3 Ways to Work Better with Attorneys

Working with attorneys can be challenging. Really working with anyone can be, but we’re here to give you 3 tips that will help you start working better together today.

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From having the sometimes uncomfortable but necessary conversations to overcoming the obstacle of last-minute requests, here are 3 ways you can start working better with your attorneys.

working with attorneys

1. Speak Up

Have the confidence to speak up when you know something is going wrong. Why? Because you’re going to get blamed for it anyway, so why not at least speak up and let them know it’s not the right way or the best way. Let me give you an example.

Back when I was a litigation paralegal, before I went into management, I went to a lot of trials. I had gained a lot of experience going to trial, but I was put on a case with a new attorney I had never worked with before. The case had been going on for a while, and I needed to get up to speed and prep for trial in a few weeks.

The night before the trial, the attorney asked me if he could see the notebooks for the judge’s trial exhibits. Of course, weeks before, like any good litigation paralegal, I had called the office of the judge and asked how they wanted their copy of the trial exhibits. The clerk said, “For God’s sake, do not send them in 5-inch D-ring binders or large notebooks. The judge is getting up there in age, and it’s getting hard for him to lug those binders around. He would prefer individual folders for each exhibit labeled in big writing so that when the attorney calls out that trial exhibit number, he can just grab that one file folder out of the box.” So that’s how I organized them.

Fast-forward to the night before trial when this attorney asked to see the exhibits. I brought in one box, and he said, “No, no, no, that’s not going to work. What I want is for each witness to have their own notebook, and it should only contain the exhibits that I’m going to talk to that witness about, in the order of the outline.”

I told him that I didn’t think that was going to work because the Judge’s clerk said no notebooks and I explained the reasoning. He argued that these would be small notebooks, but I insisted that I didn’t have the time to change everything that night before, but if he wanted it that way I could work on them a few days into the trial. It was simply too late to get it done then.

He was upset with me, but I spoke up. Because I knew what was going to happen. If he used these notebooks based on what he thought he was going to use and changed his mind while the witness was on the stand, then I would be scrambling not only to update the witness on the stand’s notebook but the opposing counsel and judge’s versions.

Fast forward, we’re finishing one of the days at trial. The jury is dismissed by the judge and the judge turns to the opposing counsel asking them to take their notebooks back and redo them so that they look like ours. The attorney turns back and smiles at me, and I mouth I told you so. Yes, I could have been totally wrong in doing that and even into trouble for not doing what he wanted originally, but I knew it wasn’t going to go over well.

For years after that, this attorney would always say, as I was talking to other partners, “Just listen to how she wants it done; she knows her stuff.” I tell you this because there are so many times that you could be doing something where you know inside it’s wrong. The attorney is telling you to do things a certain way because it’s all they know, but keep in mind they’re looking at it from a different perspective. They want to make sure their argument makes sense. They aren’t looking at it from an organizational perspective like a litigation paralegal is.

Actionable strategies:

I want to give you a couple of different ones for working with attorneys depending on your situation. My first choice would be to join toastmasters. Most people think the organization is just for people who want to give speeches. That’s not all it does. It’s a great way to build confidence in your speaking in all different areas of your life.

Another choice would be to join your local improv studio. There’s nothing like being up on stage and having to come up with things to say to build up your confidence level.

If you have the budget, maybe take an online course or coaching program on speaking with confidence or building up self-confidence in a work environment.

But here’s the thing. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. Just remember, you also have to get it right. Here’s what I mean. In that situation, if I had been wrong about how to organize the exhibits and was just going on a whim, or I just didn’t want to reorganize those trial exhibit notebooks the night before the trial began, and we’d gone into the courtroom, and we were the ones who the judge told to take our exhibits back and organize them as the other side had theirs. If that happened, then it would impact my confidence in the opposite direction. And if that happens too often, then it’s going to get more and more difficult to have the confidence to speak up when something is going wrong.

How can you stand out at your firm and impress your attorneys? These are the 10 things attorneys are looking for in their paralegals.

2. Change Your Response

Don’t think that you can change the procrastinator attorney; instead, change your response.

I get it. It’s frustrating to get those last-minute projects thrown in your lap or thrown in your inbox. There are SO many jokes out there about attorneys being procrastinators.

But it’s really pretty simple if you think about it. If you work with a procrastinator, you only have two options: change them or change how you respond to them.

working with attorneys

I told a story about the time I felt like I needed to drive like a maniac (going way faster than the speed limit) to get that brief to the clerk’s office and how that response to a procrastinator had to change.

