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Paralegal Basics – How to Organize a File


 

 

Files seem to take on a life of their own and the problem is that most of them are not happy creatures.  Left to their own devices files can grow into these incredible monsters.  Trouble is that with so many other things creeping up on us every second of the day the time we have to dedicate to these monsters is very short.  The file monster is not very forgiving either.  It totally demands your attention, at least a few hours a week.

More often than not we can find new paralegals sitting on the floor of their office (or the paralegal area) totally bewildered looking down at a bunch of papers not knowing which end is up.  How could this file have gotten like this?  Good question.  The attorney must have gotten to it.  But he only had it for a couple of hours……. Yeah, it usually only takes them a few minutes.  Especially if they are looking for something in a hurry, on the way to court or on a call with a client….. it doesn’t take much to get a file looking like it’s been through a hurricane.

Usually what I do is sit down on the floor with them and encourage them to cry if they have to.  It’s ok….. I’ve cried too.  Heck sometimes I still do!!!!!!! All those non-billable hours spent organizing a file to find it back at my desk looking like that?  Anyway….. it wasn’t done on purpose.  Filing and organization is not one of the classes in law school.  That’s why they hired you.  You got this.

First things first:  Let’s separate the papers into piles that make sense.  A legal file is made up of a few subsections:

1.  Correspondence – you know what that looks like right?  usually has a date up at the top with the name and address of the lawyer or sender way at the top of the page.  Don’t worry about the dates for now.  That’s not important, not at this stage.

2.  Pleadings – This can be confusing for a new paralegal.  Sometimes discovery can look like a pleading so the way I explain the difference to new paralegals as well as the way I learn it  and keep it straight is by knowing that all pleadings get filed with the court.  So, if it has a court stamp at the top or if it’s something that was sent to the court clerk for filing you can bet it’s a pleading.  That goes into a second pile.  Make sure you have all the pages.  Usually the last page is the signature page and all pages are numbered.  Easy enough right?

3.  Motions – This is one is a tricky one.  Some law firms file the motions along with the pleadings.  After all, they are filed with the court.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that.  By doing it this way your pleading file will tell a story.  Making it easier to figure out why a pleading has been filed with a court.  However, I like to keep motions separate from the rest of the pleadings.  My reason for that is that usually he attorney will need to pull motions out of the file or respond to a motion and he/she doesn’t necessarily need the whole pleading file.  Also, sometimes the attorney needs to go to court to argue a motion.  There is no need to have the complaint and the answer (it’s only going to cause the same chaos you are now facing if the attorney has to pull papers out of a file for one little motion).  So for me, keeping it separate is key.  If necessary I can make copies of the motions, mark them duplicate and note where to find the originals.  Then I put a copy in with the pleadings and the original in a motion folder….. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

4.  Discovery – This is going to be all the other things that look like a pleading but don’t get filed with the court.  These are answers to interrogatories, responses to document requests.  The funny thing is that sometimes some of these may look like correspondence.  So you will have to read the first and second paragraphs of the letters to make sure it’s not a letter supplementing answers to interrogatories.

5.  Misc.  - Depending on what type of file these could be anything so you will have to label the folder accordingly.  If it’s a personal injury file this is probably going to be your medical records, your accident report, the retainer agreement (very important that you find this one) and all other papers that do not fall nicely into any of the above four categories.

Ok, you see, not so bad.  Now you have a more organized chaos on your floor and a little bit more room to move around.  So we can move to a different area to dry our tears.

Next you are going to one pile at a time.  Let’s say you picked the correspondence file.  I usually pick this one because it’s usually the largest pile and because after reading the correspondence I’ll more of less know what should be in the other piles.  I will also know the story of the file a little bit better.  So go ahead, read on.  It can be fun.  I have found some really funny letters written by the clients or the adversaries and it always makes for some good humor while doing a really boring job.  While you are reading this file make sure you put it chronological order.  At this point, if it’s a very old file, I start making piles with the correspondence.  I separate it by year.  Make sure you start with the oldest correspondence.  Work your way to the present.  Now the correspondence is done.  Have you noticed?  There aren’t that many more papers.  All the other stuff is just bulky but usually not as much as the correspondence.

By doing the largest pile you will feel more accomplished and you will feel like you can conquer any other task thrown at you.  Be ready, other tasks will be thrown at you….. Just a thought.

