The One Paralegal Skill That Can Make or Break Your Career

Do you know what one paralegal skill can make or break your career?

It’s your attention to detail.

Regardless of the practice area that you work in, or the employer you work for, as a paralegal, you must master the attention to detail skill.

Look at any survey or ask any HR professional who works for lawyers: What are the top 5 reasons that you terminate a paralegal?

Among those top 5 you will always hear: They made too many mistakes or had poor quality work product. These boil down to this one paralegal skill: attention to detail.


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Why Attention To Detail Matters in Your Paralegal Career

This one paralegal skill is also something I teach inside the Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp, because in my opinion, as a new litigation paralegal, if you master your attention to detail early in your career, you can make up for some of your lack of experience.

Yes, you read that correctly. I tell new paralegals this all the time: what you lack in experience you can make up for in your attention to detail.

Now, we can also flip that and say that as a senior paralegal with many years of experience, you can limit your success or maybe even ruin your paralegal career if you have a lack of attention to detail. That’s how important this one paralegal skill is.

I remember I had a partner come to me when I was a paralegal manager and he was carrying some papers with him. He hands me the papers, and they are emails that he received from his paralegal – someone who was working there as a paralegal for a few years before I started as their manager.

He handed me these emails and said “When you question why this paralegal doesn’t have enough work on my team…this is why. If she can’t even take the time to make sure a two-sentence email doesn’t have errors in it, how am I going to trust her to draft documents that the client or the court might see?”

This wasn’t an entry-level paralegal. It was a paralegal who had around seven or eight years of experience.

Do we all make mistakes? Of course, we do. But the cold hard truth of working as a paralegal is that too many mistakes can kill a career fast. That’s especially true if they’re careless mistakes or they continue to happen.

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Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp

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The Difference Attention to Detail Can Make

The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail.

                        – Charles Swindoll

Here’s what he means…you’ve probably been to a restaurant or a hotel, and you left with the feeling of “WOW” that was perfect, that was great! You can’t stop raving to your friends and colleagues about how great it was. You tell them, “you HAVE to try this restaurant!”

Then there are other times when you’ve left a restaurant and said, “It was a good value for the money” or “That was a really good dish,” but you didn’t get that wow factor.

What was the difference? I can bet if you pay attention next time to the difference you’ll see that the great restaurant paid a lot of attention to the little details…like the side that the waiter served you on, the temperature of the food, how they kept your water glasses full without asking, how the table itself looked, the way all the wait staff was dressed, the fresh flowers at the entrance, the way the hostess treated you. And yes, the meal was delicious, too. The way the plate was presented, all of that.

You might not have consciously thought about all these little details while you were there, but your subconscious caught them. That’s why the restaurant puts that much effort into all those little details. So that you leave thinking that it was a GREAT restaurant, not just “that was a good restaurant:”

That’s what this quote means. It doesn’t just apply to restaurants and hotels. It applies to how we are viewed as legal professionals as well. The difference between a good paralegal and a great paralegal is their attention to detail. Think about that.

What if it’s not just about knowing every possible skill that a paralegal has to know to do their job? What if you could continue learning more skills along the way, but while doing that, you’re paying close attention to detail?

Learn why it’s about more than just paralegal skills.

Paying attention to detail is one skill that can make or break your paralegal career.

What is Attention To Detail?

Let’s start with the definition of attention to detail. It is the efficient allocation of cognitive resources in order to identify and process the relevant elements of an issue or task and produce the appropriate result.

I’ll break that down. Notice it starts with an allocation.  We’re allocating our cognitive resources. Not so that we can do a task. So that we can identify and process the relevant elements of that task and produce the result.

Notice this doesn’t say that it means you’re a good proofreader. Or that you allow enough time to do one last quality control check. 

Attention to detail is all about allocating resources.

What resources? Your cognitive resources.

4 Things Keeping You From Mastering This One Paralegal Skill

How do we increase our attention to detail? In what ways can we increase our ability to allocate our cognitive resources?