Here are your options when working with attorneys. Option 1 is to change them. Get them to stop waiting until the last minute to give you projects. I can hear the laughter out there! I did a google search on how to work with a boss who was a procrastinator. If you really want to laugh, and you’ve got an hour to burn going down the Google rabbit hole, do that search. One of the articles was on an online newsletter for workplace issues. It gave 5 or 10 things that you can do. I want to read you one of them and see if you think this would work with your attorney:

Send him an email one to two days before the deadline and give a suggestion of how you will proceed if he isn’t able to provide you with what you need. You say, “The deadline on this project is tomorrow. I still need you to review it and give me your feedback before I submit it to the client. If I don’t hear back from you by 3 p.m. tomorrow, I will assume you approve of my efforts, and I will submit the project.” WHAT?

I know! I was laughing too when I read that. You know – that’s one of the reasons why I started this blog because so much of the work advice out there just doesn’t apply to a litigation paralegal.

Going back to the advice in that article, first of all, it’s most likely that the project is something that has to be signed by an attorney who has a license to practice law. But let’s give it a try and say that it’s not something that’s getting filed with the court or sent to opposing counsel, let’s assume it’s something that’s a draft or something that you’re putting together that the attorney wants to send to a client. That’s still not going to fly – sending that project to the client if you don’t hear back from the attorney by 3 pm. No. It’s not happening in the legal profession.

Okay, so changing them is off the table. Then you have to go with option 2: change how you respond. If you know you work with a procrastinator, what can you change in how you respond?

Well, you could get access to their calendar so that you know of any deadlines coming up. You could ask for weekly meetings with them – whether in person or on a Zoom call. And ask them, what are the top 3 priorities this week? Check out these time management tips for paralegals.

One of the things that I teach in the Litigation Boot Camp is to get your eyes on everything that comes in on your cases so that you know there’s a deposition scheduled for next month, and you can start pulling things together for it this month.

You could also go into their office and say, “I see we have the XYZ deadline coming up late next week.  I’m going to go ahead and get started on that now.” That way, you’re not asking them if there’s anything you can do to help on the XYZ case. You’re saying, you see what’s coming up on it, and you’re going to start doing X.

Asking an open-ended question like “is there anything I can do to help” is not going to get you to the top priority in that case for that week. Here’s what to do if you feel like you are being underutilized.

3. Remember They Don’t Teach Management Skills in Law School

I think we all know this, but it’s good to have a quick reminder every now and then. Just because the attorney is your boss or your supervisor doesn’t mean they know how to be a manager. They just want their work done, and no one’s ever told them how to do that or how to be a great leader.

Now, this is not to say that someone should be excused for bad behavior in the workplace. I’m not saying that at all. This isn’t about putting up with bad behavior. If that’s your situation, here are 8 tips for working with a difficult boss.

I’m talking about those common complaints that I hear from paralegals who enjoy their career but get frustrated that they’re not getting work that is challenging enough, or they’re watching the attorney give the good work to the secretary instead of them.

This is about someone you work for who maybe doesn’t know the best way to delegate work. Most likely, no one has ever taught them how to delegate effectively. Maybe they don’t know the best way to give constructive criticism or positive feedback. Those are things that most people, attorneys included, aren’t usually born with. It’s something learned.

working with attorneys

So ask yourself, what is it that I need in terms of management skills from my attorney? What’s most important to you is going to be different than what’s most important to your colleague sitting down the hall. For example, if you’re the type who needs more detailed instructions so that you can get it right the first time – tell them that. I’m the type who likes to get it right the first time, and I’m sometimes hesitant to bother you by asking too many questions. For this assignment, can we try doing things a little differently?

That brings me to the actionable strategy for this one – tell them or show them how you want to be treated. Don’t just go back to your office and stew over things or go home and complain to your significant other – or worse – complain to your colleagues.

I’ve seen it so much in the last 30 years, and you know what, I was probably guilty of that early in my career. But when I look back on those first few years, I realize that starting your career in your early 20s, fresh out of school, most of your interpersonal skills are carried over from school. But as adults working in the legal profession, there are better ways to handle conflicts with your boss than complaining to your best friend at work.

Instead, have open and honest communication with the person. It doesn’t always change things, but I can tell you what’s not going to change things…gossiping to the paralegal down the hall about it. Don’t just take my word for it; read what this paralegal has learned in her 43 years of paralegal practice working with attorneys. I know there are several other best practices when working with attorneys. Comment below with your tips!

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Meet the Author

Ann Pearson is the Founder of the Paralegal Boot Camp, and host of the Paralegals on Fire! Podcast Show, and passionate about promoting the paralegal profession.

Ann spent 20 years working as a paralegal manager and a litigation paralegal before opening the Paralegal Boot Camp in 2010. Her training programs focus on adding immediate value to a paralegal’s career and bridging the gap between what a paralegal learns in school and what they actually do on the job.

When Ann is not working, you can usually find her somewhere near the ocean, either boating, scuba diving, or rescuing sea turtles.

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