We hear this all the time: you should be a proactive paralegal! But what does that actually look like?
This week I’m giving you a sneak peek of an important lesson I teach in our Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp that opens on January 30! I will show you what it means to be a proactive paralegal and how to stand out to your attorney by making them think you’re a mind-reader.
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What Does It Mean To Be a Proactive Paralegal?
I worked for an attorney back in the nineties who thought I could read his mind. One year he wrote on my annual performance review: Ann knows what I need before I know I need it.
I knew there was a deposition next month that I could start preparing for this month. I knew there was a hearing in a few weeks that I could start preparing for this week. I knew there would be a client meeting or a client call because I read the correspondence. What that attorney didn’t know was that I had to figure out a huge workaround to get access to everything that was coming in on the case.
Back in the day of the early nineties, also known as “before e-filing and electronic court records, what we would do when a pleading or discovery request or response came in, the secretary would log it, make a copy, and distribute that copy to everyone on the case by using a handwritten routing slip that people would check off their name after reading it.
Then they would put it in their outbox, and it would go to the next person on the list. Because I was the lead paralegal on the case, the arrangement was that I would get my own copy. I didn’t have to wait while that pleading or discovery request or response or correspondence was sitting in the attorney’s inboxes. But we know they’re also not good about forwarding things on.
Here are 3 Ways to Work Better with Attorneys.
Don’t Put Your Paralegal Career in Someone Else’s Hands
I was supposed to get a copy of everything that comes in while the secretary’s routing it. Still, there were several instances where I didn’t get copies of things and had talked to her once about it, and then finally went to her and said, “I’m not getting copies of these pleadings all the time. And one important one that I missed last week was a deposition notice.”
She said, “I don’t work for paralegals. Get out of my face.” Being fairly new in my paralegal career, I did just that. I got out of her face because it was honestly kind of scary. But, I was still the lead paralegal in the case, so I had a couple of options.
I could have gone to the attorney or HR and complained. Or I could come up with a workaround. Now, she was a really good secretary, and she happened to leave early every day.
She came in early and left. So I knew that every day when she left at 4:30, I could sneak into the file room and see what got filed that day and compare it to what I’d received copies of. And that’s exactly what I did. That’s how this attorney wrote that on my performance review the following year. Little did he know what I was having to go through to be able to know what he needed before he knew he needed it. I had to be proactive.
I’m sharing that story so you can remember it next time something like that comes up for you. Here’s the thing. You cannot put control of what you do and how you do it for your paralegal career into someone else’s hands. If there’s someone preventing you from doing the best possible job that you can do, come up with a workaround because this is your career and your reputation.
Examples of Proactive Behavior
So you don’t like how the files are organized, but that’s the way they’ve been doing it for years. If it’s something that’s preventing you from doing the best possible work and supporting the attorneys in the best possible way, you can change it. Don’t let other people and their former systems dictate how successful you can be in your career.
Let me give you some examples of what a proactive paralegal might look like. You get copies of everything coming in, and you see on your attorney’s calendar that there’s a deposition later this month of a key witness in the case. Instead of waiting to see what the attorney wants for the deposition, you start going through the discovery responses, pleadings, and other deposition testimony to see what has been said or written about this deponent. You also see what this deponent has authored or received. You put together an electronic notebook of all of those materials and send it to your attorney so that they will be able to prepare for the deposition and start writing out some of the questions they want to ask the witness.
A proactive paralegal might also look like someone constantly looking for ways to streamline the workflow and make things easier and more efficient. Or someone who is testing out software that just came out to see if it’s something that can help with the next big real estate transaction.
Or you’re the personal injury paralegal who actively tries to identify where those personal injury claim files are getting bottlenecked. You’re trying to see if there’s a pattern as to why it’s taking ten months instead of 6 months to get the file to a certain phase before it can settle.
The next time a situation comes up at work, that’s challenging. Write out the situation and then write your two possible reactions. Do it on a legal pad. If you were reactive, you might do what? If you were proactive if you decided that you have the power to respond differently, how would you respond?
3 Key Behaviors To Be a Proactive Paralegal
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says that being proactive means acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changes.
I think you have to have three key behaviors to be a proactive individual.
- Anticipatory – acting in advance of a future situation rather than just reacting to it.
- Change-oriented – taking control and causing something to change rather than adapting to a situation or waiting for something to happen.
- Self-Initiated – not needing to be asked to act nor requiring detailed, step-by-step instructions to get to the endpoint.