Now pick up the pleadings.  You also want to make sure you file these in chronological order.  Most firms file pleadings in pronged folders.  If this is the way your firm operates then go ahead.  They are less expensive than three ring binders so usually that why they do it that way.  I like the three ring binder because if I have to get a pleading out of the file I don’t have to get all the other pleadings out.  Anyway, in this case you have to go with what you’re given.  Wait… Don’t put them in yet.  At this point, punch holes in the the papers and organize them.  Next sit at your computer and let’s start the pleading board.

For those of you who don’t know what a pleading board is….. it’s not a scientific term.  Yeah, I know, lawyers like to speak in their own language.  I find it interesting.  A pleading board is a table of contents.  Begin by entering the name of the first pleading and with number tabs separate each of them.  So your pleading board will look something like this:

1.  Complaint ………………………………………… January 1, 2014

2.  Answer to Complaint ………………………….. March 15, 2014

So on and so on and so on….. continue until you’ve listed all the pleadings.  This always gives me such satisfaction.  By the time you’re all done it will look so pretty and the file starts to take shape.  It’s starting to look more like a legal file and not so much like a crazy pile of papers and you are taming the monster.

Once you are done with the pleadings move on to the motions.  For me, each motion resides in it’s special folder.  I worked at a law firm where the motions had a special color folder….. actually all documents had special color folders.  I liked that very much.  It made it easy to find the documents you were looking for.  However, if that’s not what you have then a regular manila folder is fine. Just make sure you label each folder appropriately and include the date the motion was filed with the court.  All corresponding documents go into that file.  So when you pick up the motion file you have the entire history of that motion.

Same thing goes for discovery.  The only difference is that discovery (answers to interrogatories, responses to document productions) will have to be broken apart.  Reason?  Well, answers to interrogatories and responses to production of documents come with large documents.  If this is a personal injury file you will have medical records and these are very bulky at times.  So what I do is keep the responses neatly in the folder and then right behind those I put in files for each of the records received with the responses.  So I will have hospital records, doctors’ notes and records, auto accident…. etc.

The last thing you have left on your floor will be the misc. stuff.  These can be anything.  There will be attorney’s notes, which I suggest you keep in a separate file.  Attorneys sometimes take notes on post-it notes, napkins anything they can get their hands on when they’re on the phone or speaking to a client on the way out of the court house.  make sure you put all these in the folder. I normally make a copy of the post notes so they are the same size as the other papers in the file.  It ensures that these little papers are not going to get lost and the file looks neater.

You will have deposition transcripts and these although not necessarily misc. stuff need their own folders.  Most of the time there will be a manuscript and a regular transcript.  I keep both together with my summary.

There you are.  In a few hours we have organized a file.  Don’t get discouraged if it takes you longer than a few hours.  My suggestion is that you do it when it’s a quiet in the office and you have a few straight hours to do it.  Remember most of it is going to be non billable time so make sure you can afford to do that.  It needs to get done so you will have to find the time to do it.  Maybe it can be done over the course of a few days.  This way you are not losing that much time on your billable hours.  Also remember some of it can probably be billed.

1.  Are you reviewing the medical records as you go along?  If you do, remember to bill for review and analyze medical records pertaining to …..

2.  Are you going to respond to document productions? or Interrogatories?  Then bill time for the review of documents (name the documents) to assist in the preparation of responses to…..

Most of all, have fun.  Organizing a file is a boring job but you can make it fun.  See if you can tell a story.  See if you find something no one else has found.  I would always compete with some other paralegals when working on large files to see who could come up with the best story or the better angle.

Being a paralegal can be and is fun if you take pride in what you do.  I have been doing it for 20 years and I still think it’s one of the best career choices I ever made.

Let me know how you do and if you have questions, please feel free reach to to me.  I’d love to hear from you.

XoXo

Ana

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in paralegals, Professional Issues

 

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Paralegals are your greatest asset


Ok, so this is just my humble opinion but it’s based on facts which as a paralegal, I am trained to do.  So what are the fact?  Why are paralegals your greatest asset?

What are the facts?

Fact – Paralegals cannot represent clients in court.  Yes, that is true.  We cannot go to court with the client and represent them by ourselves, that is.  I have been to plenty of courts with my attorneys and sat right next to them through the entire proceeding.  We can and do assist during a trial by providing research on the spot and since most of the time we know the file inside and out we can pull out discovery while the attorney is on his feet and make his/her life easier by having all the documents marked and ready for review by the witness.  Makes the attorney’s life so much easier.  At least that’s what I’m told.  Another fact, we do all this at a lesser cost than a first year associate.  That is welcomed news for the client.  Imagine, having a helping hand in court who is knowledgeable about court proceedings and the file for half the cost, most of the time.  Trained properly a paralegal can provide more help than a first year associate when she/he sits next to the attorney in court.

