What exactly does it mean to be a proactive paralegal?
Many years ago, I had an attorney write a comment on my performance review that has stuck with me for over 15 years: Ann knows what I need before I even know that I need it. This attorney thought I could read his mind. Telepathic powers would be great to have as a paralegal. It wasn’t that I was reading the attorney’s mind. I knew that if I wanted to be able to stay on top of this massive antitrust case, I had to read every pleading, discovery response and notice that came in on the case. In doing so, I didn’t have to wait for the attorney to come to me the day before a deposition and ask for help. I was being a proactive paralegal and didn’t even know it at the time.
In every one of my Paralegal Boot Camp workshops, I stress the importance of developing proactive behavior, not just on your client matters, but also by owning your paralegal career. The best way to do that is to understand proactive versus reactive behavior and how it can affect a career.
Have you ever met anyone who is deeply affected by their environment? If it’s rainy outside, they feel depressed and tired. If it is sunny, they are bubbly and happy. They let their environment dictate their feelings and actions, instead of actively choosing what they are going to do and how they are going to feel. It’s a tempting pattern of behavior to get into, especially in the workplace. Criticism from someone at work may make you feel down for hours. You may even feel like it is giving you leave to completely check out of work.
What it is, ultimately, is giving up control over yourself and what you do and think. In the work environment, this is particularly dangerous, especially if supervisors start to notice it. They will begin to feel like they cannot provide you with constructive criticism or feel that you might be unwilling to make improvements. Instead of helping you advance your career, they will turn their attention to someone who is open to criticism and actively looks for ways to improve themselves and get work done.
What Does Reactive Behavior Look Like?
People who are reactive will wait until something happens to them. They take their cues from the situation and are passive in their own feelings and the events in their lives. They make decisions only when they absolutely have to and are controlled by situations, rather than controlling those situations. Most of all, they wait for people or situations to tell them what to do. This is one of the biggest reasons that reactive people do not get promotions or raises: they are not the people in the firm who are actively looking for ways to help and improve, they are the ones sitting, waiting at their desk for someone to come and drop something in their inbox.
What Does Proactive Behavior Look Like?
Proactive behavior, on the other hand, is behavior that employers like to see in their employees, especially in their paralegals. These are the people who, once they have finished their to-do list, get up, walk around, and see who needs help with something or who has another task that they could take on. When something happens, they take action, instead of just letting it happen. They are the paralegals who are preparing a deposition prep notebook for their attorney to look at several weeks before the deposition is scheduled to take place. They are the paralegals who start working on the due diligence the moment they receive a copy of the purchase agreement. They are also the paralegals who are constantly looking at the methods and procedures to see if there is a better, more efficient way of getting things done. They are the paralegals who are prepared to handle just about any emergency, or, even more likely, the ones to prevent something from happening entirely.
Finally, proactive paralegals also do not wait for the end of the year to see what their performance reviews will say. Proactive paralegals regularly check in with their attorneys and ask: if you were to rate my performance today, would you give me anything less than excellent in all categories? If so, what can I do today to improve that rating? Just be sure that if there is some constructive criticism, that you take it seriously and show the attorney how you are improving in those areas.