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Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Fri Jul 22, 2016 7:23 am

I work with a paralegal who is making my job harder. I spend more time proofreading her work than it would take me to do it myself (and when she gives me back a "corrected" draft, she hasn't corrected everything and has introduced more errors). It's not complex stuff -- spelling of my name, correct pronouns for the client, garbled sentences, failure to put letters on letterhead so I have to do it myself or ask me to email me her draft that she hasn't saved in an obvious place on the server for me to find it, putting together a packet that has random documents in it from other files, etc.

I sent her an email recently asking her to please proofread things for X, Y and Z specific common mistakes before she gave me drafts (including the spelling of MY NAME, which is a common American name). She has improved marginally, but I'm still getting work product that just isn't sufficient.

I need to sit down with her and explain my expectations more clearly, but I'm at a loss. Is there a positive, productive way to tell someone "in an office setting, 'draft' means as close to a polished finished product as possible, so that I'm reading for errors in law, not missing punctuation or incorrect pronouns, and please don't waste my time making me chase you down for digital versions of things"?

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by lurklaw » Fri Jul 22, 2016 7:58 am

Need more info. Is she a career paralegal? If so, it could be that she doesn't give a shit and is consciously disregarding your attempts to train her because she wants you to give up, stop giving her work and just do everything yourself.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Fri Jul 22, 2016 8:14 am

OP here. Yes, I'm pretty sure that's part of what's going on. She isn't interested in the job, and doesn't love being told what to do.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by AVBucks4239 » Fri Jul 22, 2016 10:33 am

Anonymous User wrote:I work with a paralegal who is making my job harder. I spend more time proofreading her work than it would take me to do it myself (and when she gives me back a "corrected" draft, she hasn't corrected everything and has introduced more errors). It's not complex stuff -- spelling of my name, correct pronouns for the client, garbled sentences, failure to put letters on letterhead so I have to do it myself or ask me to email me her draft that she hasn't saved in an obvious place on the server for me to find it, putting together a packet that has random documents in it from other files, etc.

I sent her an email recently asking her to please proofread things for X, Y and Z specific common mistakes before she gave me drafts (including the spelling of MY NAME, which is a common American name). She has improved marginally, but I'm still getting work product that just isn't sufficient.

I need to sit down with her and explain my expectations more clearly, but I'm at a loss. Is there a positive, productive way to tell someone "in an office setting, 'draft' means as close to a polished finished product as possible, so that I'm reading for errors in law, not missing punctuation or incorrect pronouns, and please don't waste my time making me chase you down for digital versions of things"?
I've had this experience with my own secretary and it's been an unbelievable clusterfuck. Granted, she is extremely busy, but I'm convinced she intentionally fucks my shit up in an attempt for me to do everything on my own and/or for me to get a different secretary.

For background, I'm the junior associate in a 23 attorney firm. So I don't know if you're in big-law, but maybe my experience is relevant. Also by way of background, I give very little to my secretary. I dictate 1-2 letters per day; ask her to put captions, signature blocks, certificates of service on documents; and mail shit out. I know I'm going to sound like a dick, but she is incredibly frustrating and is probably the only part I don't like about my firm.

When my secretary first started fucking shit up, I originally caved in and started doing my own work (i,.e., drafting my own certificates of service, not dictating as much, etc.). This just made my life harder and my days a lot less productive. Fuck that.

So I began to just be relentless about reviewing her work and calling her out on bullshit, and specifically doing so when a senior partner was by her. The best was when she put in a hearing date wrong and I asked, "Why did you put this at 11:00 instead of 9:00 like the notice says." "Dur dur dur I don't know." "Okay, no worries, just please pay closer attention."

She's on vacation this week. We have an "overflow" system, and I can't even describe how nice it is to have competent work product.

Also while she was gone, I actually drafted a memo to her on my preferences. "Use this form for memos." "Scan everything we receive from the court and opposing counsel and save it in our document system." "Do not send anything out unless I have reviewed it."

That all seems basic but she just doesn't fucking do it and it's infuriating. Just this week she sent a client bill for $22,000 and didn't let me review it. This was a family friend and we were going to give him a 15% discount...but hey, the bill is out and now we look like idiots.

