Mentoring New Legal Assistants

A year ago, I was holed up in my office with my headset on in the middle of a scheduled conference call. My head bobbed up and down as I watched our new legal assistant bounce like a Jack Russell Terrier at my door holding a post-it-note above her head. She had a call on hold for me and was trying to get my attention through the glass part of my door.

In that moment it occurred to me I had gravely miscalculated my training and mentoring methods. In my own defense, the last 25 years of my career has been dedicated to one attorney as a contracted tort litigation paralegal. 

Fast forward and a retired colleague later, we were in the middle of a pandemic, and finding qualified people was a struggle. When I shifted some of my responsibilities to mentoring new legal assistants, I quickly learned that our new up-and-comers could use a hand. 

mentoring

Many new lawyers find that it’s one thing to acquire a law degree, but another to practice law. The same can hold true with new legal assistants. They may not have had the opportunity to put into practice what they learned in school.

It was then I began to employ skillsets I’d learned outside of legal practice to attain the goal of moving a new legal assistant into a position of confidence as they integrated into our legal team.

It is important to follow the Rule of 3’s below to be successful in mentoring new legal assistants:

  1. Meet them where they are
  2. Assess the way they learn
  3. Make sure you’ve transferred the skills

Through these steps, you will take your new legal assistants from hesitant new hires to confident contributors to your legal team while avoiding the scarcity mindset.

1. Meet them where they are

Your expectations and their level of skill may be chasms apart.  You will not know just how big the chasm is if you haven’t asked the right questions. 

Sir Francis Bacon once said, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Too often people focus on attempting to find the answers and solutions to problems but underestimate the value of a good question. 

The Harvard Business Review, in an article entitled “The Surprising Power of Questions”, suggested that in business, questions can spur learning and the exchange of ideas. Questions also establish a level of intimacy and trust.

I believe the more important benefit is the way questions can reveal blind spots on the part of both the mentor and the new legal assistant. 

As paralegals, we look for the blind spots, or red flags, with our cases, witnesses, and in our legal strategies. When training, recognizing those blind spots will assist you in plugging holes that can avoid any critical mistakes down the road.

2. Assess how they learn

Most firms have set practices and protocols that employees are to follow. If you are the one responsible for ensuring that your new assistant has them down, then questions about how that new legal assistant learns is critical.

Are they visual or tactile, kinetic learners, or are they an active listener? I always ask how they prefer to learn allowing me to target my mentoring. Once that is established then I can provide the right tools geared to their strengths.

Many firms use software to manage cases such as Filevine, Clio, or MyCase. These case management tools are extremely helpful in keeping your client information, deadlines, and other important facts in one location. These systems are as good as the user who inputs the information. Some of the data entry is self-explanatory, but if your new assistant doesn’t understand the “why” behind gathering and notating certain information, one of those pitfalls or “holes” I spoke about earlier can trip them up.

Provide your new legal assistant with a checklist with a brief overview of what they are looking for and why. If they are a more tactile learner, then provide it to them in paper form. Print the lists from your case management system or, if you don’t use digital case management, use a spreadsheet and print it. 

I use a pre-litigation checklist for new legal assistants in our personal injury practice. I like having a new assistant initial each task or project as they move through the case from start to finish. 

A checklist is something you can use in your case reviews which are critical for everyone working the case, but especially for a new legal assistant. We perform them weekly, and it invites discussion and opportunities for continued mentoring.

3. Transfer the skills

Another set of 3’s – see one, do one, teach one.  While this is typically a learning method used by the medical community, law enforcement, or engineers, I have found it is a valuable tool as a mentor for making sure that skills have been transferred in the legal community.

Have your new legal assistant sit with you as you work through your list or case management system. Let them see how it works, but more importantly why you feel the information is valuable or if there is information missing. This initial “see one” moment is the time when questions easily flow and you will have the chance to evaluate what your new legal assistant really knows, and how they learn best. 

The “do one” step is when your new legal assistant takes the wheel, and you are a passenger. Just like in driver’s education, you can still take over or make a quick stop if necessary. If they make it through without any crashes, you’ve likely transferred the skillsets they need to understand the purpose behind the task.

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You will know the skillset has truly been transferred when the new legal assistant can teach what they’ve learned. I have found it to be a true principle that you will learn what you teach.

Task them with teaching another new hire or have them take the lead in providing status to the attorney. This allows you to edify your new legal assistant, instilling confidence and a sense of contribution to the team, while giving you the opportunity to inspect what you expect.

As an effective mentor, you want to ask the right questions and listen carefully. You will quickly find whether your new legal assistant absorbed the skills needed to be an integral part of your legal team.

I’m happy to report that we no longer have Jack Russell Terrier syndrome.

Meet the Author

Laurie is a transplanted Midwesterner from Indiana to the Arizona desert in 1972.  She began her career in 1977 in a quasi-legal secretarial/paralegal position as “paraprofessionals” weren’t quite yet a thing.

Laurie has an Associate’s Degree in Legal Assisting and Coaching Certifications and was attending Arizona State when her daughter came along. She worked in larger firms in the downtown Phoenix area for past Presidents of the American Trial Lawyer’s Association specializing in tort law. 

Her areas of expertise included multi-district litigation such as the Dalkon Shield, L-Tryptophan, and Breast Implant cases, as well as in construction law. She moved into the medical malpractice arena where she loved the marriage of medicine and law, and continues as a contract paralegal for a sole practitioner.

When not working or coaching, she loves to travel, riding Harleys with her husband of 38 years, and spending time with her daughter who is in vet school. Her motto is a quote from Mario Andretti – “If you wait, all that happens is you get older.”

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