Finding Your Confident Voice as a New Paralegal

I get this question so often from new paralegals who tell me they’re not comfortable around their attorneys and struggling to develop their confidence and find their confident voice as a paralegal. They’re new to the legal profession, they’re working for a senior partner, and they are just not the same person as they are when they’re around their other colleagues. They want to know how to act more confidently around the attorneys at work.

Okay, so first, let me correct the wording there. What you really want is to BE more confident around the attorneys, not just act like you’re confident.

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Why Confidence is Important

First, let me give you some reasons why you want to find your confident voice around the attorneys.

Your career could depend on it.

I’m not here to stress you out. I’m here to help you fast-track your paralegal career. And building up your confidence as a paralegal is a surefire way to do that.

You’re going to want to find your confident voice for a few reasons.

  1. One day something is going to go sideways on a project that you own. You’re going to need at some point to speak up when something is going wrong, whether it’s on a file or a project that you’re responsible for. And by having confidence as a paralegal to speak up, you’re going to save the attorney or the client money, or maybe save them from a potential malpractice claim, or just save them from getting a call from an upset client.
  2. You might need to have a courageous conversation like what we talked about in our interview with Molly McGrath – Can You Fix Your Boss? In this situation, it’s about getting to the place where you’re working as a team and you are continuing to grow as a team.
  3. You might need to stick up for yourself when you’re being treated poorly.

Let’s break each of those down. But also, stick around to the end because I’m also going to give you some tips on developing your confident voice as a paralegal to be able to have those conversations.

Here are 8 mindsets that could be hurting your career.

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When Things Go Sideways

One day something is going to go sideways on a project or a client file that you own and you have a potential solution to the problem. You know you should say something, but you’re nervous to use your confident voice.

Or you fear that the partner in charge will not handle the news well. Maybe you even worry that they’ll blame you for it even if it wasn’t your fault. Or worse yet, it was your fault.

None of those things matter. What matters is that you need to have this difficult conversation. We’ll call it a sticky conversation.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re working on a big document review project that has a few hundred GBs of data to review for responsiveness and tag potentially privileged documents. 

A few days into the project, the attorney tells you that the client found more data and it’s going to arrive tomorrow. You were already stressed about how in the world you were going to complete the project on time, and now this.

If you don’t have a confident voice as a paralegal and the ability to have confident communications with your attorney, you’ll end up buckling down and planning to work 12-hour days and weekends to power through this project and do whatever it takes to try to get it all done.

Learn about paralegals working long hours.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Having an attitude that you’ll do whatever it takes to get it done is a great attitude to have as a paralegal. But you can’t do it blindly and just hope that it all works out.

What do you think the result is going to be? You’re tired. You make a few sloppy mistakes and miss some privileged documents. You cut a few corners here and there.

And even with that, you’re still running behind the day before the document production deadline, and when the attorney asks if the production is going out the door, you break down and finally tell her that you won’t be able to complete it on time.

The attorney is upset with you. Really upset with you. Not just because she has to call opposing counsel and ask for an extension, but she’s upset because this is something you should have brought to her attention using your confident voice last week when there was still time to do something about it.

Learn about the power of paralegal mentors.

An overworked paralegal taking a nap after some tasks go sideways and considering how to relate the result with the attorney.

Be a Proactive Problem Solver

Let’s rewind to when the attorney told you about those extra uploads. What could you do differently? Have the confident voice as a paralegal to have the conversation with that attorney that you may not be able to meet the deadline.

That can’t be the only part of the conversation. Present them with the data.

For example, you might say to your attorney “I’m averaging 60 records per hour. If I devote 8 hours per day to this project for the next two weeks, I will be able to complete X number of records. That’s already 2,000 records shy of what we had before the client uploaded those additional records. I can work 10-hour days and still won’t be able to get it all done.”

Then present them with options:

I could bring in another team member to help, assuming I can find someone to commit to at least 5 hours per day. If not, I can call that staffing agency to get a contract attorney to help out.

Another option might be to add on some software tools that speed up the review using AI.