So I've also kept a daily log of things she's fucked up. These include putting hearing dates wrong in my calendar, etc. She fucks something basic up every day.

My memo and this log are going to be what I use when I eventually go to the Board of Directors and get a new secretary, because I don't see any other way.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Fri Jul 22, 2016 11:25 am

As a former paralegal - some are just like what you described. They give 0 fucks. No point in telling them to improve, because they don't care what you have to say.

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AVBucks4239

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by AVBucks4239 » Fri Jul 22, 2016 11:31 am

OP, here's the exact memo I just drafted if you're looking for a template. I probably sound like a dick but I'm at my wit's end.
Please adhere to these standards and preferences and let me know if you have any comments or questions about work moving forward.

1. Memorandums: use this document as a form for all memorandums.

2. Time: my time is updated almost every day. Please regularly type “[Month] Time” into Worldox and you will find my time entries. For instance, this month, if you type “July Time,” my time document will come up. A few notes:

a. Please input my time regularly. Jeff has asked that it be entered at least weekly, and I will do my best to make sure my time is updated accordingly.

b. Please do not “strike through” entries you have entered. This makes it difficult for me to read and cross-reference my reviews when I am checking my time at the end of the month. Please use something like bold or highlighter.

3. Cover Letters: use a cover letter for every document sent out, especially pleadings and/or motions to clients and opposing counsel.

4. Review and Signature: Do not send anything out without my review or signature.

5. Scanning Documents: Please scan every document we receive from the court, opposing counsel, and any potentially adverse party (e.g., insurance companies). This includes hearing notices, time-stamped copies of pleadings, letters, etc. Please save these into Worldox appropriately before you give them to me.

Again, please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you.
At the very least, when she continues to fuck shit up, I have documentation of what I've been telling her for more than six months now.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by BaiAilian2013 » Fri Jul 22, 2016 11:33 am

Sometimes it helps to keep sending back markups instead of doing second or third round fixes yourself - even if that would take the same amount of your time.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Fri Jul 22, 2016 2:05 pm

OP here.
BaiAilian2013 wrote:Sometimes it helps to keep sending back markups instead of doing second or third round fixes yourself - even if that would take the same amount of your time.
Yes, I've been doing this. This hasn't helped so far -- she makes the same mistakes next time or introduces new mistakes in the next round of markups.

AVBucks, the email I sent her a few weeks ago was similar, but less formal. For what it's worth I don't think you sound like a dick at all. I think you sound like a perfectly reasonable supervisor, articulating clear and fair expectations. I would appreciate getting an email like this from my boss because I know what s/he wants and can refer back to it if I forget.

So, update. I had her in my office this morning and tried to give it to her straight but fair. I thanked her for all the work she's done so far, recognized that she has a lot coming at her from different people, and explained that I'm giving detailed edits to her work not because I'm anal but because it's important to present a polished end product (it reflects on our firm, it helps the court / the government see the merits of the client's claim and see that we're professionals rather than being distracted by errors that make us look like we don't know what we're doing / don't know the case). Her role is valuable to me because she helps me present a polished end product, while freeing up my time to do the things that a paralegal can't do, like be in court or write a brief.

I then told her that I don't expect absolute perfection, everyone makes typos now and then, but at this point I'm spending too much time editing her work, and I should not have to spend any time at all doing things like correcting the spelling of my own name. I told her nicely that when I ask for a draft I expect something as close to a polished finished product as possible, so I need her to take the time to re-read what she's giving me to make sure it's solid. Gave her a couple of examples of tasks I thanked her for doing, and how her errors created extra work for me. Suggested that I often find mistakes in my own work when I print it out, so I never turn anything in to the court or a client without printing it out and reading it beforehand.

Sound good? Good. Any questions for me? No. Comments? Nope. End of conversation. She now won't make eye contact with me in the office.

Not sure what to make of this but we'll see how the next few weeks go. I guess I was expecting either defensiveness, or something closer to what my reaction would have been if I had gotten this talk from a supervisor ("I'm mortified, thank you for letting me know, I'm sorry I was creating extra work for you, I will absolutely do my best to correct this, please let me know if there's anything else I should be doing to make sure I'm pulling my weight for the team...").

