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10 Top Skills for Leading and Managing Paralegals

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Paralegal managers are expected to lead their teams effectively in a high-pressure environment that has little room for error. Law firms rely on their paralegal managers to streamline work efficiently and cost-effectively, implement training, create and adhere to budgets and generate revenue.

As a paralegal manager, it isn’t enough to have management ability. You also need to be a leader, mentor, coach, financial analyst and educator. Building and maintaining a successful paralegal team requires strong leadership skills.

By definition, a leader is a person who influences a group of people to achieve a goal. Let’s examine the top leadership skills needed to be successful as a paralegal manager.

Analyzing Leadership

A common misconception is that “leaders are born, not made.” Anyone who has ever managed a team of paralegals can attest to the fact that they developed their leadership skills through education, training, experience and trial and error.   The art of leadership varies from the role of management, according to the Wall Street Journal Guide to Management, in that a leader is expected to inspire and guide others, while managers command and instruct. The paralegal manager needs to be able to do both, and it’s worth taking a step back periodically to evaluate your strengths in the different skill areas.

Leadership Skills

  • Building a Team
    Building a team requires development of common values and team goals. You need to be able foster a shared vision for the law firm, and a commitment to excellence and trust in the processes and co-workers. A leader supports the development of workplace relationships within the team, and encourages solutions to resolve conflicts when they arise. Fine-tune your listening skills to be able to hear what your paralegals are saying and understand the message they are delivering. Use a collaborative team approach to tasks and you’ll gain the respect and support of your staff.  Be transparent in order to avoid the perception of subjectivity.
  • Motivation
    Few qualified paralegals enjoy being micro-managed. Motivation of team members is a required attribute of leadership, encompassing the ability to serve as an example, inspire others and lead with confidence. Treating your paralegals as respected equals, delegating responsibilities to them and being prepared to listen to their ideas are among the strongest motivators in a successful team. You also need to challenge the paralegals with opportunities to develop their skills and abilities and to encourage a positive attitude toward the work and colleagues. Praise your paralegals when they do well, recognize their hard work and be willing to correct misunderstandings.  Roll up your sleeves and help out in the trenches.  This will prove your commitment and understanding to the team!
  • Problem Solving Abilities
    The ability to resolve problems depends largely on having the confidence to make and follow through with tough decisions and implement difficult measures. As paralegal manager, you are responsible for finding solutions to problems ranging from increases in workload, resource difficulties, ethical issues and personality clashes to financial challenges. Being able to see the big-picture is an important leadership trait so you can predict the results of any actions taken in response to problems and challenges.
  • Mentoring and Coaching
    As paralegal manager, you are responsible for the career development of paralegals and support staff reporting to you.  In order to meet the needs of the lawyers and their clients, it is your responsibility to assist the paralegals in planning their careers and to develop the team with the substantive skills and professional competencies to bring value to the law firm and its clients.   As a mentor, you lead by example and provide learning experiences to the paralegals.  As a coach, there will be times when you need to manage work-life conflicts, intervene in issues relating to personal decisions and occasionally work with team members to revisit their goals and objectives to improve their work performance. The secret to successful coaching and mentoring is the marrying of the welfare of the firm with the progress and success of the individual paralegal.
  • Negotiation Skills
    The ability to negotiate develops from knowing when you have the upper hand and when you need to compromise. This applies to your dealings with your paralegal team members, internal administration persons and with external parties. Your team needs to know you are capable of negotiating successfully around issues such as workload, performance issues and expectations.   You are the paralegal advocate as well as part of the administration team of the law firm.  It is sometimes a difficult balance.
  • Staff Recruitment
    Building an effective paralegal team starts with the recruitment of the right personnel. Strong leaders tend to employ persons they believe will complement their abilities, rather than duplicating them, while weak leaders prefer to surround themselves with people they “understand” and can dominate.  Studies have found that the most successful managers didn’t succeed from their motivational skills, but from teaching workers how to be more productive. i.e. capability building.   Consistent productivity and value creation comes from how well leaders manage their best people.
  • Professional Development
    Paralegal managers not only need to create professional development plans for their team, but also need to ensure that their skills are constantly updated and fine-tuned.  Attending seminars, workshops, training programs and reading are important.  Equally as important is participating in leadership/management associations to keep abreast of what other successful leaders are doing and the trends and changes in the applicable industry.  Set annual goals for your professional development and monitor your progress and success.
  • Organizational Ability
    Being able to organize effectively is a vital skill for paralegal managers. As the custodians of the law firm’s paralegal workload and profitability, the law firm clients and your team members need to be able to rely on you to delegate appropriately.  To be successful, you must be able to prioritize work, plan for projects and allocate resources to enable the team to function optimally.  At the same time, you are also organizing your time for budgeting, monitoring work, performance reviews, technology updates, reports, etc.  A successful leader will use technology, systems and processes to stay organized and manage responsibilities.
  • Financial Oversight
    Budgeting and managing the costs and revenue generation of your department is paramount to your success as both a paralegal manager and a leader. Not only must you be able to compile and adhere to a budget, but you must also have the financial acumen to shift focus when you encounter a good financial opportunity.  Whether it’s savings on current services and vendors, recovery of costs or an opportunity to increase revenue, the ability to manoeuvre within the constraints of your budget can make a difference to the firm’s short term and long-term profit and client satisfaction.
  • Performance Evaluation
    Evaluating the performance of your paralegal team members is one of the cornerstones of management responsibilities.  As an effective leader, you will inform yourself of industry practices and compensation models to ensure your firm is competitive.  In addition, you need to have comprehensive job descriptions for your paralegals and clear guidelines of expectations to meet client satisfaction and career growth.  Both the law firm and the paralegal team are depending on you to be a leader in this area.  Accurate assessment and compensation are reliant on your management skills. It is also important to regularly give your paralegals feedback on their performance throughout the year. Communicate successes and required improvements regularly with an objective approach.

Paralegal managers are under pressure to build high-performing paralegal teams that can deliver efficient and cost-effective paralegal services while adhering to revenue expectations and budgets. Managers with top leadership skills will secure the elite positions, high salaries, challenging careers and self-satisfaction.

About Catherine D'Aversa

As President of Legal Resource Consulting Inc. (“LRC”) Catherine D’Aversa is engaged by law firms, government legal departments and corporate in-house law departments to improve paraprofessional skills and services using extensive skills developed over more than 32 years in the legal industry. LRC analyses and assesses paraprofessional services within its clients’ organization and provides recommendations on structure, technology, systems, processes and management to improve services standards, productivity and profitability. LRC acts as Project Manager to implement recommendations to enhance paraprofessional skills and services to better meet lawyer and client needs while increasing revenue. LRC delivers professional development workshops on topics such as Docketing Strategies, Practice Management, Practice Development, Project Management, Strategies for Productivity & Profitability, Working as a Legal Professional and Legal Writing and Reporting. Catherine is a contributing author of several legal books and a regular speaker and commentator at business seminars and conferences.