Myth – Paralegals can be more costly because I’ll still have to use a lawyer to sign the paperwork prepared by the paralegal – You’re right, an attorney has to supervise the activities of the paralegal.  However, the paralegal prepares the documents.  I’ve prepared complaints, answers to complaints, requests for productions, motions of all kinds, trial notices, subpoenas, briefs……you name it, I’ve prepared it.  Some of this documents can take hours and sometimes days to prepare and are billed out at a paralegal rate…. again, half of what the first year associate’s rate.  The attorney will then take an hour to review and sign and the rest is history.  The paralegal prepares the cover letter, makes the copies files the documents away and all this has taken an hour of the attorney time.  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other things the attorney can busy himself/herself with.  Paralegals are never going to take the place of the lawyer and we don’t want to, let’s just be clear here.  Most of us do not …. let me repeat that…. DO NOT want to be attorneys.  We are perfectly happy being paralegals.  Can you imagine getting to the end of the month and sending your client a bill for half of what it would have cost him if you didn’t have a paralegal working on the file?  Yeah, I’ll give you a little bit of time to think about that. Let me illustrate:

Bill to client for an initial meeting and filing a complaint in Superior Court in New Jersey:

Lawyer only bill $600 per hour:

Phone call  or meeting with client 1 hour billed at $600

Draft Complaint 3 hours $600 X 3 = $1,800

Cost for filing the complaint $200

Grand total = $2,600


 

Lawyer with one paralegal, lawyer billed at $600 and paralegal billed at $300

Phone call or meeting with client for initial intake 1 hour Paralegal Time – $300

Draft Complaint 4 hours (let’s say it takes the paralegal longer) $1,200

Attorney review and sign complaint 30 minutes $300

Cost for filing the complaint $200.00

Grand Total = $2,000

So, as you can see you have saved your client $600 and in the process you, the lawyer, have been able to do something else while your paralegal is taking care of the work in the office.  Instead of spending 5 or 6 hours handling this case, it has taken you only 30 minutes to review the complaint, give your paralegal instructions for filing the complaint and the client has saved $600, which to me looks like a happy ending.

Fact - Training paralegals is less expensive in the long run than training lawyers how so, you may be asking.  Well, it’s normal for a first year associate to be looking to make partner at some point.  What does this mean?  it means that the associate eventually will be making almost as much per hour as you are billing him/her out.  Adding partners to your practice can be costly and if you decide that you are not going to make them partner they will go and find that partnership somewhere else.  This means that you have spent time and resources training that first year associate only to watch him/her leave your firm and go somewhere else with the knowledge you have given them.  Paralegals?  We don’t want to be partners.  It’s a fact that most of us stay at our jobs longer than attorneys do.  As long as the work is challenging and we are treated well we will stay and continue to provide you with 100% of our dedication.  The longer we stay and the more time you invest in us the better we become and those 4 hours that it took us to draft that complaint up there…. eventually it will only take us 2 or 3 hours.  We are resourceful and our goal is to make you look good.  Training a paralegal to be the best she can be can only benefit you.  We also develop great relationships with your/our clients.  If you notice, we are the ones on the phone with them most often, more often than not we get to know their families, medical histories and we become the first people they call when they feel they need a lawyer.  It costs them less money to speak with us so why not? So what’s a client going to do when they need a lawyer?  They are going to call someone they know and trust and most of the time it’s your paralegal whom they have gotten to know and trust.

So, have I given you enough reasons to hire a paralegal or more in your practice?  I can tell you that you should have one or two paralegals per lawyer in your office and if you do that you would come out on top. A well set up paralegal department, even if it’s only two paralegal with a well organized and divided work load can be the….. actually will be the greatest investment you can make today in your firm and set yourself up for the future.  Don’t take my word for it…… work out the figures yourself or if you prefer, contact me for more information.

Ana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2014 in Attorneys

 

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Associate or Paralegal


when you graduated law school and hung that proverbial shingle outside of your small office you hoped against all hopes that one day you would find yourself in the situation you are in today. There was a very small chance that your practice would grow so much that you had to face the decision of hiring some help.

Yes, you have a secretary. She’s great. You really lucked out when you hired her. You have a great relationship with her. You hear the horror stories about some secretaries and thank your lucky starts that yours is professional and always willing to help. However, there are things that she just can’t do. Not because she’s not intelligent enough to do them but that’s not what’ she’s been trained to do. Draft motions, review discovery, research and write memos, all the things you did before this huge client hired you to represent him. You really hit the jack-pot this time. You have arrived.