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by ballouttacontrol » Fri Jul 22, 2016 9:41 pm

Paralegals are paid like shit unless it's a career para that's been working for like 20 years, and they're almost always treated like shit (sometimes blatantly, but they are always treated like second class citizens, which sucks).

I haven't had the experience with a bad one as an attorney, but I was a para, and probably would have had a similar reaction to above if some attorney called me into their office and gave me that talk (as in, two word answers, "ok, gotcha," etc.).

Money does motivate, at least to a certain point. Unless it's some kid trying to become a big firm lawyer and is a para at a big firm, u need to realize it is just another job for them. I know I definitely wouldn't have given a shit if someone started lecturing me about how a typo reflects on the firm or whatever the fuck

I don't really have an answer, but more just wanted to say put yourself in their shoes. They make like $40k in major (expensive) markets and less in smaller cities, and most could easily go to another job in another industry where people aren't as anal retentive about everything. Like that is about the same $ as a McDonald's shift manager

Long story short, imo you probably can't motivate them do much better no matter what. If there is a way, I would try and talk much more informally, as long as you're not too aspy

See also, books/Google/whatever on how to motivate completely unmotivated workers and who you do not value enough to pay more. The usual advice is to fire them, but then hiring good paralegals is extremely fucking hard. People that are actually good at it could very easily make more $ and have a better work environment.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Sat Jul 23, 2016 7:22 am

Anonymous User wrote:OP here.
BaiAilian2013 wrote:Sometimes it helps to keep sending back markups instead of doing second or third round fixes yourself - even if that would take the same amount of your time.
Yes, I've been doing this. This hasn't helped so far -- she makes the same mistakes next time or introduces new mistakes in the next round of markups.

AVBucks, the email I sent her a few weeks ago was similar, but less formal. For what it's worth I don't think you sound like a dick at all. I think you sound like a perfectly reasonable supervisor, articulating clear and fair expectations. I would appreciate getting an email like this from my boss because I know what s/he wants and can refer back to it if I forget.

So, update. I had her in my office this morning and tried to give it to her straight but fair. I thanked her for all the work she's done so far, recognized that she has a lot coming at her from different people, and explained that I'm giving detailed edits to her work not because I'm anal but because it's important to present a polished end product (it reflects on our firm, it helps the court / the government see the merits of the client's claim and see that we're professionals rather than being distracted by errors that make us look like we don't know what we're doing / don't know the case). Her role is valuable to me because she helps me present a polished end product, while freeing up my time to do the things that a paralegal can't do, like be in court or write a brief.

I then told her that I don't expect absolute perfection, everyone makes typos now and then, but at this point I'm spending too much time editing her work, and I should not have to spend any time at all doing things like correcting the spelling of my own name. I told her nicely that when I ask for a draft I expect something as close to a polished finished product as possible, so I need her to take the time to re-read what she's giving me to make sure it's solid. Gave her a couple of examples of tasks I thanked her for doing, and how her errors created extra work for me. Suggested that I often find mistakes in my own work when I print it out, so I never turn anything in to the court or a client without printing it out and reading it beforehand.

Sound good? Good. Any questions for me? No. Comments? Nope. End of conversation. She now won't make eye contact with me in the office.

Not sure what to make of this but we'll see how the next few weeks go. I guess I was expecting either defensiveness, or something closer to what my reaction would have been if I had gotten this talk from a supervisor ("I'm mortified, thank you for letting me know, I'm sorry I was creating extra work for you, I will absolutely do my best to correct this, please let me know if there's anything else I should be doing to make sure I'm pulling my weight for the team...").
Disclaimer: I was a paralegal for three years before law school. During that time, I assisted some of the most aggressive, anal litigators that I've ever met (and also some of the kindest).

First, your update frustrated me because it seems like you're missing the obvious: if you lecture a person on her shortcomings and she reacts by actively avoiding eye contact with you, congratulations — that's a pretty good sign that she's mortified. Do you really need that verbalized? That's exactly how I reacted when an attorney chewed me out for "messing up" a document (mega-lolz when he found out he was wrong, too).

