“It’s sort of like picking a doctor,” says Sharee Laidlaw. “Of course you want them to have a great education and experience, but also you need the personality to be a good fit. You spend so much time with them, you need to really click with them”
Laidlaw knows a few things about the special relationship between attorneys and paralegals. In addition to being an attorney with decades of experience, she has been teaching aspiring paralegals for ten years in the Legal Studies program at Salt Lake Community College, an ABA-approved paralegal-training program.
What happens when you find the right paralegal? To paraphrase Jerry MaGuire: they can complete you. “They’re wonderful,” asserts Laidlaw. “They bring in money. They keep you organized. They make you look good. Quite frankly, I don’t know how you can make it without good paralegals.”
So how do you find that magic fit?
Here’s 8 hiring hints from the pros
1. Know What You Want
The prefix ‘para’ that begins the word ‘paralegal’ means “beside, near, or issuing from.” So a paralegal is someone in the general vicinity of the law — a description that’s just fuzzy enough for a job that can take so many different forms.
That means saying you want a ‘paralegal’ isn’t enough. You need to be specific about the way you want someone to be spending their time, and the skills they’ll need to do it. Write out the tasks you need a paralegal to do in your job description (what kind of legal research? what kind of writing? what kind of office managing?). Also write an employee handbook if you don’t already have one.
There are some skills, such as the nuts and bolts of managing a law office, that attorneys rarely know from their own education. In order to train a paralegal well, you’ll need to educate yourself through books or courses.
Also: be clear about what you’re willing to offer. Laidlaw asserts that salary expectations should be revealed as early as possible in the interviewing process: she finds it the height of rudeness to drag an applicant through a series of interviews only to divulge at the end that the wages you’ll offer them is something they’d never accept. Says Laidlaw: “it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.”
2. Tap the Network
Once you’ve got the job description written, where do you send it? One great tactic is to find a good paralegal school and send your call for applicants there. You can also try networking at bar association meetings and other venues where the legal class hob-nobs, or look to employment agencies specializing in legal staffing.
3. Don’t Skimp on School
Once you’ve got a crew of applicants eager to fill your post, you’ve got to winnow them down.
“First thing’s first,” says Laidlaw: “education is key.” And the quality of that education is worth assessing. While attorneys are beset with strict rules concerning their licensing, only a few jurisdictions have anything to say about the proper licensing of paralegals. Laidlaw says this means that in most places “anyone can hand out a business card saying they’re a paralegal.”
Laidlaw explains: “there are a lot of fly-by-night programs online, promising a paralegal certificate in three months. That’s just not possible.” Laidlaw’s program has been approved by the American Bar Association, making it one of only two ABA-approved paralegal training programs in her state, and she doesn’t have patience for programs with less rigor.
If they haven’t gone to an ABA-approved program (perhaps because none exist in their area), then be extra careful to check that they’ve taken classes from an institution you trust in substantive law, legal research, and law office management. Laidlaw explains that her students are rigorously training in paralegal skills for 1.5-2 years, and will easily out-perform those from programs that take people’s money and hastily spit them out as ‘certified paralegals.’
To verify their education, ask your applicants for copy of their transcript, to see their courses and grades (an unofficial copy will require less time and red tape). Follow up on educational references.
Even Laidlaw concedes that an applicant with a good chunk of experience may trump one with the shiniest education. But whether they learned it in a course or on the job, look for paralegals already familiar and comfortable with the vocabulary of your practice, the litigation process, and some general parameters of law. Though education and experience will require better payment on your end, you won’t have to devote large swaths of your time to providing on-the-job training to the newb with nothing but the great business card.
And in return, what will the Highly Educated Paralegal offer you? Paralegal courses are often deeply tied to the daily tasks of running a law office. Laidlaw explains that lawyers fresh out of school often find themselves with sharp theoretical knowledge and lousy practical ability. Often it’s their paralegals who show them how to put together pleadings, track a calendar, or interview a witness. Even experienced attorneys can find their offices running more smoothly with a good paralegal in the house.
4. Know how to interview
Think about those times in a deposition where you really wanted your witness to keep on babbling, in the hopes that they’ll reveal something they’d otherwise keep bottled up. Call on those skills when you’re venturing into an interview.
Begin by asking questions that are open-ended and relaxed, to get a feel for person sitting in front of you. After those, you can ask your hard-hitting questions (still open-ended) like: “Describe the litigation process for me, from beginning to end.” Or “What methods do you use to organize and review legal documents?”
Consider having more than one interview — perhaps beginning with a phone interview and then meeting in person. In addition to the answer they give, the interactions will give you information about their punctuality and professionalism.
