Don’t Throw Your Paralegal Under the Bus

By Jane Salem, staff attorney

In March 2020, my colleague Sarah Byrne and I suddenly were tasked with scheduling telephone settlement approval hearings in the Nashville office. The new responsibility has had an unforeseen but pleasant consequence: we’ve gotten to know some of your staff members better.

A very small number was a little prickly at first. Probably because the new procedure involves more legwork, chasing down self-represented workers (who don’t have voicemail) to sign the paperwork remotely, etc. It’s a pain. We get it.

The vast majority of assistants are very professional and represent you well. And a few are quite friendly, always thanking us and occasionally commenting on other topics like the weather or gratitude that it’s Friday. I for one really appreciate that, but I’m a bit of an extrovert.

A while ago, I made a dumb mistake: I emailed counsel and their staff to say that a settlement was set for “tomorrow, Thursday, January so-and-so.” Then I realized it was Tuesday. I asked my kid, who happened to be making her breakfast between virtual classes, “Uh, what day is it?” She confirmed that it really was Tuesday. So I followed up with an apology that I’d lost track of what day it was and to confirm the correct date. Everyone found it humorous and was extremely gracious.

But there’s more to the story. I believe I mentioned how little I leave the house these days as the cause of my confusion. It sparked an email conversation with one of the paralegals about our isolation during the pandemic. We ended up sharing some stories about how we’ve been coping. We’re now friends and are going to have lunch whenever things are “normal,” even though I have never actually met this person. It’s possible to make connections, even when we’re at home and working in sweats. I love that.

Here’s where I’m going with all this. Maybe it’s because I’m also “staff”—it’s even in my job title as a “staff attorney.” But I’m writing this as a shout-out to staff. You’re awesome! Also, I want to urge any attorneys reading this to treat your staff well, and they’ll do well by you.

Choose and train your help well. Don’t micromanage them. Include them in important face-to-face, Zoom and email discussions. Ask their opinions on cases once in a while. Because they do a great deal of client interface, chances are they’ve formed an opinion on the client.

Pay them well! But if you can’t, other gestures of your appreciation will go a long way to build loyalty, such as chocolate, fancy coffee, or letting them leave early for a kid’s sporting event. Those are examples of what makes me happy, but your staff might be different. Get to know them well enough so you know what would make them happy.

Don’t refer to them to others as “my girl.” This isn’t the 1960s, and you’re not Don Draper. Then again, Don Draper wasn’t really Don Draper. I miss that show.

Above all, as the title implies, don’t trash talk them.

A while ago, an attorney blamed a problem with the certificate of service in a case on his assistant. Two thoughts on that. One, notice is critical! And two, you’re supposed to be supervising your staff so that critical mistakes like that don’t happen.

This isn’t just good manners or business advice. It’s your ethical obligation. See Comment 2 to Supreme Court Rule 5.3: “A lawyer must give such assistants appropriate instruction and supervision concerning the ethical aspects of their employment, particularly regarding the obligation not to disclose information relating to representation of the client, and should be responsible for their work product. The measures employed in supervising nonlawyers should take account of the fact that they do not have legal training and are not subject to professional discipline.” (Emphasis added.)

To close, Aretha Franklin put it well: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If you show them that, you’ll get it back. They’ll remind you of important deadlines and goals in cases. They’ll have your back. They’ll be happier, and so will you.

Don’t Forget:

Administrative Professionals’ Day is April 21, 2021.

One thought on “Don’t Throw Your Paralegal Under the Bus

  1. Dee Smith says:

    As a paralegal who is in constant contact with the courts, I can attest to the friendships that are formed merely through email interactions. Clerks, staff and attorneys have been nothing but professional, courteous and always in good spirits. Enjoying who I’m working with makes my job ultimately better. Thank you.


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