Paralegals: Stress is not limited to the attorneys

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Enter a ‘seemingly’ calm law office and you are unlikely to recognize that stress is not limited to the attorneys. Paralegal work can be extremely taxing. It is a fast-paced, chaotic, and consuming job that can dominate our entire lives, especially when we allow ourselves to be emotionally invested in a case and a client’s wellbeing (especially when there are children involved).

Most of our work is time-sensitive, deadline-driven, and highly detail-oriented. Missing a court ordered deadline or having a document rejected by a court clerk because of errors (without having time to fix it) can destroy an entire case. The attorney or the client could even potentially face sanctions, contempt, or be restricted from filing a pertinent piece of evidence because the delay violates the code of civil procedure. That is a lot of pressure to operate under. It is one thing to screw up and hurt yourself; it is quite another when someone else’s life hangs in the balance.

Within the legal community paralegals are highly respected, and good paralegals are a prized staple within a firm. Attorneys rely on paralegals as their right arms. Outside the legal community perspectives about paralegals can be very different. Some can be outright insulting. Many ‘laymen’ wrongly assume that paralegals are those who failed at becoming an attorney. Others assume the paralegal industry is just a ‘pitstop’ along the way to passing the bar exam. Many a person has been dumbfounded hearing us say, “Never,” when asked when we are going to be attorneys. Periodically paralegals encounter ignorant comments such as, “Oh, you couldn’t hack it as an attorney, huh?” Those are usually the same people who believe paralegals are not smart enough to become lawyers, and who insist on ONLY speaking with the attorney.  

Paralegals have many responsibilities but there are also things we are not allowed to do. We can draft documents and pleadings, research, discuss strategy, gather evidence, interview witnesses, file documents with the court, act as a liaison between the firm and the court, file management, client management, brief the attorney on case status, compile discovery. However, we cannot give legal advice, negotiate, appear in court, set fees, sign documents on behalf of an attorney, decide whether to accept a case, solicit business. Unfortunately, occasionally we come across seasoned paralegals who blur the lines between advising a client and providing access to the attorney. Usually this happens most often with paralegals who have been doing the job for many, many years. Some even take on tasks usually done by the attorneys, such as negotiating settlements or drafting legal documents outside the scope of their knowledge. Very inadvisable to say the least.

We love being paralegals and have been doing it for years, but there are a few changes that we would like to see, such as higher salaries commensurate to the workload and the long hours.  Also, there is a misconception that paralegals are not educated when in fact most are certified, have college degrees, and have many years of experience. We do much more than simply handle administrative tasks like scheduling appointments or calendar court dates, and we deserve to be recognized for it.

And remember: Stress is not limited to the attorneys.

In our next blog we will discuss some of our most common complaints about clients  . . . and even attorneys.

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Article by Nicolette Reeves and Kristin Black
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