The Anatomy of a Paralegal

Navigating the paralegal waters is not an easy task or for the faint of heart. Just ask any experienced paralegal and they will gladly tell you their story of how they began their career and what it took to get where they are now. It takes grit and determination, willingness to take direction and accept criticism, a lot of patience, much persistence and excellent writing and typing skills. With these traits and skills, anyone can learn the art of “paralegaling” in today’s legal world.

The brain – The brain of a paralegal is a complex one. On one side is the logical mind which takes on a task by looking at what the attorney has asked it to do while the other side steps in and says, “Wait a minute! This request does not make sense with the tools available to find the answer!”

My early years in this business (at the tender age of 19) were challenging, to say the least, as I was not used to being asked to provide in-formation or documents without having been provided very much information (or no information at all). I recall working in my first paralegal job on a personal injury defense case. The partner asked me to provide all relevant documents supporting our defenses to our expert witness and I jumped in and gathered everything I could find that I identified as rel-evant to plaintiff’s claims, and which helped the defense of our case. The expert was loaded up with tons of information and was well prepared for his deposition. Upon the associate attorney’s return to the office the day of the expert’s deposition, he walked into my office, shut the door, and threw a sealed envelope on my desk saying, “I just saved your job today.” Looking at him in shock with my heart in my throat, I asked him, “Why, what did I do?” Fearing the response – but knowing the inevitable was coming – he explained that when they were introducing the expert’s file into evidence, one particular document was handed over to opposing counsel which was a complete case analysis and valuation of the claim which our attorney had written to our insurance adjuster client. The attorneys claimed privilege and pulled the document and placed it into a sealed envelope. All I wanted to do was to make sure the expert knew the whole back story of the case and how we were defending the claims; it made sense to me at the time to send him a comprehensive case analysis. Needless to say, I never made this mistake ever again and I repeat the story of my big mistake to anyone who is new to the business. The lesson here is to never take an instruction at face value and always ask for more direction if you are not sure. I wanted to be paralegal-extraordinaire, and it backfired.

The determination – If a paralegal is asked to do something she or he has never done before, the deter-mination factor sets in quickly. Any response which even resembles “I have never done that, so I do not know how to get that information,” is not acceptable. A paralegal’s role is to be creative in finding ways to obtain the information somehow, some way, and in a timely man-ner. When I was approached by an attorney to assist with obtaining service on a company located in Mexico (on a case which had prior counsel who was unsuccessful in achieving this feat), I sat and stared at my computer trying the think of all the ways someone could serve a company in Mexico that the other attorneys had not already tried. I looked at what they had previously done so I would not repeat their prior attempts, and hit the almighty internet searching for some answers. To start with, I found that international process servers can be a very good source of information, so I asked specific questions and worked my way through the procedures. It was in this endeavor that I found there are two ways to serve a Mexican entity: The Inter-American Convention and the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention is a more formal method and the one that holds up with more clout in court than the latter.

Let’s talk about hiring expert witnesses. Not only does a paralegal need to know the issues well enough to hire the appropriate expert (with the attorney and client’s blessing, of course), but the paralegal needs to BECOME an expert in order to properly handle what that expert needs to review in order to suffi-ciently prepare for the expert report and/or testimony. I never thought I would learn so much about build-ing codes, shoulder replacements, shipping of oxygen generators on a plane, auto race car construction, and so many more topics!

The stamina – Folks, take your vitamins daily and get your physical fitness in because you are going to need it! Whether you work in a litigation or transactional firm, your brain will be utilized to the max and your emotions will need to be constantly in check, or you will not survive the “biz”.

The heart – We feel for our clients and their legal battles. Sometimes it is more than just legal battles. It is facing the severe injuries they must live with as a result of a tragic accident, the loss of family members, and so many other tragic issues that result in litigation. No matter what side you are on, you have to be compassionate without being emotional. Sometimes, you must be tough enough to stand up against difficult personalities on the opposing side, or even personalities of the attorneys in your own firm!

The soul – This job takes all of your heart and soul. It can change your life, make you more aware of issues you never would have paid attention to before you started working in this career, and maybe even lead you to become an advocate for those who do not know how to navigate the “legal world.”

Just remember: always keep an open mind, listen to everything you hear in any meeting with your at-torney, take detailed notes, follow up (and do not wait to be told to follow up), and be diligent until you find answers you need in your case. But most of all, if you remember to keep your feet on the ground and work on every case like it is your first case, you will survive this crazy, amazing and exciting journey as a paralegal.

Shelly Zambo, FRP, is the Vice Chair of the Florida Bar FRP Enrichment Committee and Chair of the Communications Subcommittee. She is the President of SZ Paralegal Services, LLC located in Miami, Florida. Her paralegal career spans over thirty years in Miami for some of the country’s largest law firms. Her background is in civil litigation defense, specializing in personal injury, race car industry/race track matters, resort industry, aviation manufacture defense and complex commercial litigation at the state and federal levels. She is also on the marketing team for Cole, Scott & Kissane, where she has worked (and continues to work) as a paralegal for over twenty years.

This article appeared in the “FRP Times” Issue No. 3- which can be downloaded here: