Skills of a Successful Paralegal

Success in the paralegal field is not based solely on legal knowledge.

To become an integral part of the legal services team, a paralegal must have certain skills and abilities, in addition to a command of procedural rules and substantive legal principles. These skills are the defining characteristics of the most successful paralegal practitioners.

A successful paralegal is able to apply specific legal knowledge gained through education and experience to assist in solving the client's legal problem. Paralegals operate as part of a team that delivers legal services to the client. This focus on the client's success requires a paralegal to perform quality work in a timely fashion with appropriate attention to detail.

Performing quality work does not mean that the client will always achieve the desired result. No paralegal can control the outcome of a client's case. The best any legal professional can do is to analyze the client's problem as thoroughly as possible and assist the client in selecting the best possible solution to that problem. Quality legal work requires a paralegal to apply skills of writing, communication, analysis, organization, use of computers, and other skills to the client's problem. Paralegals use these skills every day in many different ways.

Writing Skills

Much of the day-to-day communication in a law office is through writing. Assignment memos, investigation reports, interview summaries, deposition summaries, and research memoranda are all common forms of writing required of paralegals. Paralegals are also expected to draft legal documents, such as contracts, articles of incorporation, wills, purchase agreements, and pleadings.

Fact

Writing for a court is much different from writing internal office memoranda. Court rules often specify such mechanical components as font type and size, line spacing, page margins, use of footnotes, and topic organization. These rules should be tabbed or indexed and reviewed each time the paralegal begins work on a document that will be submitted to the court.

Not all writing prepared by a paralegal stays within the law office. Paralegals write to clients, to other attorneys, and to witnesses. Documents prepared by paralegals are sent directly to clients or filed with the court. A contract or deed prepared by a paralegal might become an exhibit in later litigation over the transaction.

Mechanically Correct Writing

Writing that is mechanically correct is properly punctuated, grammatically correct, and free of typographic errors. Good writing uses legal terminology correctly, follows appropriate formatting requirements, and uses correct citation form. Formatting and citation form are dictated by the court for some types of writing.

These mechanical aspects of writing are more important than most paralegals realize. Lawyers are detail oriented by nature and they expect their paralegals to be attentive to detail as well. Errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling have a subtle effect on the reader: they create the impression that the writer is not attentive to details.

There are several ways to improve the mechanics of your writing. Most paralegal programs offer courses that deal specifically with legal writing and have a significant writing component to many substantive law courses. A number of books, reference manuals, and Web sites deal with aspects of legal writing or writing in general. A good usage text is an indispensable tool for developing clear, effective writing. In addition to these, most law firms have brief banks or form files that contain examples of good legal writing for you to study and emulate.

Clear and Precise

Writing Like good writing mechanics, clear and precise writing projects an impression of competence. Some commentators describe this effect as the contract with the reader. All legal writing presumes a relationship with the reader — writing is a means of imparting information. The contract with the reader assumes that the information will be imparted clearly, precisely, and competently.

ssential

One way to achieve clarity in writing is to avoid the use of “legalese.” Legalese is the use of overly technical and verbose legal terminology when it is not required. For example, it is common for a will to “give, devise, and bequeath,” when a simple “give” will do. Instead of writing, “enclosed herein please find,” write, “the [document] is enclosed,” or “enclosed is.” If a simpler phrase does not alter the meaning of your writing, use it.

Writing that includes unnecessary qualifiers, complex sentence structure, or legalese does not effectively impart information. When a writer makes the reader sort through a poorly worded sentence to discover an important fact, the contract with the reader is broken. Unclear and imprecise writing indicates that the writer does not know what is important and is willing to leave it to the reader to figure out. When the writer does not live up to the contract, the reader will assume this is because the writer is incompetent.

Writing with Attention to Purpose

Successful paralegals make sure their writing has an identifiable purpose. They develop their writing skills so they produce the best possible product. Your writing habits should fall into three categories.

  • Prewriting. Successful paralegals never begin a writing project without answering two questions about the document. First: Who is the intended reader of the document? Knowing your audience allows you to write according to that audience's expectations. Second: What is the purpose of the document? Decide on the best way of accomplishing that purpose.

  • Writing. Converting the purpose of the writing into words is often the most troublesome aspect of preparing a document. Important information must be separated from unimportant information. It is often useful to work from an outline or some form of organized notes when writing longer documents.

  • Postwriting or editing. Editing involves both proofreading and revision. The writing must be checked for spelling errors and mistakes in grammar. The proper use of legal terminology should be verified. Punctuation errors should be corrected. Revision involves changing or rewriting any part of the document that does not fulfill the purpose of the document.