Another option might be to narrow the scope of the review. I know you wanted me to tag hot documents and put specific records about issue X into separate folders, but those two extra tasks impact the amount of time it takes for me to complete each record.

Approach this sticky conversation from a project manager’s mindset. Thing of a project manager on a construction site. I actually worked in construction litigation for many years and learned so much from how they managed construction projects. 

Get more project management tips.

Do you know that ANY time there is a change to a construction project, they make the owner sign off on a change order? That change order notifies the owner of any additional costs and additional time associated with the change that the owner has requested.

Do you see where I’m going here? Be honest and tell them it might not be possible for you to complete the project. Don’t try to be superhuman and think that somehow if you work enough hours you’ll be able to get it all done.

Run the numbers. Give them the numbers and then give them a couple of options to fix the problem.

Here’s how to be a problem-solving paralegal.

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Having the Courageous Conversation

You might need to have a courageous conversation like what we talked about in my interview with Molly McGrath – Can You Fix Your Boss?

That courageous conversation might be: Hey, I think that I’m underpaid. I’m receiving phone calls from recruiters, and I don’t want to leave, but I also want to be paid what the market says I should be making. And you do that before you go, wasting your time going out on all those interviews. Or before you spend your lunch hour complaining to your colleagues about how you’re underpaid.

Or maybe it’s the courageous conversation that you’re overwhelmed and stressed because they just dumped 30 new claim files on your desk and you understand that they’re short-staffed, but you’re reaching burnout level fast.

Get 6 paralegal tips to reduce stress.

I see it on social media sites every day. You probably do too. A paralegal is legitimately overworked, burnt out, and complaining online. She gets people in the community worked up for her, agreeing with how unfair it is, and they’re doing it to support this person. The problem is the attorney you work for has NO IDEA how close you are to burning out and quitting. What if they did know and they wanted to do something to prevent that?

Molly gave some great advice in her interview. You can watch it here. Or better yet, because the interview was only about 50-60 minutes and kind of the “cliff notes” or summary of what she talks about in her book, I’d recommend buying her book, Fix My Boss. It’s on Amazon here. She goes into a lot more detail in the book.

A paralegal having a confident conversation with an attorney; one of the ways for paralegals to find their confident voice.

Stick Up for Yourself

You might need to stick up for yourself when you’re being treated poorly.

I hope you never have to deal with a situation like that. But I can tell you, the worst thing you can do is to not speak up for yourself in a situation like that. Developing your confident voice as a paralegal will help you to stand up for yourself.

I wrote a blog a while back along the lines of “What to do when your boss yells at you.” I’d recommend you read it if it’s not just that someone is demeaning or belittling, but they’re downright yelling at you. Worse yet, if they’re yelling at you in front of other people. That’s a whole other level.

Let’s just say for this example, it could even be in your personal life. Someone disrespects your time and is a no-show for a lunch date. Or they wait 3 weeks to return your phone call.

Maybe if it’s at work and they’re just rude.

Let me give you a first-hand experience of my own.

Early in my career, I worked for an attorney who had a bad reputation. He never treated me badly but treated everybody around him badly. Everyone in the office would even say, how do you even work for this person? I thought, he’s like that with everyone else, but he’s never like that with me, which was great until one day he was. 

We’re in court, and he thought that I had highlighted copies of case law that he was handing to the judge. When in fact, it wasn’t me. It was the new associate who was also there in court with us. And the judge called him out for incorrect highlighting. And he leaned over in between me and the associate and said loud enough for all of us to hear, don’t ever embarrass me in court like this again or I’ll blah blah blah. I can’t remember all the other nasty things he said.

I was seething. I was seething because I knew I didn’t do it.

The associate had done it and the associate was horrified. And maybe he was kind of glad that he didn’t have to take that kind of wrath. Anyways, we’re leaving the courtroom and the associate and the partner are loading the boxes into my car and I said, “Hey I just want to tell you that if you ever speak to me like that again,” and before I could finish my sentence, he said, “I’m so sorry Ann I realized after I said that I had asked so-and-so to do the highlighting and that it wasn’t your fault after all.”

