Working in the legal field as a paraprofessional can be a rewarding career but can also be very demanding. Paraprofessionals have a multitude of duties depending on whom they work for and what their specific jobs entail.
On any given day, a paraprofessional can be asked to research case law, communicate with clients, draft and file legal documents, follow up with third-party vendors, order and review medical records, participate in meetings, or manage other team members. This is not an exhaustive list, and most days paraprofessionals are asked to wear several hats and juggle several tasks.
Working in the world of mass torts is not like working in other types of litigation. It is fast and furious. The caseloads are on a larger scale, and the cases are complex and can move at lightning speed. Managing thousands of clients at one time is no small feat. Being a paraprofessional in mass torts is tough but with strategic planning, effective time management, and strong communication skills, the possibilities for success are endless.
Know your Docket and Caseload
No docket is managed successfully without having a “big picture” idea of how things should be progressing.
A major part of managing your day is knowing what you are working on. In addition to producing a daily task paraprofessionals should know the ins and outs of the dockets themselves; the timeline, allegations involved, and the number of plaintiffs generally involved. There is no “one size fits all” workflow when it comes to the movement on different dockets. For instance, to establish a claim for a client on the 3M docket, a short form complaint needs to be filed and served and a census plus form needs to be produced. This is vastly different from a Boy Scouts-related claim which only requires a proof of claim form to be filed by a certain date. Familiarizing oneself with the criteria of the docket and the necessary documents needed to establish the claim is the first step in successfully managing your day.
The next step is to know what kind of caseload you will be handling. Once the dockets you will be working on are established, familiarize yourself with its criteria to gain insight into what type of clients you will be interacting with. Understanding your caseload will help you when it comes to managing it.
Case Management and File Organization
Most paralegal training programs do not teach students how to manage cases; let alone how to manage them in mass. It can be a daunting task having to juggle more than one docket and keep each claim organized. If you fail to prepare your cases for success at the beginning, it is easy to lose control of them. Although regaining control is not impossible, it is hard and creates an unnecessary burden on you and the attorneys.
Getting organized does not come easy for everyone. Some paraprofessionals are quick to figure out what needs to be done, what information/documentation is needed, or what the next steps are that need to be taken. For others, much like myself, it takes some thought in planning out a productive day. One of the worst feelings I have experienced as a paraprofessional in mass torts is reaching the end of the day and not knowing what I truly accomplished. Juggling 15 or more dockets, thousands of clients, and multiple attorneys’ needs and personalities get overwhelming if there is no road map for your daily goals.
Tip #1 Organization is Key
Come up with your method of what organization looks like for you. Some paraprofessionals are “OCD” with their methods of organization. From task lists, color-coding, sticky notes, and having a notebook for each docket to pulling reports on their caseload. Being “OCD” helps them manage their time, tasks, and claims.
On the other hand, organization for some may look like chaos to others. These methods are usually developed over time spent in the field. Despite what method is chosen, the key is finding a method and sticking to it.
Be aware of any firm-wide processes and procedures. If there is a specific way that new claims need to be handled and organized, be sure to follow that method. For example, if it is customary to create individual client files on a shared server for new claims, then this method should be followed for each new claim. Using common systems for certain aspects of case management ensures that everything is unified and allows others to easily access that information.
Tip #2 Determine Problem Areas
Identifying any problems that may cause delays in your workflow should be annotated and accounted for when planning your day. This could include speaking with a difficult client, completing challenging research projects, or facing undesirable tasks. These duties still need to be incorporated into your day even when you don’t want to deal with them.
My rule of thumb is to handle the difficult tasks first according to prioritization.
Prioritization and Planning Your Day
By prioritizing your tasks according to their importance and urgency, it will help you stay up to date on key dates and deadlines. To be successful in prioritization, it takes effective communication with the attorney and your team to pinpoint urgent matters. Once these matters are recognized, you can incorporate them into your daily tasks.
Attention needs to be given to the claims and tasks with the highest importance. Once again, you will have to be familiar with the dockets you are working on and what is required. Once you have been able to establish the claims and tasks that are priorities, you can start planning out a workday suitable for reaching your goals.
Tip #3 Be Flexible and Adaptable
Law changes constantly. Processes and procedures rarely stay the same. And there will always be a last-minute priority project or task.
For your day-to-day, create a schedule that accounts for change and the need for flexibility. This will relieve any overwhelming feelings you may have when the unexpected comes up. Throughout the day, continue to revisit your schedule or task list to determine if any adjustments need to be made.
Tip #4 Avoid Multitasking
Multitasking is a necessary skill as a paraprofessional. However, it can be ineffective if you take on more than you can handle. To be successful at multitasking, set realistic goals on how much work you can take on. Do not overload yourself with new tasks or bog yourself down with trying to fit everything in one day. It is important to recognize how long it will take you to complete tasks as well. Taking on too much and rushing through work can cause unnecessary stress and irreversible errors. Work at a steady pace, avoid distractions and remain as focused as possible.
Tip #5 Hold Yourself Accountable
Setting goals as a paraprofessional is a must. Goals act as a road map for the success you want to reach.
However, in this process, there still needs to be recognition that we are human and creatures of habit. Over time, goals may change, or it may become a struggle to stay consistent with your goals–whether that be from life outside of work, the firm revamping their vision, procrastination, or any other bump in the road that leads you off task.
In these moments you must hold yourself accountable for what was set to be achieved. Much like setting a New Year’s resolution, your goals must have focus and perseverance.
To ensure that you are keeping up with accountability, remind yourself periodically of why you set them. The “why” is the importance behind the work.
Also, set mini-goals while working on the overall goal. For instance, if you must draft 100 complaints by a certain deadline, then set a mini-goal of drafting 20 per week until the due date. This gives you action steps and a sense of accomplishment along the way.
To best manage your day, you must effectively manage your time while eliminating or decreasing distractions. Distractions can be e-mails, phone calls, long conversations with colleagues, outside work stressors, or even office drama. Or it could be self-inflicted such as the habit to procrastinate or taking too much time on smaller tasks.
Figure out what is wasting your time and then come up with a plan to avoid them. Once a plan is in place, come up with a schedule and stick to it as best as possible.
Spend the first 15 minutes of the day writing out your schedule and determining when assignments need to be completed. Set goals and stick to them. Avoid any distractions that may hinder you from completing your goals. Managing your time will make for a more satisfying and productive day.
As kids, we had a huge fascination with superheroes and their ability to take on the world. As adults, we sometimes fall into a superhero complex and take on more than we can handle.
And as a paraprofessional, there can be a mind-frame that we must do everything that is asked of us. If the attorney needs extensive research on legal precedent for a claim, it is done. If he or she needs 10 petitions filed the same day, it gets done. If they ask 10 minutes later, to track down seven non-compliant clients, that gets added to the workload as well.
It is easy to fall into a pattern of always saying “yes” and never setting boundaries between you and your attorney. No matter the firm, the attorney is going to want an efficient and effective paraprofessional. Taking on more tasks than you can handle is not productive for you or the firm.
Establish a rapport with your attorney and colleagues. Communication is one of the most important social skills a paraprofessional can have. There is an emphasis on the “skill” aspect. While you never want to tell your attorney or colleague “no,” a certain tact is needed when conveying information or feelings.
Remain clear and precise in delivery and express any concerns you have or issues you are facing. Do not suffer in silence.
Tip #7 Delegate
There are no “one-man bands” in law. It is impossible to handle every task or assignment by yourself. When used effectively, delegation not only helps you reach your goals but also provides growth and development opportunities for others.
While reducing your workload, you can also reduce some stress. When delegating, understand that not every task needs to be delegated. If the task is routine, administrative, or support-oriented, you may want to consider delegating it. However, if it involves skills or knowledge that only you have, then you would need to handle that work.
Paraprofessionals are asked to take on the world when it comes to their jobs. It is easy to become anxious and nervous when dealing with heavy workloads. This often leads to high-stress levels.
Creating a routine and setting goals can offset many of these feelings. Remain realistic when drafting schedules, creating routines and setting goals. Be wary of burnout. Approach the workday with a balanced mindset. Strive for excellence and not perfection.
It is hard to accept that excellent is just as good as perfect when you are constantly in a perfectionist’s mindset. Take time for yourself. During the workday, schedule a couple of times to walk away from your workload and decompress. And at the end of the day, leave work at work. When you are constantly thinking about what you must complete you deprive yourself of relaxation. This leads to burnout.
Remember, none of what has been presented is learned overnight. Start small and implement what is going to work for you. The goal is to reduce stress and to build a healthy balance between completing tasks and your sanity.
Alicia Bivens is a certified paralegal who has worked in Mass Torts since 2016. She is currently obtaining her master’s degree (with honors) in paralegal studies at George Washington University. She is an empath by nature and is passionate about helping others learn and grow. Outside of work and education she enjoys spending time with her son, cosplaying, and listening to paranormal podcasts.
The Mass Tort Institute is a consortium of industry leaders dedicated to providing education, training, and networking opportunities for those advocating on behalf of mass tort victims.