REAL WORLD LESSONS
Janabeth F. Taylor, R.N., R.N.C./Litigation Paralegal
“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails.”
The beauty of the law is that it is dynamic—it changes as society changes. The law adapts to technological developments, to shifts in social values, and to the problems of modern society. The key to succeeding in this dynamic legal environment is that we, too, must learn to adapt—to adjust our sails.
As I write this, I think of my fellow paralegals. I cannot help but see myself nineteen years ago, as a new graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law Center- Legal Assistant Division program. This program was very rigorous, and a highly regarded program. as well as one of the few in the Nation then accredited by the American Bar Association.
Back in 1992, I was working part-time in a law office while teaching nursing full time, with a few weekends of hospital work thrown in the mix to keep in touch with the “real world of clinical nursing.” The rest of my “free time” was spent with studying and attending classes at the University of Oklahoma Law Center.
In anticipation of graduation, I sent resumes to several law firms looking for the perfect place to begin my new career.
One firm stood out in my job search. This firm was over 100 years old, and had attorneys with very different backgrounds and experiences. I was fortunate to be hired by this firm. Although I did not realize it at the time, working for this firm would be a life-changing and career developing experience for me.
I worked with five different attorneys, each with his own style and personality. Very early
I learned that part of my job was to adapt to their differing approaches and preferences. I was often “adjusting my sails” to accommodate them.
I was asked to work in areas of law that were unfamiliar to me. I had to learn to listen, to ask questions, to think creatively, to accept criticism, and to adjust my sails.
Some of the most important lessons I learned were not ones from a textbook. Among these “realworld” lessons were:
Most law offices are not like the ones depicted on shows like Boston Legal, Harry’s Law, or Ally McBeal. And most attorneys are not going to look or act like William Shatner, Kathy Bates, or Calista Flockhart.
Do not assume; always verify the facts.
Pay attention to detail. No one ever lost a case by knowing the facts too well.
Never give an attorney an original or your only copy of a document.
Develop your own daily reminder system. This way tasks and deadlines don’t fall through the cracks, and also serves as a backup to the general calendar system of your firm.
Abide by a stringent, ethical code in your practice as a paralegal. Never give legal advice. Do not hold yourself out or in any way give the impression you are a lawyer.
Develop relationships with court personnel – treat them all with respect.
If you don’t know the answer, know the resources you can use to find it. Knowing the
resource is half the battle. The other half is admitting you don’t know the answer and
identifying the question (s) to ask in order to utilize the resources you have available.
If you make a mistake, admit it immediately. One can only correct a mistake if it is admitted to, recognized, and addressed. It may be hard to admit to a mistake, but early admission may make the critical difference in being able to rectify the error.
Don’t be too quick to take “no” for an answer. Good paralegals always look for a way to
work it out or get around an issue when someone initially says “no.”
Proofread all work. One mistake can compromise your case. Even though I didn’t like it, I learned this lesson—sometimes the hard way—but I learned it.
Respect your attorney and the client by meeting or exceeding deadlines. No one has ever been fired for finishing a project early.
Conference frequently with your supervising attorney. Provide the attorney with a list of questions and topics for discussion prior to each meeting.
Always repeat back instructions as given to you when receiving an assignment. This way you can confirm you heard what the other person thought they were saying.
Networking is invaluable. You can never know too many smart people.
Treat legal secretaries and all support personnel in the office as equals. You will find that they know more about many things than you do and are valuable resources.
Listen and learn. Everyone has something to offer. You can learn from the most experienced of veterans and the most inexperienced “greenhorns.” Great ideas sometimes come from the most unexpected sources.
Keep up with new court rules, changes in the law, and changes in technology. With each
passing year, computer technology plays a larger role in the practice of law.
Document, document, document…each task completed, each client communication, each conference with an attorney, and all deadlines.
Do not participate in office gossip; in the end it serves no purpose and is a distraction from your assigned tasks.
Regardless how adversarial your supervising attorneys are, it is important for the paralegal to be courteous, personable, and professional when dealing with court staff, witnesses, and opposing counsel
Do not lose sight of who you are really working for: the client. You may have twenty files on your desk, but to each client, his file is the only one that is important to him.
Join and participate in local, state and national professional organizations, and take
advantage of continuing education programs offered to their members. Through these
activities you can exchange ideas, learn new resources, and develop a valuable network of peers.
The most important lesson I have learned is that success can only be achieved on your terms. Everyone has his or her own idea of what a successful career is. Ultimately, true success is how each of us chooses to define it.
When I left a 10-year career in nursing education to work for attorneys, my nursing colleagues thought I was crazy. When I changed careers again to be an independent paralegal/ medical legal consultant, there were those who said I was crazy to leave the comforts and employee benefits provided when working for “the firm.” But I am not crazy. I am happy. I am successful on my own terms.
Don’t let someone else decide what your success should be. If your success is not on your own terms—if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart—it is not success at all.
Regardless of what original motivation steered us into this profession, most paralegals would agree we are heavily encouraged by our adversarial system’s motivation to win, win…win!
Without a doubt, assisting your attorney win for his or her client is a strong benchmark for the measurement of success.
However…I prefer to think the true measure of a successful paralegal-attorney-client relationship is that of service. That would encompass service to the client and service to the client’s best interest, regardless of whether you can record a “win”
The wind changed many times in my life and each time I adjusted my sails. My career has been an incredible journey. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined in 1992 that I would be writing nineteen years later, addressing my peers, and telling of my experiences and life lessons.
Each class, each job, each life experience along my journey was a foundation for my next step. I encourage you to learn from each case you assist with. Learn from each attorney you work with. Let each of these lessons be a foundation for your next experience.
And, most importantly, when the wind changes adjust your sails. An incredible journey awaits you.
Janabeth F. Taylor, R.N., R.N.C. has a degree in Nursing from Oklahoma State University and Litigation Paralegal Certificate from the University of Oklahoma Law Center. She was a nursing instructor for ten years and has been a medical legal consultant since 1990. Ms. Taylor is currently President/Ow ner of Attorney’s Medical Services, Inc. in Corpus Christi, TX. In 2002 she was named the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s (AJJ) Paralegal of the Year. She provide s litigation support for attorneys across the United States and specializes in case reviews and Internet inform ation resources.
Her website is: http://www.attorneysmedicalservices.com
and her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org