Interestingly, I’ve read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People book several times, and in his book, being proactive is one of the habits of Highly Effective People. It’s one of the habits I teach in our 7 Habits of the Indispensable Paralegal. In his book, Covey says that your behavior is a function of your decisions, not your conditions. That you have the power to decide your response to conditions and circumstances. And in the book, he said that reactive people believe that the world is happening to them.
But proactive people don’t blame circumstances. They change their response. So what I was doing way back then and didn’t know it at the time, I was being proactive in that I came up with a workaround to a condition, or circumstance like Covey says. I devised a workaround to counteract something that would’ve limited my ability to do a great job as a paralegal.
As a proactive paralegal, you must ask yourself, how can I solve problems, maybe even before the attorney has to be involved?
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How To Be More Proactive
To be a proactive paralegal and solve the attorney’s problems will require a certain level of curiosity, initiative, and resourcefulness.
Proactive people are curious. They enjoy learning and are open to acquiring new information. In other words, proactive people have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you think it’s as good as it is now. A growth mindset means you are constantly learning to improve, no matter how many years you’ve been doing what you’re doing.
Do you know what I’ve found about being curious? A curious person is asking questions. They’re asking questions to get answers, answers that help solve problems quicker or eliminate problems from ever occurring.
Own Your Career
Now, let’s add another twist to the proactive here. Being a proactive paralegal also means that you’re proactive in your career, not just in your cases but in your files.
This is your career. It’s not something that’s just happening to you. It will not develop into anything more than a job unless you’re proactive in continuously developing your career and enhancing your skills. In other words, you shouldn’t wait to be asked to learn something new.
Your mindset becomes, this is my career, and I’m the only one responsible for how successful it is. Because here’s the thing, if you wait for someone else to advance your career for you, you will be waiting a long time. That’s because nobody cares as much about your career and your career growth as you do, not your supervisor, your manager, company leader.
They don’t care as much as you do. They might care some, but not as much as you do because you own your career. So remember this, you’re not a spectator in this ride that we call our paralegal career. You’re a participant. You’re the driver of this ride.
Ask for Feedback
Being proactive, especially early in your career, also means being proactive and getting feedback to know the areas you need to improve, rather than waiting 12 months to read that annual performance review. Have you ever done business with a company like a car dealership or been on a call with a customer service rep, like one of the cable companies? And the last thing they ask you is, is there anything else I can help you with? Usually followed by you’re going to be getting a survey from our corporate headquarters, and I’d appreciate all fives or all tens if you were pleased with the service. If you weren’t pleased enough to rate me that high, I’d like to do something to fix that.
Now, I think we can all learn an important lesson from that. Why wouldn’t you ask the same thing from the people you spend hundreds of hours working with each year? Why wouldn’t you go to those attorneys in advance of your performance review, and not just once, but regularly throughout the year, ask, “Is there anything I could be doing to better support?”
If you were to rate my performance right now, and it’s anything less than outstanding, can we talk about why and what I can do to improve it?
Strategies to Get Started
We’ve jammed a lot of proactive information into how to become a mind reader for your paralegal career, but it’s time for you to get started.
- Put a sticky note on your computer this week with the words “proactive = is there a workaround?
- Think of a situation that’s happening to you either today or sometime this week when it happens, and write it out at the top of the legal pad in big letters, and then draw a line down the middle of the legal pad. On the left side, write the word reactive, and on the right side, the word proactive. Then write out all of the reactive responses that you might be inclined to have on the left side. And all the proactive responses that you could have instead on the right side. And then, circle the proactive response that you’re going to choose to do.
Are you starting a new paralegal career in litigation?
Join Ann Pearson in the next group inside the Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp. It will be the best investment you’ll ever make in your career!
Here’s what other paralegals are saying about the Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp:
Very useful for someone who had to always figure out everything on their own. I found this course very useful because I learned a lot of new information about trial preparation. I was one of those paralegals who has never had to assist the attorney with trial prep because most of our cases were settled. Now as the courts are reopening I am excited to be better prepared when I do need to assist the attorney. All of the templates are great as well!
By Natalia Arana
I am halfway through the course, and thus far, the course is very informative. I am enjoying the details. It was very detailed and informative. Details are important because they paint pictures in my head that assist in visualizing the outcome of a specific method. The details also indicate the why’s, the hows, and the what for’s which add to a deeper insight into why particular aspects of the litigation cycle are important. I am enjoying the thoroughness and detailed manner that Ann Pearson is presenting the various steps of the litigation cycle; as opposed to just presenting cut-and-dry material and facts, Paralegal school was not as detailed.
By Anita Pickett
I highly recommend the Paralegal Boot Camp. It is here that I gained knowledge about my role in preparing for trials and managing information in cases. The resource materials are simply invaluable.
By Andrea Dennis
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.