The Things We Do…

8 06 2010

Every paralegal should read Practical Paralegalism on a daily basis. Lynne DeVenny runs perhaps the best paralegal blog on the ‘net filled with tips of the trade and humorous tales to get you through the day. Last week, she posted a piece on the changing role of paralegals in law firms. It’s definitely a piece to read when you’re having a bad day at work and you need to remind yourself that it could be, and used to be, worse. However, even though we no longer have to wash dishes or insert paper supplements into statute books, we are called on to perform tasks that make us scratch our heads and ask, “did I sign up for this.”

A few years ago, we experienced problems tracking data for national counsel for one of our largest clients. They had designed a new database for that specific purpose, but had very specific rules for updating data that made it difficult to generate accurate monthly and quarterly reports. National counsel commissioned me to head a project to draft an internal database for our office that would mirror the national counsel database.

While I welcomed the responsibility, I had very little experience using Microsoft Access and had no clue where to start. The database would track information regarding over 18,000 cases handled by our section and would require the analysis of tons of petitions, discovery, depositions and medical records. First, I decided to call a meeting with the paralegals and support staff in my section to get feedback on how we wanted the database to look (i.e. what features did they like about the NCC database and which features they would change). Next, I decided to buy a book on Access to acclimate myself further with the program.  I then began to construct the skeleton of the database.

For the next three months, when I wasn’t involved in case management of files, I worked on the database. After work, I would go home, eat dinner, rest and return to work at 9 P.M. and work until 1 A.M. I put in several 12 + hour days a week. Finally, we had a completed product to show our national counsel. Then began the project of reconciling the two databases.

What I originally viewed as a “data entry” project, turned out to be one of the most intensive legal research projects I have ever been assigned and, for that reason, one of the most gratifying projects.  Along the way, we experienced a lot of frustration and learning by trial-and-error, but all of the lessons, both practical and technological, continue to be an asset to this day.

What’s the most “wheels off” project you have been assigned? Did anything redeeming come out of it? Would love to hear your stories.



4 06 2010

About a year ago, our firm conducted an on-site document production for a client. Attorneys sifted through a storage building worth of boxes, flagged documents they wanted and our firm outsourced the scanning of these documents to a third-party vendor. The vendor scanned all documents onto external hard drives, sent them to our home office, where they routed them to the proper party. Our home office coordinated much of the project, but since the third-party vendor leased space in our building, they returned the finished hard drives to me to give to the vendor. The same agent from the vendor visited our office on each occasion and each time he asked to present a demonstration to my section on a particular software program his office designed. I told him that our section had no use for this particular kind of software, but he insisted that he could convince me otherwise.

After avoiding his phone calls and e-mails, I finally gave in and arranged for a demonstration for myself and one other paralegal in our section. We took the elevator up eight floors, arrived on time and found that the agent had forgotten our appointment. He apologized, invited us to his office’s conference room and patched in a sales call to our demonstration. After going through his entire presentation, he turned to us for gratification.

“Isn’t this program amazing? How often have you needed something like this?”

When we told him “never” and explained to him the areas our section focused on. He agreed that we would get little use out of his program.

I had a similar experience a few weeks later. Opposing counsel provided medical records through a third-party document production company. When I called to order a CD of the records, the agent tried to sell me another product. When I told him we had little use for that product in our practice, he began to ramble off a list of clients our firm represents out of other offices that would be perfect for the product. Again, I told him that we handled different clients out of our office and we had no say in the purchasing decisions of our other offices.

It seems like every week, another vendor contacts our office wanting to give presentations for their various products. They eat up valuable time that could be used on billable work and they refuse to listen to you when you tell them you have no use for their products. I’ve been in this position long enough to know the services I require and have a pre-set list of vendors I’ll call for these services. No amount of candy, lunches, gift cards or other perks will convince me to switch my loyalty.  I am not for sell.

Anyone else out there have any “horror” stories to relay regarding vendors?

4 Keys to Effective Writing

3 06 2010

Good writing skills allow us to maneuver a reader’s mind through a series of complex ideas. Success in the legal field hinges on our ability to do so on a daily basis, whether in an inner-office memo to an attorney or in a case evaluation letter to a client.  We must own our words and employ the proper mechanics at all times, even in our e-mails to co-workers. Remember these four keys as you write and watch as your writing evolves into a more powerful and effective craft.

1.) Grammar – Soon after I began my current job, I noticed a disturbing trend among e-mails from my co-workers. Inexcusable errors in grammar, syntax and verb tense filled my Inbox on a daily basis. I learned that these errors extended far beyond e-mails and into the drafting of pleadings and correspondence with attorneys, clients and carriers. Poor writing reflects badly not only on the writer, but on the firm as well. Practicing law involves communicating nuanced ideas. As such, even the most seasoned wordsmith stands to benefit from a refresher course on the “elements of style.” Pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and reference it whenever in doubt.

2.) Passive VoiceAvoid the passive voice! Consider these two different sentences:

“This memo was written to discuss techniques for effective writing.”‘ (Passive Voice)

“Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for effective writing.” (Active Voice)

One sentence feels lazy and leaves unanswered questions in the mind of the reader (who wrote the memo?); the other oozes action by a clearly defined subject.

3.) Adverbs – Though not as egregious as using the passive voice, adverbs fill our writing with superfluous words, making the other words less effective. Instead of “Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for writing effectively,” say “Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for effective writing.”

4.) Cliche – One of my political science professors issued the following line when assigning essays: “use English that makes the Buddha smile and the angels weep.” Though my professor made a good point, his statement leaves some room for interpretation (i.e. what kind of English makes the Buddha smile and angels weep) and lacks originality. Remember, in the introduction I implored you to own your words, using cliches prevents you from truly owning your words.