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The Ultimate Paralegal Resource Guide
The 10 areas of information you should always have at your fingertips.
The ultimate paralegal resource guide is the place you save every important piece of information you have gathered in your daily paralegal job. This resource should contain telephone numbers, e-mails, important dates, notes about attorneys and judges and much more. The couple of hours you spend creating it will save you hundreds of hours throughout your career, give you a competitive edge and make you an invaluable member of your legal team. In fact, having all of this information at your fingertips will make you seem almost superhuman.
If putting together your own paralegal resource guide sounds unusual, it isn’t. Legal professionals have been creating their own handy references for decades. When I first started out as a lawyer, a senior partner at my firm had a ragged manila file folder on his credenza containing copies of complaints he previously used in a wide variety of cases. When he needed a new complaint, he would pull out some of those old pleadings and reuse them. Your system might be a similar large file folder on your desk. Perhaps you keep everything stored in a database on your laptop, or in a network folder. Whatever method you currently use to hang on to your important information, you need to pull it all together and put it in one place. Let these 10 categories be your guide to organizing your resources and making your job easier.
1. Complete Contact Information
Although there are a lot of telephone database programs available, including some basic software programs that came with most computers, many people find simple solutions are better.
A telephone reference is easy to create in any word processing program. The nice thing about using Corel WordPerfect or Microsoft Word to create these tables is these programs already are running on your computer, you can keep the files open while you work on other materials, you can constantly update your entries and alphabetizing them is a breeze. For instance, Janice Johnson, a paralegal for attorney Russ Becker in Morganton, N.C., said she uses a client list she originally created using WordPerfect. Her basic client list includes a chart consisting of the client’s name, phone numbers, postal and e-mail addresses and notes.
Johnson said she encourages clients to contact her via e-mail. “I can check on e-mail in an extremely timely manner without having an interruption while a client is in my office,” she said. “I also can respond back without getting caught on a call that ends up going entirely too long. Also, I have a word-for-word record of what information was given to the client through the e-mail contacts.”
BlackBerry wireless devices are another great way to store contact information and have become very popular among law firms. Dana Martin, a paralegal at Greenbaum, Doll & McDonald, with offices in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, likes the fact that with her BlackBerry, she can retrieve her e-mail anywhere, anytime. “We have Microsoft Outlook and [the BlackBerry] gives wireless access to that and my address book.” She said she takes the BlackBerry with her wherever she goes.
The notes category is where your telephone reference really shines. You might not think having a notes section is important, but little details about your contacts really can help.
Denise Cunningham, a paralegal for attorney M. Lynne Osterholt in Louisville, Ky., said she lists personal information for many of her contacts. “Along with the addresses, I also put in other information, like birthdays and anniversaries.”
Little, personal details, such as remembering a client’s birthday or the names of a client or contact’s children, can help build personal relationships and provide you with substantial help when you need it most. For instance, one client might be able to help you locate another client who is missing or unavailable. Personal relationships with courthouse personnel will put you on the inside track when it comes to things as simple as when to schedule a hearing or earn you a warning phone call when your firm forgets to file appropriate paperwork in a case.
2. One Central Calendar
Everyone knows having a calendar isn’t a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity. With so much to do and so little time to do it, your calendar must be accurate, easy to access and contain enough information so you can understand what you need to do. “Experts all agree you should have one calendar, not different calendars for work, for play and for the holidays. You should have one calendar for everything,” said Cunningham, who has been a paralegal for almost 25 years.
Cunningham said the calendar feature on her Palm is the most used feature and it often comes in handy in court, especially when scheduling court dates. “We write in our appointments or when pleadings are due. We depend on the Palm now, although we also keep a regular calendar. I like the Palm. It’s wonderful and I take it everywhere.”
Martin has her BlackBerry synced to her office calendar. “If I have an event on my [office] calendar that would notify me that I had an event coming up, I would get the same notification on my BlackBerry.”
Whether you use a book-sized calendar, software or the latest handheld device, the important thing is to have one central calendar that is easy to access and update.
3. Courthouse Contacts
Whether you decide to go high-tech or stick with low-tech methods to create your paralegal resource, it should contain additional information beyond just telephone contacts and important dates. It should contain plenty of information about the courthouse, including a list of the types of information that can be found in each office, as well as the names of your contact people in those offices. When you find a friendly face at the courthouse, put that person’s name in your courthouse reference in as many different places as possible. The next time you call that office, ask for that person.
4. Attorney Peculiarities
No ultimate reference would be complete without an “attorney peculiarities” section. This is a section to remind you about the various idiosyncrasies of the people with whom you must interact everyday. If the attorney has a hang up about the way pleadings are prepared (such as never staple, always use paper clips) then make a running list of these preferences. These notes can save you a lot of time, effort and frustration later. If you get new employees in the firm, you also can provide this list to them.
5. Judge Peculiarities
The basic premise about keeping track of attorney peculiarities applies to judges even more. Every judge with whom I have ever worked has had a different approach to court proceedings, pleadings, drafting orders and even when and where the attorneys should stand in the courtroom. Some judges like to be referred to as “Your Honor” in every context. Some judges have a habit of leaving work everyday at 3 p.m.
Other judges think nothing of making you wait for hours outside their offices before they will sign an order. All of these characteristics should be written down for future reference. Attorneys have been doing this for years. When an attorney has a case pending before an unknown judge, he or she always will call a friend and ask about that judge’s characteristics. Then the attorney adapts to that judge’s approach. You should do the same thing.
One prosecutor, who preferred to remain anonymous, had a judge who would routinely appear for calendar calls in December wearing a Santa Claus cap. He would then give probation or suspended sentences to nearly every case pending. This is an important piece of information, not only for prosecutors who never wanted to have cases pending before that judge near Christmas, but also for defense attorneys who did.