Alert

Legal writing is of two kinds: objective or persuasive. Objective writing is intended to communicate. It should be as factual as possible and avoid emotional or inflammatory language. A legal opinion letter is an example of objective writing. Persuasive writing is intended to persuade. Persuasive writing should be based in fact, but it can appeal to emotion. A settlement demand letter is an example of persuasive writing.

Oral Communication Skills

Developing good oral communication skills involves improving in three areas. First, know your subject. Oral communication is a means of imparting information. Incorrect information can have grave consequences for the client. When you speak with a client about a legal matter, the client expects that the information you give will be correct. If you tell the client that a court appearance is at 3:00 P.M. when it is actually at 1:30 P.M. , you may have damaged the client's case by not knowing your subject. The law firm's relationship with the client will surely be damaged.

Second, good oral communication is precise and clear. Ambiguous oral communication risks being misunderstood. The successful paralegal must use proper grammar when speaking. Slang and colloquialisms should be avoided, especially when discussing complex legal concepts. All oral communication should be as concise as possible. The successful paralegal knows the difference between conversational communication and professional communication.

Third, a successful paralegal must develop the skill of listening. Much of the information in a legal matter comes from oral communication — instructions from a supervising attorney, the statements of a witness, or the description of a legal problem from a client. In each case, the paralegal must possess effective listening skills.

Active listening is usually defined as attentive listening with feedback to the speaker indicating the listener understands what is said. Passive listening is attentive listening with feedback that reassures the speaker that the listener is actually listening. Both are valid techniques for establishing a connection with the speaker, but neither requires the listener to be an effective listener.

Effective listening is the process of listening to the speaker and, at the same time, relating the information to the purpose of the conversation. This requires the listener to grasp the significance of what is said. The effective listener is able to ask questions to clarify or expand on important points while keeping the conversation on track. Effective listening not only demonstrates that the paralegal is listening, but that she is also paying attention.

Analytical Skills

In every area of the law, paralegals are asked to identify and sort facts. These facts are then evaluated in light of an applicable rule of law. The traditional acronym for this kind of legal analysis is IRAC, which stands for Issue, Rule of Law, Application, and Conclusion. After you have analyzed a legal problem, look back to be sure you have accurately identified each component of good legal analysis. Through practice and repetition, the application of IRAC formula will become second nature.

  • Issue. A key component in examining any legal problem is to define the issue — the statement of the question to be answered, expressed in legal terms. The statement of the issue must revolve around facts that are important to the application of the legal principle. Facts that have no bearing on the legal principle are irrelevant. If you are trying to determine whether a driver was at fault for an intersection accident, the fact that the driver ran through a red light is an important fact, but the fact that he was driving a blue car is not.

  • Rule of law. Rules of law come from court opinions, statutes, and regulations. A part of your analytical duties is identifying the proper rule of law in a legal problem. In the example about the driver who ran the red light, the proper rule of law is the statute prohibiting vehicles from entering an intersection on a red light. If you try to analyze the problem using the statute that governs alternate side parking, you are unlikely to come to any useful conclusions.

  • Application. After the important facts, the issue, and the rule of law are identified, the next step is to apply the law to those facts. The application step requires a careful analysis of the facts to determine if each element is present. If the rule of law states, “It is a violation of law for a bar to sell alcohol at any time before 10:00 A.M. or after 2:00 A.M.,” the rule has three elements: there must be a bar, there must be a sale of alcohol, and the sale must occur between 2:00 A.M. and 10:00 A.M. The absence of factual support for any element means that the rule of law does not apply.

  • Conclusion. The conclusion is the result of the application of the rule of law to the facts. The conclusion may be that a rule of law does apply or does not apply. It may also address the consequences of applying the rule of law to the facts. The purpose of the conclusion is to address the client's legal problem and to provide an answer.

Computer Skills

Computers are a fact of life in the modern practice of law. Most legal documents are created on a computer. Computers are used to keep track of court deadlines and to organize data for presentation to regulatory agencies. They are used for legal research and for certain kinds of legal investigations. Many courts now require that all pleadings be filed in electronic format. Nearly every law school graduate in the last ten years has basic computer skills.

Fact

Some courts now require electronic filing of all litigation paperwork. Many courtrooms now accommodate electronic exhibits and some offer real-time transcription of testimony. Instead of struggling with easels and poster boards, lawyers and witnesses now use electronic slide presentations. A paralegal who is not familiar with these basic computer capabilities will soon be left behind.

A beginning paralegal without basic computer skills is virtually unemployable in today's marketplace. At the least, a paralegal must have basic word processing skills. The ability to use advanced database and case management software is desirable. In certain legal practices, the most desirable paralegal positions require familiarity with how computers store and manipulate data; a large part of a paralegal's job is the management of information.

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