I said, “Even if it was my fault nobody deserves to be spoken to that way.” And he never did. He never spoke to me that way again.

Now I tell you that tale with a little bit of caution because I don’t want you to do things that are going to risk your job, but if you’re working for somebody who is just making it miserable at the office, you have to ask yourself, are you letting them?

Are you letting them get away with treating you like that? Because most of the time those types of people are bullies and have their own insecurities and usually the way to call out a bully is to stick up for yourself and they will stop being a bully.

That’s the third kind of sticky situation in that you really want to have a confidence to speak up, where you want to find your confident voice, and at the time it feels like, oh my gosh, what if they fire me, what if this happens or what if that happens well I guess I would think about it like this back then I knew there was a chance I could lose my job – I only had been there 6 months. But by not speaking up I would have allowed that behavior, which sometimes included things being thrown at them.

You have to stop a bully in their tracks and you do that by finding your confident voice.
That was three different situations. I’m sure there are more, but I wanted to give you some background. Now, let’s talk about…
A paralegal climbing a set of stairs that represents her career with confidence represented by the shadow with a cape.

How to Gain the Confidence to Speak Up?

First, look at what’s preventing you from gaining confidence as a paralegal? It’s usually fear. The fear of speaking up and that something bad might happen to you as a result of speaking up.

I’ve found that our fear of not being liked is a huge reason why we don’t speak up when we should. We want to be respected and liked. We fear that we might say something that someone doesn’t like, so we stay silent and stew inside rather than rocking the boat.

Now this blog isn’t about our health. But I can tell you with 100% certainty that if you are keeping all of this inside stewing about it and not getting it off your chest, your health is being affected or it will be soon.

What counteracts fear? Strength and Courage.

How do you get strong? Well, if you wanted to gain physical strength, you’d workout on a consistent basis. You’re not going to get stronger by going to the gym one time. You need to do it consistently. It’s the same with building strength internally.

How do you get courage? You do it once and know it’s not going to kill you. You get through it unscathed and realize on the other end of that, it wasn’t so bad after all. That’s what I did. That very first confident communication made me realize I can speak up with my confident voice and it’s not going to kill me.

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Always Be Willing to Try

In one of her podcasts, Mel Robbins talked about confidence. In it she said that confidence is not an action, and it is not a feeling. She also said that confidence is not a personality trait that you’re born with, like if you’re an introvert you can’t have confidence.

She said that confidence is the willingness to try.

I just love that. Think about that for a minute. Confidence as a paralegal is the willingness to try.

In other words, you don’t even have to be successful at it. You just have to be willing to try. And then you have to take action.

We’re heading into work, and we need to have a sticky conversation with someone. You must be WILLING to try to have the conversation and then start the conversation.

That’s it.

Go into work today and be willing to have a conversation even if you don’t think you can.

Here’s the thing. Every successful paralegal I’ve ever met – every single one of them – had the confident voice as a paralegal to speak up in all three of the situations I talked about. 

Did they have it on Day 1? Maybe not. I didn’t. But you know what? It was that very first conversation that built up my confidence enough to have the 2nd courageous conversation, and the 3rd. Conversations where I am walking into an attorney’s office telling them things like “the way you want these judge’s trial exhibits organized is not going to work and this is why.” 

Later, that partner tell others “When she tells you how the judge’s trial exhibit notebooks should be organized, let her do it. She knows what she’s talking about.” Now that didn’t happen until 6 or 7 years in, but it will happen.

Get more tips on how to be a confident paralegal.

Ann Peterson announcing Paralegals on Fire, a podcast that provides information on how to become a paralegal and grow as one.

Get Your Questions Answered

I’m starting a new kind of episode that I may do once a month if I keep getting the number of questions I’ve already received. We sent out an email to our subscribers and said Ann wants to do an Ask Me Anything episode, so send in any question you have that will help you in your paralegal career and gain confidence as a paralegal. I’ve looked at all of them and don’t even think I’ll get through them in one episode. There are some GREAT questions! If you’d like an opportunity to send in your questions for the Podcast Show subscribe below!

Meet the Author

A portrait of Ann Pearson for the Paralegal blog.

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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