A paralegal may develop, or naturally possess, a virtually unlimited number of skills that add increased value to his or her skill set as a professional team member. They range from applying technologically-oriented skills utilizing computers and electronic data processing in areas such as discovery, case management, and document management to applying fundamental legal reasoning and analysis in activities such as client and witness interviewing, fact development, discovering preparation, and deposition planning.
Differing areas or degrees of specialization require development of different skills and abilities; however, there are certain core skills essential for all paralegals regardless of the particular aspects of an individual job or assignment. These are skills that cut across every field and are necessary no matter what the specific assignment of the moment may be.
…knowing that you have a skill set that is always in demand. Imagine, having a resume built on the grounds of a solid training, and knowing you have many options. Imagine knowing that part time work, or work from home are available to you.
Fundamental skills that every paralegal should have as a baseline for beginning his or her career are those dealing with interpersonal communication, writing, research and investigation, fundamental legal concepts, technology, and professional ethics.
Effective interpersonal communication is fundamental to success in most any job and certainly is essential in any legal career. Whether discussing an assignment with a supervising attorney, interviewing a prospective or existing client, contacting or interviewing an expert, taking a witness statement, or scheduling depositions and hearings with court reporters, docket coordinators, and opposing counsel, a major portion of a typical day is spent communicating with others; often endeavoring to persuade ambivalent parties to provide various kinds of cooperative assistance. Paralegals may become as indispensable as an attorney’s right hand as his or her liaison with clients, experts, court officials, witnesses, opposing counsel, and others with whom the attorney communicates in various transactions or litigation. To do so, the paralegal must have the ability to communicate clearly, effectively, and professionally. If not, the attorney will not feel comfortable delegating such an important function to the paralegal. Upon objective reflection, if you realize the attorney you work for does not frequently assign you tasks requiring third party interpersonal communication, perhaps you should consider additional training and discuss your communication skills with him or her. You may be providing valuable assistance with your research, analysis, writing, and technological skills, but if your interpersonal communication skills are lacking, your career advancement may suffer.
The better your writing skills are developed, the quicker you will advance in your paralegal career. Grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and structure are critical to good writing as is creative thinking and reasoning processes. If you are able to form persuasive legal reasoning or creative arguments without being able to reduce them to writing, it will do little good. Writing is essential to almost every paralegal function. Even oral interviews of witnesses, clients, or others must be summarized and reported in writing to be beneficial. No attorney will tolerate a paralegal for long who must orally report all of his or her research or third party communications due to inability to effectively report them in a written memo. Paralegals routinely draft correspondence, pleadings, discovery, motions, briefs, legal memorandums, contracts, corporate resolutions, business agreements, wills, trusts, and other documents ranging from simple to complex. A paralegal who masters the art of clear, concise, and persuasive written communication will not only stand out among his or her peers, but also advance to much higher career levels than those with more limited writing skill.
Research and investigation is a core paralegal skill closely aligned with a solid understanding and grasp of fundamental legal concepts. In addition to understanding how to perform legal research, paralegals must be proficient with proper legal citation of authority and proper analysis of applicable case facts. Possessing the ability to locate the legal authority needed to support a particular position is invaluable to any attorney in any general field of practice or specialization. Knowing what to search for is of primary importance, but knowing how and where to look for it is just as essential. Persistence and tenacity are beneficial characteristics for any paralegal in this regard. Solid investigative skills in civil, criminal, and transactional contexts are necessary in tracking down evidence, documents, and vetting witnesses which must be paired with understanding the legal concepts involved in any given situation.
Technology skills are such a fundamentally basic requirement that it almost dispenses with discussion or elaboration, but any discussion of essential paralegal skills would be remiss not to mention them. As technology rapidly expands further into every aspect of the law, paralegals must master a growing array of word processing, spreadsheet, telecommunications, database, presentation, and legal research software.
Use of technology is ubiquitous in document preparation, research, and communication; to the extent that basic competence is demanded of everyone working in today’s legal environment—even the attorneys! Legal technology has created new paralegal information management niches such as “litigation support” and “E-discovery”. Basic technological competence is fundamental and paralegals who bring advanced technology skills to the table have a valuable competitive advantage in marketing their skills.
Understanding the role of professional ethics is mandatory for paralegals. Any paralegal without an understanding of the parameters within which he or she may function is running a high risk of inadvertently crossing a prohibited line. While it is the primary responsibility of the supervising attorney to ensure that the paralegal only performs permissible functions and does not cross the line into unauthorized practice of law, the paralegal is still responsible for his or her actions and should have a clear understanding of such matters. It is also important for the paralegal to understand the professional ethics rules which the attorney must follow in order to avoid getting his or her employer into an ethical problem resulting from the paralegal’s conduct while performing a permissible function.