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What should you look for in a paralegal or legal assistant? We don't mean "what should you put in the job application." That's easy: Writing skills, attention to detail, flexible schedule, and so on.
We're talking about personality traits that an ideal paralegal possesses, things that are essential to him or her. You can only find these types of qualities after an interview, or maybe only after a test run of a few days or weeks, but in the end, a paralegal with these qualities will make your firm run a whole lot smoother:
A paralegal or legal assistant has to be more organized than you are. That's why you hired one, right? You're too busy with your fancy law talkin' to do things like maintain a client file, keep a calendar, send out letters, and make phone calls. That's the paralegal's job. If that person doesn't have an organizational system, then things will be worse, not better.
Legal assistants aren't lawyers, and they shouldn't think they are. In fact, they may be asked to do some pretty grudge-worthy things, like get lunch, drive stuff down to the courthouse, and pick up your suit from the dry cleaner's. A prospective paralegal can't feel so "above" doing these tasks that it's like pulling teeth every time he or she has to run to the post office to mail the firm's electric bill.
3. Emotional Intelligence.
Though we talked recently about why in-house lawyers need to be emotionally intelligent, that goes for legal assistants too. Maybe even more. They're on the front end of the business, interacting with clients, the public, and court clerks. You don't want to be picking up the pieces after a paralegal has a shouting match with a nasty court clerk. Look for someone who's tactful but creative -- a person who knows how to address different situations with different types of people.
4. Regular Intelligence.
We mean "intelligence" in the "Can you pick things up quickly?" sense. If a paralegal needs a lot of hand-holding, that could be bad news. You want to be able to throw someone into the deep end and hope he or she swims; there's too much to do for you to constantly stop to answer questions.
5. A Sense of Humor.
We often need to be reminded that the work we're doing ain't saving the planet. It's a job (excuse me, profession) just like any other. A paralegal who knows to take cases seriously -- but not terribly seriously -- can bring you down from the ledge if a deposition went horribly, or if your case just got dismissed. That's not to say your clients aren't important. It just means that you breathe for a while, pick yourself up, and move on.