Partnership between paralegal and attorney ensures small firm success.
- Paralegal: Ramona Gray
- Attorney: Jim Blakesley
- Firm: Law Office of James R. Blakesley; Saratoga Springs, Utah
- Practice areas: Real estate, small business, plaintiff’s personal injury, estate planning.
- Number of attorneys in firm: 1
- Number of paralegals in firm: 1
- Time as a team: Since May 2007.
How did you and your attorney come to work together?
Gray: Jim was looking for a hardworking, well-rounded paralegal to handle a variety of paralegal and related work in a small but extremely busy law office. I am in school working toward a paralegal degree through Utah CareerCollege and I saw this job advertised there. I sent a cover letter and résumé to the law firm and had an offer within a matter of hours.
What are the strengths of your paralegal-attorney team?
Blakesley: We complement each other’s skills. I am more easygoing and relaxed, while Ramona definitely is the Type A personality of the team. I have been an attorney for 30 years and have a vast amount of knowledge in the practice of law. However, with Ramona currently being in school, she is more up-to-date on procedural changes and new trends. She also is more tech savvy and continually explores ways to make the office more efficient and productive. She researches and purchases new equipment, goes to classes on e-filing and has updated the office’s ability to access online databases, which is necessary for the firm. Ramona currently is researching practice management software to organize and maintain our caseload. She is a member of the Legal Assistants Association of Utah and is going to join the paralegal division of the Utah State Bar. We coordinate our mutual efforts on managing case files, resolving disputes and completing the necessary work. We anticipate each other’s needs and the needs of clients. Together we strive to produce a reasonably priced professional product.
What has been the most challenging obstacle your team has faced and why was it challenging?
Gray: My biggest challenge was not a case but a situation that arose. In July 2007, Jim’s 27-year-old daughter learned she would require brain surgery to remove a lesion from her brain stem. While the delicate operation was a success, unexpected complications arose from the surgery. Jim had to be in a New York hospital caring for his daughter day and night for the entire month of August. He did not anticipate being absent for an extended period of time.
Jim is a sole practitioner, but he had two attorneys outside the office covering for him while he was away and I had to manage the entire office and facilitate clients’ needs on my own. I coordinated with the other attorneys, making sure they had all the documents and information necessary for court hearings and a sheriff’s sale. I drafted writs and orders, which I forwarded to Jim for review. Most of the documents were not initially dictated. I created the first draft and Jim would make additions, deletions and other changes.
Jim copied me on e-mails so I knew the communication exchanged between him and our clients. I would request documents, gain clarification and gather information based on those e-mails. I would answer clients’ questions on everything except those that required legal judgment. I maintained a list so I could contact the clients once I had a response from Jim on the questions that required a legal opinion. Except for those items paralegals are not allowed to handle, I took on the responsibility of maintaining the law office for the month. It was all very challenging because I had never worked as a paralegal until I was employed by Jim.
What were your paralegal’s contributions to the previously mentioned challenge?
Blakesley: Without Ramona’s skill, devotion and hard work, my practice might have folded and the continuation of my practice would not have been possible. I am a sole practitioner with a large and demanding client base. Clients are used to quick, one-on-one attention. While most clients understood the situation, much of the work still had to go on.
Ramona had to keep the office and work going. Without a paralegal partner who possessed a thorough knowledge of the caseload and clients; the ability to write, research, and problem solve; the talent to anticipate and satisfy the needs of my clients; and the capability to work independently, this would not have been possible.
In what ways does your attorney help you when you face challenges?
Gray: Jim, without question, is one of the best mentoring attorneys in the field. I came from an extensive real estate background with few paralegal skills except my education. He takes me through a new process step-by-step or writes up a summary when I am unsure of what to do. For example, I was struggling with some timelines on evictions. Even though he explained them to me, everything was not quite sinking in. He wrote a quick summary that I kept at my desk until I had it down.
I can ask Jim questions any time. Even if it’s school-related rather than work-related, he will answer my questions or provide a professional opinion. He doesn’t make me feel stupid for asking. He also helps me through errors I have made. He has me draft a memo to him explaining the steps I need to take to correct the problem. I have to come up with a solution first and he will adjust it if necessary or make additional recommendations. By respecting me and never being condescending, it’s much easier to face things that are challenging or even intimidating. I have his support, which makes trying to resolve issues much easier.
What are the best ways attorneys and paralegals can communicate their needs?
Blakesley: Work on cases together. Discuss the case and the goal of the client and discuss the strategy and tactics necessary for a successful resolution. Both members of the team must work with the client. Talk about ways in which each can help handle the case. Discuss the status of the action, the research, the contract documents or pleadings and what needs to be done. Anticipate what the other person needs and what the client needs to successfully complete the work. Suggest and implement ways in which the office management can improve and the work product can improve. Communicate ways to improve individual skills and the technology of the office.
What advice do you have for other paralegal-attorney teams?
Gray: Attorneys should be flexible in allowing their paralegals to become more educated. By allowing paralegals time off and helping cover travel costs to attend continuing legal education classes and training, the paralegal will increase his or her skills and become aware of upcoming trends. Sometimes when attorneys have been practicing for a while, they are not as up-to-date on changes to procedures or subtle modifications to statutes, even though they attend CLE classes regularly. Many times, the paralegal knows it before it comes across the attorney’s desk.
Paralegals should not be afraid to initiate changes and make suggestions. Whether it is procedural, administrative or technical, paralegals can be valuable for making suggestions to improve the work environment. Successful attorneys realize the importance of paralegals and the value of their contributions.
Attorney-paralegal teams must have mutual respect for each other. Sometimes the attorney doesn’t know the answer. If the attorney and paralegal respect each other’s opinions and suggestions, problems are solved much earlier.
Whether you are the paralegal or the attorney, you both have valuable knowledge and suggestions to better serve your clients. If you are both working toward the same goal, the clients will receive better service, the work environment will be much more relaxing (which is necessary in the legal arena) and the practice will become more profitable.