You need to find someone to do all those things. Otherwise you will be in the office 24 hours a day with no hope of ever seeing day light again and, worst of all, not being able to drum up business and keep the momentum going. There are business meetings to attend, conferences to prepare for and travel to and … horror of horrors, there’s that trial starting in a few weeks that may take a month or more in court. What will you do then? How will you work on your other cases? You have, after all, more than one client. Shhhhh don’t tell that one client. He/she doesn’t know that yet.

So now you have two choices. You can hire a first year associate and bill him/her out at $300. The clients will think it’s a bargain. After all, it’s less than what they are currently paying you. Sounds good doesn’t it? You’ll have to hire someone right out of school because you can’t pay them that much and after all, you’re running a business and the goal is to have more money coming in the door with both of you billing. Or you can hire a paralegal. You can’t bill her as high as you would a first year associate and you will have to supervise her work and still spend some time at the office. However, you can hire an experienced paralegal because paralegals make less than attorneys and with your budget you can pay a pretty competitive rate. You can then bill her out at $200, and all you have to do is review her work and supervise her activities in the office and with the rest of your time you can drum up more business.

Recently, while you were sitting in court you heard someone talk about the paralegals in their office. Even the guy down the street has one first year associate and two paralegals working for him. He seems to be doing well and his practice seems to be growing at a much faster pace than you. He also seems to have more time to go to seminars and meet with clients. You’ve always wondered how he did that.

Paralegals That’s how he did that.

Let me put into perspective for you. Let’s compare what you can do in both scenarios.

Remember when you first graduated law school? How many motions had you filed? Did you know how to navigate the court system? What clerks to call? Response schedules? Filing dates? You know, all the procedural stuff that you learned while working at that other law firm for the first two years of your career? Yeah, that’s what you’re going to get when you hire a first year associate. You will have to fully train that person. When you hire an experienced paralegal you don’t have to spend your time doing that. The paralegal already knows how to navigate the system, which motion to file when, what documents to sent with which motion, how to e-file and even, at times, which clerks are easier to work with.

Has your choice become easier now? How about this? The paralegal can prepare all the pleadings you need, reach out to clients and interview witnesses, draft your memos, organize your medical files, have all your discovery ready and organize before you come back from court at the end of the day. The beauty of that is that you will be paying this individual, with experience, probably half of what that first year associate would be asking.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that eventually you will and should hire that first year associate. Next year you can hire the associate and the paralegal can train him/her and the office will never miss a step.

Now, to develop a program where a paralegal can thrive? That’ll be my next post. Stay tuned.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Attorneys, paralegal management

 

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For the Lawyers


In today’s economic times everyone is looking for most economical way of delivering services. The goal is to maintain the same type of client service for less cost. Ultimately, we all want to deliver the same product while spending less. For a law office, be it small or large, the best way to accomplish this goal is hire paralegals.

Ok, so you went ahead and did it. You put out an add in the local paper or called your local college and hired one paralegal. Now what?

The first thing I’d like you to consider is that paralegals are professionals. Let me repeat that … Paralegals are professionals. Most of us have career goals and aspirations as much as that first year associate you also just hired. As paralegals we would like, again just as that first year associate, to have a career path and know that there is a career track. Being a paralegal is not the end of the road for most of us. It is just the beginning.

So, this area of my blog is for the lawyers. See the tab up-there titled “For Attorneys.” These will be posts created especially for the hiring partners of the HR specialists that want to bring their practices to the next level.

In these posts we will discuss how to hire your paralegal staff, how to develop a paralegal program and how to train your paralegals to achieve optimum results. I say WE because the intent is to have this be an interactive discussion.

I look forward to working with you even if only virtually :)

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2011 in Attorneys

 

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“All Roads Lead to Rome”


This to say that there are many routes to get to where you want to be.  I get asked, many times, how I became a paralegal.  My professional ascension to the paralegal halls was not much different from those paralegals that have been in the profession for as long as I have.

While in college I thought I wanted to go to law school, however, all I knew about the law was from watching legal shows on television.  It all looked so glamorous.  They all had great cases and were all stars in court.  They all knew exactly what to say and always wore the nicest clothes.  Was that what I was wanting to be or did I really want to be a lawyer?  I decided that in order to better understand what a lawyer does I would have to spend time with lawyers.  I was determined to find a job in a law firm and give myself some time to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I’m still waiting for the grow up part, but at least now I know that I am doing is exactly what I always wanted to do…. but I digress.

