The Paralegal-Client Relationship
When an individual seeks an attorney, it is often in response to an unanticipated circumstance or crisis – and without insight into how the legal system operates. Paralegals, under the supervision of an attorney, play a significant role in helping clients navigate the legal system. They perform tasks requiring knowledge of the law and legal procedures. By definition a paralegal is an individual qualified through education who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity to perform delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.
The Benefits of a Paralegal
Paralegals wear multiple hats. They manage the many details involved in preparing a case from its inception through trial. The paralegal serves as a liaison between insurance adjusters, clients, investigators, witnesses, and court officials. Paralegals review and organize client files, conduct factual and legal research, and prepare documents for legal transactions. Paralegals also listen attentively to clients and guide them through anticipated and unforeseen situations as they arise. As such, it is extremely important for the paralegal to develop a good rapport with the client.
Establishing an ongoing relationship with the client enables the paralegal to actively engage with the client, anticipate the client’s needs, obtain invaluable information to help defend or build a claim and/or lawsuit, ease the client’s stress in dealing with the impact of the legal process, and help the attorney(s) prepare the case for settlement or trial. In essence, paralegals are the behind-the-scenes navigators, often acting as buffers or shock absorbers when handling clients’ personal concerns. It is the paralegal who often acts as counselor and confidant by lending an ear and giving clients needed encouragement and reassurance during the trying process. Situations could include a heartbroken spouse filing for a divorce, an emotionally traumatized individual trying to reduce the consequences of involvement in a crime, an incapacitated person filing a personal injury claim, or a family member calling on behalf of a loved one who suffered abuse at the hands of another. It could be elder care abuse from different facilities or in-home abuse, or an employee that suffered injuries because of a defective product in the work environment. Simply put, paralegals help people. They also play a critical role in helping their employers be more efficient by providing all applicable information needed to support their cases. This can be easily translated into increased revenue for the firm. They also help clients every step of the way, which can have a significant impact in their clients’ lives.
Paralegals typically have frequent contact with clients. They are often called upon to communicate with them at every stage of the process, which includes the initial interview, the discovery process, and trial preparation. If the paralegal can gain the client’s trust, then it makes the process of gathering information from the client much easier. Sometimes, clients withhold information because of fear that it may negatively affect and jeopardize their case, they feel embarrassed about something that occurred in the past, or simply feel it is insignificant to the circumstances of their case. A good paralegal-client relationship will enable the paralegal to obtain any information the client wishes to withhold. Additionally, ongoing paralegal-client communication allows the paralegal to guide the client on how to best navigate the process while involved in the legal system, answer discovery requests, complete legal documents, and maintain an open dialogue about care, treatment, and any other aspect of the case.
Clients come to the law firm with a multitude of issues, including, but not limited to, fear due to loss of income and/or employment, recently developed disabilities due to accidents or other negligence, and family dynamics, including stress and anxiety over what may be. Paralegals have the ability to explain the legal process in simple terms to make it easier for the client to understand, help the client center his or her focus on doing what is most helpful for the situation, and help both the client and the firm achieve their mutual goals.
The Litigation Paralegal
Because the paralegal may not be in the courtroom, the paralegal’s involvement during the litigation process is often unseen and therefore not fully understood. Paralegals are usually charged with providing support and guidance to the client as the case proceeds to trial or resolution. This is accomplished by ongoing communication with the client, to help ensure the client is calm, prepared, available, and satisfied with the firm’s representation. The paralegal will also have ongoing communication with experts and lay witnesses on the client’s behalf. During the course of litigation, the paralegal will engage with experts from various fields (i.e., neurologists, vocationalists, life care planners, material handling experts, and accident reconstructionists) in order to facilitate a good outcome for the client. The paralegal will also work with the client to ensure that these experts have all the necessary information needed to properly evaluate claims, and if necessary, arrange for the client to personally meet with the experts. Developing a relationship with a client enables the paralegal to fully understand the process from the client’s perspective and motivates the paralegal to work tirelessly to achieve the optimal outcome on the client’s behalf.
Continuing education courses can facilitate the paralegalclient relationship by helping to generate empathy while learning about the experiences, feelings, and other psychosocial dynamics during client interactions. These can include, but are not limited to, concurrent and historical events, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from personal traumas, the effects of a traumatic divorce altering family dynamics, traumatic brain injury resulting from accidents, or the loss of a loved one due to another’s negligence. A paralegal’s comprehension of these dynamics will certainly help them be responsive and have compassion for clients.
The paralegal-client relationship is vital to any firm and can make a major difference in the handling of a case. The smallest detail can change an outcome of a case and forever transform the lives of everyone involved. The paralegal’s ability to answer client questions, maintain and document the file, obtain information from the client while assisting the attorney in coming up with solutions for a case, and walking the client through the legal process is invaluable and can be quite rewarding. In reality, it is the paralegalclient relationship that provides the foundation for an attorney’s success, although the attorney gets the credit for his or her contributions. The paralegal’s ability to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together is crucial to the success of cases, court proceedings, and the personal lives of clients. Additionally, these skills increase the likelihood of potential client referrals. Without the paralegal-client relationship, the legal profession simply would not be the same. Paralegals are the backbone to every successful attorney.
About the author:
|N’Keesia Vaughn-James is a Paralegal Case Manager with Caputo & Mariotti Law Offices, a general practice law firm in Moosic, Pennsylvania. She specializes in Plaintiff’s Personal Injury. She has been a paralegal for 25 years and has gained experience in New York and Pennsylvania.