When you hire a personal injury lawyer, he will likely assign your case to a single paralegal in his firm. She (I don’t mean to be sexist using a female pronoun, but most paralegals are women) will be responsible for the day to day management of your case file. She will request and organize your medical records, handle scheduling of hearings and depositions, and most importantly to you — she will be your primary point of contact with the firm. When you call the firm for a status update on your case, she will be the one to give it to you nine times out of ten. She also acts as a gatekeeper between you and your lawyer, keeping you (and all the other clients) from taking up all of the attorney’s time asking questions which don’t require a law degree to answer. So why do some clients treat their paralegals like garbage?
The Paralegal is Not Your Enemy
If it seems to you that the paralegal is keeping you from talking directly with your lawyer, you’re probably right. But that’s her job. Routine questions about what is going on with your case do not require your lawyer’s expertise to answer. When something important comes up, like a deposition, a settlement offer, or an order from the court which affects your case, your lawyer will speak with you directly. Trust that your paralegal knows when you do or don’t need to talk directly with your lawyer. She’s likely been screening calls like yours for years. If she just passed every client call through to the lawyer, she’d get fired. Why? Because, contrary to what you may think, there is no such thing as “one quick question” as far as your lawyer is concerned.
Most personal injury attorneys will have at least 70 clients at any given time (and for many, I am vastly understating that number). They cannot afford to hold every client’s hand through every step of the process. Between working on existing cases, taking potential new client phone calls, and meeting new clients, your attorney’s free time is practically non-existent.
Think of it this way: if your attorney was in the middle of writing a brief for your case, would you want him constantly interrupted by “status” phone calls from other clients? Of course not. The paralegal, your “enemy,” keeps that from happening. In a way, the paralegal is like a triage nurse, helping to keep the attorney focused on matters of urgency instead of those that can afford to wait. Frankly, a lot of times your case can afford to wait. For those times when it can’t, your paralegal will work just as hard to make sure other clients don’t distract your lawyer from working on your case. At those times, your paralegal is your best friend.
Bad Manners Won’t Get You Far
There is absolutely no excuse for a client shouting at or cursing at their paralegal. I don’t care how frustrated you are. I don’t care how “stupid” you think the paralegal is. If you are that upset with how your case is being handled, the best thing to do is make an appointment to come in and speak directly with your lawyer. Remember, the paralegal does not work for you. She works for the attorney and answers to him alone. If you have a legitimate complaint about her, address it the next time you speak with your attorney.
Keep something in mind before being abusive toward your paralegal or grossly overstating your grievance about the paralegal to your lawyer: he can fire you just as easily as you can fire him. Do not think that your lawyer won’t fire you for abusing his staff. Some won’t. I would. Usually, I’d give a client one free pass –anyone can have a lapse of judgment– with a warning that the next time he abused my staff I’d fire him. I was much easier on clients who were abusive towards me (I’m thick-skinned) than my paralegal. So the next time you have the urge to be abusive towards your paralegal, ask yourself if it’s worth losing your lawyer over it.
Thanks for the Thankless
Being a paralegal is often a thankless job. It has many of the downsides of being a lawyer (stress, deadlines, repetitive mundane work, impatient clients) without the major upsides (money, social status, glory). Many paralegals work for a-hole attorneys who abuse them and treat them like personal servants. A little thanks from the client can go a long way in lifting a paralegal’s spirits. A “thank you” note is practically unheard of. So the next time you feel the urge to be mean to your paralegal, might I suggest doing the opposite. If you thank her for the hard work she’s done on your case, and are generally a nice person when you call, you may find that a few more of your phone calls squeeze through to the lawyer. It wouldn’t hurt to try.