Traits of a Successful Paralegal
Successful paralegals have entered the profession by many different paths. Some are former legal secretaries who became paralegals as their knowledge and experience proved more and more valuable to the clients. Some were employed in some other aspect of the legal system, such as an insurance adjuster or union representative. Still others obtained formal paralegal degrees before entering the profession. (Chapter 2 explores the range of preparatory programs available today.)
There is, at this time, no licensing requirement for paralegals, and paralegals do not have to pass an examination to practice as lawyers do. And since it is not necessary that a paralegal have a specific level of education or work experience, a single firm might employ a paralegal staff coming from a variety of backgrounds and experience. Even so, those paralegals have several personal attributes in common. They all have a high degree of professionalism, they all have an understanding of the importance of confidentiality in the legal profession, and they all have a significant measure of self-confidence. These qualities are essential in any successful paralegal.
A paralegal must exhibit professionalism. Professionalism is not simply a matter of how you behave in front of others or how you dress. These are important, but not as important as how you think. A professional paralegal does not allow emotion or personal biases to affect the service to the client. A professional paralegal is able to set aside outside influences, from worry about a child's illness to a personal dislike of the client, and focus on doing the best job possible on the assigned legal task.
Paralegals must be able to deal with clients in many difficult situations. Some clients are at a crisis point in their lives — dealing with divorce or death of a loved one. These clients must be treated with tact and empathy. Other clients may be extremely demanding or undergoing periods of stress. A successful paralegal is able to deal with these situations in a way that strengthens the client relationship.
A paralegal will not always agree with the positions taken by a client. However, such feelings cannot be allowed to influence the paralegal's approach to assigned tasks. This attribute is so important that there is an ethical rule requiring paralegals to advise their employers if personal feelings might interfere with the quality of service to the client.
A paralegal must understand the importance of confidentiality in the legal setting. Most of us have heard of attorney-client confidentiality.
This describes the obligation of a lawyer to never reveal to a third person any information received from a client without the client's permission. Paralegals must observe the same ethical obligation. The duty to protect the confidentiality of client communications is a proactive one.
A successful paralegal is vigilant in ensuring client confidentiality. Keeping client information confidential requires constant watchfulness. Mislaid papers, overheard telephone conversations, or simple gossip are common breaches of confidentiality. The paralegal must guard against breaches of confidentiality in every situation.
To be successful, a paralegal must be able to work independently, often with little or no direction. The supervising lawyer will not always be available to answer questions or provide direction.
Self-confidence takes another form as well. Paralegals must deal with other people — clients, other legal representatives, court personnel, and witnesses, to name a few. These persons often expect the paralegal to be knowledgeable about a given subject. A successful paralegal must feel and be able to convey the assurance of competence in order to be effective in these encounters. Self-confidence that you understand the topic is a necessary attribute.