6. Essential Forms
One of the primary reasons to create an ultimate paralegal resource is for the forms. Forms are the dirty little secret in the legal profession. Every time you come across a good form, put a copy into your paralegal reference guide. Copy the file over to your CD, store it on your flash memory card and put it someplace where you can access it again. There is another reason your forms should be stored in digital format: These days, many federal courts are requiring pleadings to be filed electronically.
“Federal courts are requiring briefs to be filed in Adobe Acrobat,” Martin added. With a complete file of forms and pleadings, you will be ready to go in no time.
7. Brief and Memo Banks
Your resource also should contain copies of briefs and memoranda used in other cases. We have all had the experience of realizing our current assignment is exactly like a brief we had to prepare last year in another case. Being able to pull up that previous brief can be a huge timesaver and be a real feather in your cap.
Although law firms often have firm-wide brief banks, keeping one of your own always is a good idea. The one time you need access to the law firm’s brief bank probably will be the one time the system is down. Having your own brief bank also helps when you have to work at home and have no direct access to the firm’s computer system. Your personal brief bank should contain all of the generic appellate briefs and memos you use on a daily basis. For anything more specialized than that, you always can pull it off the main network later.
8. Frequently Asked Questions
If clients ask you the same questions repeatedly, it’s time to digitize the answer and keep it available to print at a moment’s notice. You might have clients who always ask how to get to the courthouse or what they should wear to court. Give them the answer in written form. It’s easier for you and gives them something tangible they can review later.
Lisa Mazzonetto, a paralegal at the McDonald Law Offices in Asheville, N.C., handles domestic cases exclusively. She often gets questions about how long it takes to complete a case, what the basic rules about child visitation are, and what a client should do if he or she wishes to have a Temporary Restraining Order taken out against an unruly spouse. Mazzonetto has this information ready in writing, which frees up her time and gives clients a handy reference if they ever need it.
9. Private Computer Information
In these days of Internet legal research and databases, it’s important to have a handy reference containing all URLs, passwords and notes about how to access specific sites.
“There is an incredible amount of information out there that is key to day-to-day work in a law office. In my field of work, online tax records and register of deeds, [Department of Motor Vehicles] records, postal addresses, Web sites and people locator sites are very important,” Mazzonetto said. To keep all of your passwords confidential, yet easy to access, you can keep the list in a Word table and update it regularly. You also can password-protect the file to keep the wrong people from accessing it.
10. Vendor and Supplier Records
Your ultimate resource should contain information about all your office hardware and software, including vendor names, toll-free support numbers, license numbers and any other information you will need to get help if you have software or hardware problems. Keeping this information in your resource guide can save you a lot of time, especially when a service representative asks you for information contained on the computer or program that isn’t currently working.
Creating a Digitized Resource Guide
Now that you know the most important areas to include in your resource guide, you must decide in what format you will keep the information accessible. People have different preferences as to the format that suits them best. Some like to keep a binder with all the information printed out, while others prefer to keep a fully digitized version. Still others prefer a combination of both print and digital records for their resource guides.
There are a lot of different legal software programs available with which you can create a digital paralegal resource guide. They range from simple databases to complete law firm packages containing billing and accounting software, calendar features and complex databases. In high-tech offices, the calendar and case management system is available firm-wide and can be accessed by anyone on the network. However, not all law offices have taken this step into the 21st century. In situations where the office is filled with standalone systems, you will keep this information on your computer and on a backup CD.
David Moyer uses database programs to create lists of clients and documents in his freelance paralegal practice in Cuyahoga, Ohio. “I use database programs, such as Microsoft Access and Excel. I use the databases for client conflict of interest checks, to name just one example.”
Use programs that have been tried and tested in the real world or in firms similar in size and structure to your firm. Mazzonetto’s firm uses Time & Chaos (www.chaossoftware.com). “It acts as our daily, weekly and monthly calendar, client address book and To-Do lists. It’s very inexpensive, but an incredible asset.”
Johnson’s North Carolina firm uses Abacus Data Systems’ AbacusLaw (www.abacuslaw.com), which has been around for years and functions as a client database, calendar and docketing system. “We use Abacus as a database and tracking system here at our office,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how we survived as well as we did before we went to this system. Today, not to have some type of program for client information and management, along with a deadline system is like living in the dark ages and asking for a malpractice suit.”
Martin’s firm has a separate Information Technology division. “We have a very complex piece of software that keeps track of client information, accounting, billing and case management. Our whole office is really tied together. We are a regional firm and everybody can get to the same documents.”
For many firms, tailor-made programs are the best way to go. Norma Schvaneveldt, a paralegal in Chattanooga, Tenn., said her former firm, Eric Buchanan & Associates, relied on software created for the firm’s specialty area of law. “We kept track of client information on the computer through a case management software program especially configured to handle Social Security cases. We also used it for our long-term disability cases. If you were out of town and needed to review a file, as long as you had Internet access, you could review any file.”
The Power of Your Resource Guide
The smartest thing you can do with your ultimate paralegal resource is to organize it and keep it all in one place. Let everyone in the firm think you are superhuman, with an incredible memory for names, dates, telephone numbers and the myriad of other information law firms need on a daily basis. Your ultimate paralegal resource can be your secret weapon.
Neal R. Bevans is a paralegal instructor at Western Piedmont Community College in North Carolina. He has been an attorney since 1988. A former assistant district attorney and private attorney, his cases include a televised trial on Court TV. His textbook, “Criminal Law and Procedure for the Paralegal” (West) was published in August 2002.
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