Well, let’s look at things that are sucking the life out of our cognitive resources so that we can keep more of them available for our attention to detail.

1. Social media.

Yes, sorry to be the bearer of bad news. The more time you spend in the morning scrolling on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, the less space your brain has to allocate those cognitive resources to make sure that the summary judgment brief that you’re getting ready to file is 100% perfect and ready to go.

This is the easiest thing you can do, and it has immediate effects. Just put the phone down, and you will stop depleting your cognitive resources.

Before I move on to #2, I want to really drive home this point. We hear this all the time in many studies about the effects of social media on our well-being. Yet, we’re not really listening to that advice because the numbers keep getting worse.

I want to give you an actionable strategy with this first one. It’s sort of a “challenge.” Delete all of the social media apps on your phone for one week. I’m not asking you to delete your Facebook account. Just remove the app from your phone. Not forever. Just delete all the social media apps for one week. You can still access everything from your home computer, either on the weekend or in the evenings.

If you don’t see any significant results in one week, go ahead and add them back onto your phone.

What I think you’ll notice, if you’re like me, is that when you don’t have the convenience of having the app on your phone, you’ll be able to see how much of a waste of time it is to spend that much time on social media. If you have to go sit down at your home computer to see what’s going on with your friends on Facebook or TikTok, you’ll find that you do not want to sit in front of that home computer for one or two hours. Yet, we’ll sit in front of the TV with our family and be scrolling those social media feeds.

Check out these tips on paralegal social media ethics.

2. Poor sleep.

I’ll bet you didn’t think I’d be going there after social media! There are all kinds of studies out there that link poor sleep to poor work performance. One of them from the National Library of Medicine stated directly, “People who are sleep deprived are also more likely to make errors and omissions.”

You’ll never guess why so many people are getting poor sleep these days…yes, the amount of time you’re spending soaking in that blue light on your smartphone while you’re checking social media feeds is part of it.

Ditch bad habits that prevent you from paying attention to details and build good habits that help you become detail-oriented.

3. Poor diet.

What you eat matters more than just the size of your waistline. You know that afternoon slump you get about an hour after getting back from eating that big turkey sub from the local deli? That’s your insulin coming out fast to try to reduce the glucose spike you’re getting from all that white bread.

Have you ever tried to do a complex task in the middle of that slump when all you want to do is lay your head down on your desk for a few minutes? If you’re under a deadline and it has to be done, you manage to get it done through sheer adrenaline, but you are not performing at your best.

I’m not saying that if you stop eating white bread at lunch, you will suddenly have great attention to detail skills. What I’m saying is that all of these things contribute a little bit to your ability to focus, and when it comes to attention to detail – you need to have a high level of focus.

Learn how to practice mindfulness to reduce stress.

4. Multi-tasking.

I talk about the evils of multi-tasking a lot. That’s because it is so bad for your productivity and the quality of your work product. The reason it’s bad for the quality of your work product is that you’re trying to split your cognitive resources between two or more things. One of them will suffer. 

How many times have you been on the phone and hit send on an email, then went back to read it and found a typo? Or do you realize you forgot to attach something? That’s because you only have so much cognitive resources available at one time, and you’re trying to split them between two tasks.

Stop multi-tasking, and you will increase your attention to detail.

If you stop doing these four things, you’ll be on your way to increasing your attention to detail skills.

Whether you’re a new paralegal or someone with 30 years of experience, every paralegal can benefit from improving their attention to detail.

Master the 7 Habits of the Indispensable Paralegal with our comprehensive guide.

If you are a new paralegal, and you’re working in litigation, or you want to work in litigation, don’t forget to check out my Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp.

It’s the only online course and coaching program of its kind that gives you the mindset, behaviors, and skills to fast-track your paralegal career.

Don’t just take my word for it. Go check out the paralegal reviews at LitigationParalegalBootCamp.com.

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.

Connect with Ann on LinkedIn

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