Becoming a paralegal can be a great career path, but paralegal – heck, the legal field in general – isn’t for everybody. Do you have what it takes to become a paralegal?
If you are considering a professional career as a paralegal, be sure to find the answers to these pertinent questions –
- What makes a good paralegal professional?
- Would I make a good paralegal, given my background and interests?
- What kind of academic program will teach me how to be a good paralegal?
- Are there resources that reveal the required paralegal skills list?
- What is a paralegals job description, and where can I find an example?
- Would I be a good paralegal if I have excellent communication skills?
What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal professional will assist lawyers in the delivery of a variety of legal services. Through training & education, a paralegal gains substantive knowledge regarding procedural law and the legal system.
According to the BLS – the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, more than 335,000 paralegal and legal assistant professionals were employed in the United States during 2019. However, the government statisticians anticipate the job growth of this profession (@ 10%) to be about 2.5 times the national average of 4% – over the next ten years.
A paralegal professional plays a vital role in a legal setting. Paralegals are responsible for a variety of essential tasks, which require very specific paralegal skills and skills for legal assistant professionals. Paralegals assist attorneys in –
- Organizing paperwork
- Maintaining files & other documents
- Preparing evidence for trial
- Coordinating witnesses & working with other relevant parties
- Completing relevant research in support of the case or facts
- Preparing legal documents, like contracts or affidavits, for review by their supervising lawyer.
What are a Paralegal Professional’s Five Most Important Traits?
There are a lot of misconceptions about paralegals. If you want the answer to the question – What is a paralegals job, and what are the paralegal skills required to succeed?, read about the five skills for a legal assistant in the narrative that follows.
1. Paralegals Must Have Strong Organizational Skills
A good paralegal must be systematically organized, with the skills required to manage a significant amount of information and data without becoming overwhelmed.
Organizational skills are an essential paralegal characteristic. This is because a paralegal professional is tasked with the responsibility of organizing the work for the lawyer they support, plus the task of organizing their own work.
It is vital for a paralegal to know where each file and supporting paperwork is filed, especially if there is an impending deadline or upcoming court appearance by the attorney. With the advent of cloud-based storage options, paralegals are now managing and organizing digital files and other pertinent documents kept by an attorney or the law firm.
In addition, a paralegal professional is required to manage a tremendous amount of information relative to each of the cases they are working on. The many kinds of paperwork being managed and organized by paralegals includes –
- Electronic documents
- Paper documents
- Manuals/Law books
- Audio Files and other data that may be required for each case a paralegal may be working on.
Paralegals are also required to keep track of the various court dates and filing deadlines, which must be vigilantly managed if a paralegal is to be prepared on time. The reality is, a solitary court case or individual client may require more than hundreds of hours of research and interviews, plus thousands of pages of documents relative to the case. This is the reason a paralegal will need refined organizational skills.
Additionally, a paralegal will also need to be able to understand how to prioritize their time to ensure they are ready for the next phase of the legal process.
Finally, paralegal professionals’ organizational skills will also allow them to turn on a dime and adapt as needed when a judge unexpectedly hands down a deadline or mandate.
2. Paralegals are Required to Possess Exceptional Communication Skills
A paralegal professional is responsible for interacting and communicating with a variety of people throughout the regular course of a business day. For instance, a paralegal may need to speak with a client who stops by the law firm or communicate with other paralegals working to support other attorneys involved in a specific case.
Paralegal professionals must have the ability to communicate clearly & concisely both on the phone and in person. in some instances, a paralegal may need to speak with –
- A court administrator,
- A member of law enforcement,
- Other attorneys, and,
- Other legal professionals who may have an interest in a specific case.
And while a paralegal professional is not authorized to represent a client in court, a paralegal may still be asked to speak with clients or interview witnesses relative to the legal process or case. Because of the unique nature of the paralegal profession, paralegals may interact with clients who are injured are perhaps, scared, so they must be sensitive to the situation as they attempt to obtain the information they need for the lawsuit.
Additionally, a paralegal should also be clear and concise in their written communications with other relevant parties because writing skills are an essential part of all communication. Writing is a soft skill (a character trait that characterizes a paralegal’s relationships with others) that allows a paralegal to communicate their message with clarity to a large audience.
Soft skills complement a paralegal’s hard skills, which are defined as occupational knowledge. Soft skills are often used to determine one’s Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ), whereas hard skills are defined by the more well-known metric of an IQ – an Intelligence Quotient. Emotional Intelligence can be categorized down into five primary categories. These are noted below –
- Social Skills
Other examples of soft skills include –
- Conflict Resolution, and,
- Critical Observation, to name a few.
