8 Skills You Need to Succeed as a Paralegal
The following list outlines eight of the top paralegal skills necessary for success. Mastering these core competencies can help you advance in the workplace and gain a competitive edge in today’s legal market.
Effective communication is fundamental to law practice. Whether you are interviewing a new client, contacting an expert, taking the statement of a witness, scheduling a court reporter or discussing a deal with your supervising attorney, up to 80% of your day is spent communicating with others. As the lawyer’s right-hand, paralegals serve as a liaison between clients, experts, vendors, opposing counsel and other parties in litigation or transaction. Therefore, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is an essential paralegal skill.
Top-notch writing skills are essential to almost any paralegal position. Litigation paralegals draft correspondence, pleadings, discovery, motions, briefs, legal memorandums and other documents ranging from simple to complex. Transactional paralegals draft resolutions, agreements, contracts and related documents. Since writing is an integral paralegal function, paralegals who master the art of clear, concise and persuasive written communications will set themselves apart from their peers.
Research and Investigative Skills
Research is another core paralegal skill. In addition to mastering traditional legal research methods, paralegals must become proficient at Internet research and legal research databases such Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis. Paralegals must also learn to analyze case facts and properly cite legal authority. Solid investigative skills in civil, criminal and transactional contexts are also necessary for tracking down medical records, evidence, documents, and witnesses.
Technology skills are one of the most sought-after paralegal skills in today’s legal market. As technology infiltrates every aspect of law practice, paralegals must master a growing array of word processing, spreadsheet, telecommunications, database, presentation and legal research software. Paralegals are often charged with making technology purchases within their law firm or legal department. Legal technology has also given rise to new paralegal niches - litigation support and e-discovery. Paralegals who bring advanced technology skills to the table have a competitive advantage in the legal market.
Lawyers rely on paralegals to bring order to their cases and files in civil, criminal and transactional matters. Document-intensive litigation and corporate transactions generate vast amounts of documents and data. Therefore, the ability to sort, index, categorize, order, manipulate and organize this information is a fundamental paralegal skill. In addition to organizing physical documents, exhibits, and evidence, paralegals must master technology applications and databases that assist in managing case-related data.
Rarely are paralegals assigned to a single case, deal or task. In the real world, paralegals must juggle multiple tasks and simultaneously balance competing priorities. For example, a litigation paralegal may interview a witness, e-mail a client, train a co-worker on a new database and research a legal issue within the same one-hour block of time. The most successful paralegals can think flexibly, prioritize assignments and balance the demands of multiple supervisors and clients.
Teamwork is another fundamental paralegal skill. The delivery of legal services is sufficiently complex that a team with multiple skills is necessary to provide quality and cost-effective service. Moreover, since rules regarding the unauthorized practice of law require paralegals to work under the supervision of a lawyer, teamwork is integral to paralegal practice. Paralegals are part of a larger legal team within their organization that may include associates, partners, fellow paralegals, legal secretaries and others. Paralegals must also work collaboratively with outside parties including clients, opposing counsel, experts and vendors.
Attention to Detail
While lawyers are often focused on the big picture, the details fall to the paralegal. Paralegal tasks such as cite checking (verifying legal authority in briefs and memos), document review, exhibit management and title searches require painstaking attention to detail. Managing the logistical complexities of preparing for a trial or closing also requires a focus on a multitude of details ranging from numbering exhibits and double-checking budgets to tracking court dates and filing deadlines.