Growing up I lived in an area with a large population of Portuguese immigrants.  I can speak the language and I could translate, I thought.  I just needed to get my foot in the door.  I lived with my parents and they were going to pay for some of my college and the rest would be loans so I would not need that much money from a job.  Yeah, I was one of the lucky ones.

I searched the papers for any job postings in the area law offices.  There were some but most of them required experience.  As I said, unless they were looking for experience watching law shows, I was not going to qualify.  However, I have always believed that the only limitations are those you impose on yourself and I was determined to find something, therefore, I couldn’t let anything stop me.  I called one of the telephone numbers that was advertising for a legal secretary.  The advertisement called for someone with one or two years experience as a legal secretary and fluent knowledge of Portuguese.  Hmmm… I thought.  I have one of those.  So one out of two is not bad.  I made an appointment with the hiring partner.  It was a small firm, there was no Human Resources Department.  I interviewed with the attorney for whom I would be working.

After a few minutes of speaking with the attorney and explaining to him that I had never had a job in a law office or been a secretary.  Heck… the only thing I knew about typing was the one course I took in high school on how to type.  I could type a college paper but I had never taken dictation.  Yeah, in those days secretaries took dictation.  I started to realize that I was not going to get the job unless I was able to give him something he was not able to say no to.  So I explained to him that I was very fluent in Portuguese, I had just came from Portugal a few years prior and I would do all of his translations.  Although I could not, at that time, take dictation, I was willing to learn and I was a fast learner and I would work for him for free for three months in any position he chose.  If at the end of the three months I was not working out he could fire me, no questions asked.  He smiled.  He thought about it and right there and then he decided that he would give me a job.  He told me later that the reason he did that was that no one had ever been that eager to get a job and he thought that someone with that much “guts” would be a good worker.

I started out being a file clerk. I learned to tell the difference between a pleading that needed to be filed in the pleading board and interrogatories that needed to go into a discovery folder.  I learned how to type a request for medical records and what types of paperwork needed to be filed with a motion.  I read as much as I could while I filed all the millions of paper that are produced in a law office.  I asked questions when I couldn’t figure things out on my own and I made it a point to learn from everyone in the firm.  I even learned how each lawyer liked his coffee (there were only three lawyers).  I stayed late and started early and I made myself available when there was a need for witnesses for wills or other documents.

After the three months were up, the lawyer called me into a meeting with the other two partners and offered me the secretary position.  This is how I started.  I still had a lot to prove but I had a good foundation at this time.  Had this not worked out, I would have at least had the foundation and been able to get a job somewhere else and claim to at least have some knowledge and … If you think about it, my goal was reached.  If you recall when I decided to get the job I was only trying to find out if I wanted to go to law school.  I wanted to see what it would be like to be a lawyer.  After three months I had spent enough time with lawyers to at least have an idea if I wanted to attempt law school.

So that was my first job.  From that first job I’ve worked in other firms.  I was a legal secretary for very large law offices as well small law firms and sometime after I learned about paralegals.  I set my goals on becoming one.  I was always good at finding opportunities and when they arose I was never shy about taking them.  There is nothing like taking the bull by the horns.  Decide what you want to do and do it.

It has taken me close to seventeen years to get to where I am and along the way I decided that law school was not for me.  Ohhh I applied, was accepted, deferred my acceptance and ultimately decided that being a paralegal was exactly what I wanted to be.

Do you need to go to paralegal school?  For me it was not necessary.  I came into the profession at a totally different time.  The competition was not as steep as it is today.  Most lawyers didn’t know what a paralegal was or how to assign work to a paralegal.  Most of time the secretary would do all the work done by a paralegal today.  There were enough hours in a day for a secretary to accomplish both tasks.

Today I am a paralegal supervisor for a very large bank in New York.  I supervise a small paralegal department and looking towards my next goal.  I’ll keep this one to myself for now until I can figure out how to go about it.  It’s in the works.  Stay tuned.

So…, why does it always seem like I have such a long winded ways of saying things?  Anyway, there are many ways of becoming a paralegal.  Today, there are other opportunities you can take.  There are many schools that offer paralegal programs as well as internships.  Take every opportunity placed in front of you.  Keep your eye on your long term goal and go for it.  Don’t discount anything just because it does not fit into your immediate plan and have fun.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2011 in paralegals

 

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