By having exceptional communication skills, a paralegal professional can clarify their intentions before executing their supervising attorney’s instructions. Proper communication paralegal skills will ultimately lead to the mitigation of potential misunderstandings that often cause delays and, or even worse, additional work in the case preparation process.
3. Paralegals Must Have Excellent Research Skills
First and foremost, the paralegal professional is a researcher who must remain current with the law, including the updates that may occur each year. However, attorneys typically are quite busy and don’t have extra time to provide more than basic instructions, so lawyers need paralegals that can comprehend directions and generate the results will lawyer need. When complete, an attorney can then package the points of law with the legal research obtained by the paralegal.
Although it is the responsibility of the attorney to supervise and provide the final decision regarding the formation of arguments to be used in the case, the reality is that a paralegal enjoys a trusted place as the attorney’s assistant because a paralegals research can make or break a legal case.
Much of a paralegal professional’s time will be researching various aspects of the case. A paralegal must document the source of the relevant case information.
The legal research skills that will propel a paralegal’s career would include in part, the following –
- Researching individual case facts,
- Contacting and interviewing witnesses,
- Organizing case files,
- Locating transcripts,
- Gathering evidence in support of the case, and
- Drafting the necessary legal paperwork for each case.
A paralegal’s work is critical to the success of an attorney in and outside the courtroom. A well-researched and organized case file provides an attorney with the materials required to present a persuasive argument that remains with the confines of the relevant law.
Using strong research skills, a paralegal professional will be able to find all the relevant legal precedents required to support a legal argument. Through this qualified research, lawyers can present the legal points required that allow evidence to be admitted to a legal case that will ultimately be supportive of the attorney’s client position.
Today, the currently available technology that helps support the work of lawyers and paralegals is quite powerful. This cutting-edge technology allows paralegals to powerfully organize the many components that make up a legal case file.
Although the reality is that a law office may never be paper free, the skills to create, store, and transmit legal documents digitally are likely going to become even more prevalent.
Given the electronic business environment of the 21st century, a paralegal should always shoot to be as technologically proficient as possible.
4. Paralegals Must Have the Ability to Multitask
Paralegals may work for several attorneys simultaneously. They frequently manage a variety of cases at once. As a result, as a paralegal, it will be imperative to continuously prioritize (and then re-prioritize) various deadlines across files.
As such, a paralegal must be prepared for anything, even if it results in having to leave one task to begin to work on something that has become more urgent. It is also helpful to be able to anticipate what might be coming next so that you are always prepared.
Paralegals, as noted above, must be knowledgeable about the law and have a good understanding as to how to research the law if they are to be effective in their supportive legal role. Each case generally will require a paralegal professional to apply many laws if the case is to result in a successful outcome.
Multitasking, if accomplished correctly, is a great way to get many tasks done; however, it is important to manage the process proactively to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Consider these multitask efficiency tips –
- Set realistic goals – unrealistic goals generate worry and create a feeling of defeat.
- Choose to write lists of tasks – this simple suggestion will help a paralegal avoid forgetting a crucial item on their to-do list.
- Prioritize tasks – a written list of tasks makes it significantly easier to prioritize a paralegal’s workload.
- Make a plan – one of the most important parts of multitasking is the creation of a plan or the setting of goals.
- Allow breaks but avoid distractions – key break intervals mitigate mistakes. Eliminating distractions include turning off one’s cell phone or simply closing the door to one’s office.
- Work at a study pace – when facing many tasks, the natural reaction to power or rush through them, but this tends to be counterproductive – especially if the work needs to be re-done.
- Periodically, take time to review the work that has been done.
5. Paralegals Must Be Self-Motivated
Self-motivation is the insight and the ability to motivate oneself. Self-motivation helps a professional to move forward (despite setbacks) and to seek new opportunities.
Paralegals are often noted to be great career fits for those who have more introverted personalities. This is because much of the work includes the independent reading of relevant case file documents and related paperwork. Although it is noted that ethical guidelines require that a professional paralegal work under a supervising attorney, the reality is most attorneys are often too busy to give more than limited instructions and supervision.
When an attorney assigns a task to a paralegal, it is expected that they will have the skills to work independently, which includes the necessary steps to complete the required paperwork and research.
A Word About Professionalism for Paralegals
While all of the above professional characteristics are important for a paralegal professional above all, a paralegal must act professionally at all times. True paralegal professionals possess a variety of essential characteristics, as follows –
- Professional paralegals exhibit confidence and are well-spoken and polite.
- Professional paralegals have excellent follow-through abilities, which translates to they do what they say they will do.
- Professional paralegals behave ethically & morally
- Professional paralegals have the ability to maintain their poise under duress
- Professional paralegals understand the proper tone to use in all correspondence and in conversations
Paralegals comprehend the importance of a professional skill set which would then allow the paralegal to excel in performing paralegal responsibilities and duties.