of Professionalism Committee members Brian Zoeller and Kevin Morrissey, here are a few not so subtle suggestions they have received.
1. Take the time to communicate. When offering direction, explain fully what you want and give a timetable. Everyone’s time is precious and no one has enough of it—be respectful of that fact.
2. Young lawyers: don’t be afraid to ask a paralegal for advice. They truly do hold the key to your happiness so settle down, tap into that and BE GRATEFUL. If you are a young lawyer with an attitude, lose it, because if you burn your bridges early on, the price of timber goes way up.
3. If you recognize yourself in this, then please listen and contemplate. If not, stand down because I am probably not talking about you. We are not the star-bellied Sneetches we think we are. Paralegals are our colleagues and they are professionally trained to practice with us—not serve us. Think twice before sending your colleague out to pick up your cleaning, get you coffee or pick up a birthday present for your husband or wife.
These are the people who make our lives easier, our practices more profitable and our work less stressful and more successful. If they are not feeling our love, clearly we have a communication problem here. Let’s work on that.•
Want to learn more about how being a part of a better attorney/paralegal team can actually help you grow your business? Check out the “Professionalism is Good Business” CLE program (and earn an hour of Ethics credit) on Friday, Dec. 13 from noon to 1 p.m. Register online at indybar.org/events.