I feel like you've made a lot of assumptions about this woman's commitment to the job but you don't really know, do you? I don't know the set up of your office or if she's assigned to other people, but if her days are anything like mine were, HA if you think she's tossing it off solely because she makes mistakes. I would regularly have multiple attorneys passing work to me with "3pm deadlines" and even if I proofread things 5x before turning them in for review, I'd often miss things because I often didn't have the luxury to commit 100% of my attention to anything. It's not just a "no money, no motivation" thing, it's also a "no time, sry" thing. If that is the case, she needs to do what I did and start telling you lot to decide the pecking order of assignments at the start of each day. I won't even get into how hard it is to keep track of multiple work styles when everyone wants things a little bit different.

Have you tried asking her how she would like feedback, or have you just decided that the way you respond best to criticism is always the way to go? I get it, you're a lawyer, you're busy. All I'm saying is that I don't believe that any sane person would intentionally screw up if she knows you're going to come down on her because of it. Also, instead of telling her "This is important," try explaining what she's working on and why. Try familiarizing her with the client or case if she's not already in the know. Make her feel like her role is important and her work will probably improve.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Sat Jul 23, 2016 1:16 pm

OP here. Thanks for all the thoughts and feedback!

I was a paralegal before law school for several years, so I definitely know how hard it is to have work coming at me from different people, to have to juggle deadlines, etc. Maybe it's hard for me to relate to her because when I was doing this, I was interested in the field, thinking of going to law school, and so I was eager to learn the substance of what was going on and took a lot of pride in what I was doing.

I can see how it would seem like I'm making a lot of assumptions. She has told me directly that she does not like the work, and has no interest in the field.

I've tried a lot of the things mentioned above: explained the "why" of what's going on (her eyes glaze over and she never independently asks), ask how she would like feedback (shrugs), talking more informally. I use our case tracking system to assign tasks in an organized way that gives deadlines for each, and which explicitly notes which tasks are high priority hard deadlines, and which are "here's something you can work on if you happen to have downtime between other projects." I almost never ask for same-day turn-around, and if I do I either ask if she can do this today given her other priorities, or I offer to take a look at whatever else she has and take something else off her plate if necessary.

She has recently totally blown some of my high priority hard deadlines without so much as an apology (e.g. in writing on our task system: "here is a list of documents I need from X client, please call him by Y date to remind him, and make sure all the documents are in the folder by Z date. Tell me in advance if the client isn't cooperating." After Z date I look at the folder and realize there are no documents. I ask her what's up, and she hadn't even called the client. No, "oops I didn't have time," no "I'm sorry it slipped my mind." Just "no, I haven't.") I had to scramble to get it done and almost missed an important filing deadline. But if I had a checked in on her periodically the way I used to ("hey, have you called client X yet?") she would get annoyed at being micromanaged.
First, your update frustrated me because it seems like you're missing the obvious: if you lecture a person on her shortcomings and she reacts by actively avoiding eye contact with you, congratulations — that's a pretty good sign that she's mortified. Do you really need that verbalized? That's exactly how I reacted when an attorney chewed me out for "messing up" a document (mega-lolz when he found out he was wrong, too).
This is a good point and I take it to heart. My intention wasn't to make her embarrassed, and I hope I spoke to her in a professional and compassionate way. I do think a weakness of mine is that when somebody responds in a way that's so different how I would have in that situation and gives me no verbal signal of what's on their mind, it's hard for me to understand what's going on in their head. It's helpful to read from you and someone else above that monosyllabic responses would have been their response too because it came as such a surprise to me.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by 3lptr » Sat Jul 23, 2016 1:39 pm

I think you have to micromanage her or do it yourself. She is not going to change.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Sat Jul 23, 2016 3:14 pm

I've had similar experiences with paralegals who turn in poor work product. Usually, what happens is that the paralegal just does not have time to do the work because the firm has decided to skimp on support staff and as a result the paralegal has too much work to handle. Only on one occasion did I suspect that the paralegal was the type to consistently turn in poor work product and play dumb (like pretending to not know how to draft transmittal letters) knowing that associates will usually just do the work themselves rather than have a critical conversation or try to manage properly.