5. Seek Out the Writers
In the legal system, the spoken word is ceding to the written one.
Though the movies have trained us to think of big case-winning moments as that clincher of a question or closing argument in court, increasingly cases are being determined through briefs and answers.
But attorneys who are masterful rhetoricians in oral arguments often don’t have the patience or time to tell a compelling story on the page. The upshot is that paralegals do a lot of writing, and it’s crucial that this writing be both persuasive and digestible.
Look for paralegals who can write. Are they familiar with basic formatting and citation norms for legal writing? Can they see the big picture and tell a story in a concise and compelling way?
How can you find a good writer? Make a cover letter a part of your application. In addition to assessing why they want to work for you, what their salary requirements are, and whether they know any details about your practice, the cover letter lets you see their basic writing skills. You can also ask for an additional writing sample.
Laidlaw recommends including small writing assignment as part of the interview process — asking applicants to draft a pleading or summarize a deposition in a letter could give you a chance to see their writing in action. If they produce something unwieldy and unreadable, you probably want to look elsewhere.
6. Find an organizer
“The more type-A personality your paralegal is, the better,” says Laidlaw. “They might drive you a little crazy, but they’ll do a great job.”
Many attorneys don’t have the time to tidy their files, or aren’t good at the particular skills of organization. This is where a paralegal will come to the rescue, whether it’s finding typos in pleadings or haranguing you over deadlinesl on the calendar.
7. Cater to your Clients
When a client calls or enters your office, the person who greets them is often a paralegal. This is the first impression they’ll receive of your practice. And that’s good news: attorneys are often harried and intimidating, while a good paralegal can put clients at ease and help them feel like their concerns are important. This is a piece of emotional labor that an attorney can overlook if they think only in terms of the legal analysis of a case. As Laidlaw puts it: “paralegals are here to stay. The clients demand it.”
This is one reason Laidlaw believes the best paralegals have a good sense of humor. “Law offices are very stressful, and you need to be able to alleviate that stress every once in a while,” she says.
In addition to finding a people-person, consider the diversity of your clientele. If you’re a personal injury attorney working across race, class, and ethnicity, you might want to hire from the communities which you’re most likely to represent. Consider how your applicants could help build connection to your clients with both ‘soft skills’ like cultural appropriateness and ‘hard skills’ like the ability to speak multiple languages.
8. Work on You
Though I’m putting it last, it’s the first line of any good relationship advice: work on yourself. Maybe when your employees keep leaving they insist “it’s not you, it’s me,” but chances are it’s at least a little bit you. The best paralegals want to be treated as part of a legal team — and that means you’ve gotta be a team player.
Legal Careers expert Sally Kane notes: “a lack of respect is one of the most common complaints among practicing paralegals. Paralegals routinely deal with demanding partners, jealous associates, competitive co-workers, disrespectful opposing counsel, cranky clients and difficult vendors.”
Do you ever act like a lone ranger, too distrustful of others’ skills to allow them to help you out? Are you too rushed to take the time to teach them how you need it to be done? If you want to make your work space great for paralegals, curb your condescension, express appreciation, and don’t expect them to be able to do everything the way you like it without adequate training.
As Laidlaw puts it: “Paralegals are part of the legal team, and can be a tremendous help to you if you let them. They’re not attorneys, and they know that. But they’re also not your servants.”
You might be the charismatic megafauna in your practice, and rightfully expect to be treated with special regard. But that’s different from being (to quote one paralegal’s resignation letter) “a rude, moody, hateful, and condescending banshee on a power trip.”
Whether they leave behind a blazing resignation letter or not, the best paralegals are likely to leave when they’re treated like doormats. Laidlaw notes that when attorneys mistreat their paralegals, the most qualified only stick around long enough to get the gig on their resume, and then move to greener pastures. “They’re your safety net,” she notes: “treat them well.”
What does treating them well look like?
“Pay them well,” says Laidlaw. “They do have degrees, and have put a lot of time and effort into schooling. You can’t just pay them $15 an hour. Pay them what they’re worth.”
If you can’t offer the big bucks, consider other ways to make the position rewarding, whether it’s a benefits package, a flexible work schedule, or paying for continuing education.
Laidlaw also recommends giving good paralegals opportunities to expand into more challenging work, and giving them opportunities to develop their own skills. Maintaining respectful communication means being willing to explain what you expect from them — and being willing to hear feedback from them.
And if you can’t find the right paralegal?
If you don’t feel excited about any of your applicants, you probably should wait on hiring. It’s a pain to continue short-staffed, but worse to hire someone only to have to fire them soon after.
Eventually, with the right tactics, you should be able to find that special someone for your law office.