If the latter, than there is nothing you can do short of complaining to the person who manages paralegals and getting them fired. This is sort of built in to the biglaw system because biglaw typically does not hire paralegals and try to train them for a career.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by kalvano » Sat Jul 23, 2016 5:23 pm

In all fairness, someone shouldn't have to have basic grammar or spelling or proofreading explained to them and the importance of it if that is one of their main job requirements.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Sat Jul 23, 2016 6:13 pm

A lot of people here have pointed out that paralegals aren't treated well. Even if you aren't an asshole to her, there are still small ways to help along a positive relationship with the people you work with to hedge against any problems in the office. If you don't already, saying hello and goodbye every day when you can and trying to make conversation (though I know you are busy) might help, as will many other small things that don't really take a lot of your time. I know all ~biglaw associates~ deal with a lot of stress and some might neglect to do this kind of thing with support staff because of that, but thinking of it as just part of your job is helpful to you - they're just small efforts that aren't time-consuming but will help significantly reduce your own stress in the end. I agree with most of what BallOuttaControl said, and there's a difference between how people react to feedback from people they like, and how they react to feedback from people with whom they share a mutual no-shits-given relationship. I'm sure you've worked with a senior/partner/boss for whom you'd go above and beyond if they needed something, and others for whom you'd do only what's asked of you.

I say this even after I read that you've tried some of these things before, because I get the feeling that hearing this story from the paralegal's side would paint a really different story. In your posts, you've pointed out that you used to micromanage her, and I could see her feeling that the things you said in the meeting were condescending. You've focused on the fact that she doesn't like the work and has no interest in the field of law, but I mean, really all that means is she's not going to law school and has no intention of being an attorney. Her life and professional goals don't really explain her response to your feedback and her opinion of you, which is clearly what's at issue here. Spelling your name wrong multiple times and giving monosyllabic responses to your feedback - this is the behavior of a person with a grudge, not that of a person who doesn't care about going to law school and hates paralegal work.

And some of the comments in this thread tho. No money, no motivation is not a thing. If anyone can afford to do bad work and potentially lose their job for it because they don't care about their work and paycheck, it's probably not the people who are already making too little to make ends meet in whatever city they're living in. Even if it's true that paralegals make terrible money and this job is just another job for them, it doesn't mean they'd do shitty work without making an effort to fix it for those reasons alone. They might not be motivated enough to do their very best and make a good impression, as a paralegal looking to go to law school might, but blowing off deadlines with no apologies and no remorse is a different thing and indicates that there are other issues at play here.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by A. Nony Mouse » Sat Jul 23, 2016 9:50 pm

I think really what's going on here depends on whether this paralegal only treats the OP this way, or treats all the people she works with the same way. She could just be bad at her job and not want to hear criticism. Or it could be something specific to the OP. Like, she could be mortified because someone called her on doing crappy work, or she could be mortified because the OP handled it poorly. It's going to be really hard to tell without being in that office to see what's going on.

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Re: Helping a paralegal improve

Post by Anonymous User » Sat Jul 23, 2016 10:14 pm

OP again. She treats everyone this way. This was the reputation she had when I started working with her; I gave her the benefit of the doubt for a really long time and was quite friendly with her before I started supervising her directly. Maybe that's part of the problem -- we're not too far apart in age, and it's strange to transition from being friendly on a similar level, to me supervising maybe 40% of her work.

I think another part of the problem is that she and my boss have very incompatible styles, which has led her to build up a lot of frustration and resentment. When I started working, I heard my boss constantly complaining about her, but never giving her the specific feedback I thought she needed in order to understand how to meet his expectations, while she was frustrated and resentful that she wasn't getting the respect from him that she thought she deserved, so she gave him a lot of attitude and didn't do great work, which led to more resentment and disrespect from him, etc.

My hope was that my relationship with her could be different, because rather than accepting bad work product from her with no feedback, being resentful of her, treating her disrespectfully, thus completing the cycle with her feeling slighted and losing any motivation to do her job well... I would give her clear expectations and specific feedback, plus lots of appreciation and praise.

I guess it didn't work, and I am trying to figure out what lessons can be learned from it.

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