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5 Easy Pieces

Veteran legal assistants offer project management advice.

By Debra Levy Martinelli


You have three big cases and they are all set for trial, one right after another. You work on each case with one partner and two associates.

There are documents to analyze, deposition transcripts to summarize, trial exhibits to create, jury instructions to write, pretrial motions to draft and witnesses to prepare. On top of all that, other attorneys are seeking your expertise and assistance on discrete tasks.

How do you do it all and still keep all the partners and associates happy? By communicating, staying organized, prioritizing projects and personnel, learning to say ‘no’ and finding the right balance of professional fervor and personal skill, according to two veteran paralegals.

Learn to Communicate

Debra L. Smith Kaczmarek, a practicing paralegal for 22 years, joined the now 70-attorney Buffalo, N.Y., firm of Damon & Morey, 13 years ago. At that time, she worked with 15 lawyers and tended to take assignments from higher-ranking attorneys first, and then filled in with projects from others. These days, she works with a pared-down five-attorney team, including two partners, in the areas of personal injury and product liability defense, although plaintiff cases do trickle in from time-to-time.
She also is occasionally pulled into the firm’s labor law practice area, where she works on sexual and age discrimination cases.

“I think I get pulled into those cases because of my litigation skills and trial experience,” said Kaczmarek, who holds an associate’s degree in legal assistant studies from Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y., and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Buffalo State College. In all of her cases, she works on both liability and damages issues. Her duties include conducting a majority of the initial discovery, reviewing documents, attending meetings with clients and extensive trial preparation.

Over the years, Kaczmarek has developed a system for balancing her heavy and varied workload. Assignments from Thomas J. Drury, the senior partner with whom she works most closely, typically take priority. “He’s the busiest of the five and generates the most work,” she said. “And I just love working with him.”

Everyone else must prepare a memo to her outlining the tasks they wish to assign to her. She insists on the memos, she said, because they are the only way to keep track of multiple tasks. “The memo tells me what the assignment is, the issues to be addressed and the time frame for completion,” she said. “And it always ends with a ‘thank you,’ which goes a long way.”

But Kaczmarek said it’s crucial to recognize that you might not be able to give everyone who assigns you a project everything they want, especially with a heavy workload, particularly when faced with trial or other deadlines.

She said she is a firm believer that communication with all parties is absolutely critical when juggling multiple projects. “If time is a problem, negotiate a solution,” she said. For example, on receipt of a priority assignment, she might say, “I have a trial coming up in two weeks. How about if I get some help with this and get it to you immediately after?”

That way, the attorney knows the task will be completed in as timely a manner as possible, even if Kaczmarek herself doesn’t do it all.

Stay Organized

A paralegal since 1980, Mary L. Creekmore, a former legal secretary who holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, has worked in both private law firms and in the corporate environment.

With eight years of experience at a small firm under her belt, she was hired to work for the Philadelphia office of Cozen O’Connor, a firm of more than 400 attorneys in 18 offices.

There, she worked with partner Pat O’Connor for 10 years. She left to work at Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) and another large law firm. A year and a half ago, she was recruited back to Cozen O’Connor, where she currently works with partner Kevin Berry and senior associate Tom Fiddler.

Creekmore said she gets case assignments from both. “If I get assignments from each of them at the same time, Kevin’s usually gets done first, much to Tom’s dismay,” she explained. “But Tom recognizes his place in the pecking order.” If a situation arose in which Fiddler’s assignment was equally important but more time sensitive, Creekmore would explain the situation to Berry and let him take responsibility for prioritizing the assignments.

“You must keep all lines of communication open,” she explained. “Attorneys only see what you’re doing for them. Remind them you also work with other people.

“If you’re all on the same case team, communicate with everyone so the whole team knows what you’re working on. The paralegal can become the point person for team communication, managing the case and scheduling team meetings,” Creekmore noted.

She also pointed out that lawyers, by necessity, are often times more interested in case strategy and specific legal issues, and are therefore not the best case managers.

If you are the point person — or even if you aren’t — Creekmore advised keeping notes at team meetings and e-mailing all participants a summary reiterating the matters discussed and the assignments made. “It keeps everyone on task and moves [the] case along,” she said.

When Creekmore worked with Pat O’Connor several years ago, the practice was busy and document intensive. She managed the cases by being the self-proclaimed “file police.”

“I personally did all the filing, including the correspondence. When [O’Connor] asked, ‘Where is that letter Smith wrote four weeks ago?’ I would remember it almost immediately because I had touched it, I had read it,” Creekmore explained. “I know doing all the filing doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me. I knew every piece of paper.”

Although she no longer maintains case files (they are maintained by Berry and Fiddler’s secretary of 10 years), when she did, Creekmore was able to keep every piece of original paper in its proper place in the file by giving only photocopies to others working on the case. It was a simple method that ensured the file was always complete and anything could be easily located by anyone. She encourages any paralegal responsible for case filing to train team members to send original pleadings and correspondence to the paralegal.

“Develop strict guidelines for the file. You’re ultimately accountable for it,” Creekmore said. “Sometimes I’ve done what I call strip searches. I’ll go into an attorney’s office and say, ‘OK, what do you have in here that I need?’ I make jokes about it; I’m assertive, but nice. It might be harder for a younger paralegal just starting out to do that, but once you develop the confidence, you can. The first time you can’t find a letter, you [will] realize you need a system. Find something that works for you and your team.”

And Creekmore said she still keeps a paper, rather than electronic calendar. “I’m a dinosaur. If I write it down, I’ll remember it,” she said. It’s not the method of keeping the calendar that is important, it’s that one is kept and adhered to at all times, she said, adding that calendaring on a computer is equally effective.

Set Priorities

When she worked in PECO’s legal department, Creekmore was one of three paralegals working with seven attorneys. “We were assigned to a matter rather than to a lawyer,” she said. “Because I was afraid things would fall through the cracks, I kept track of things the old fashioned way: I made an assignment log, which I kept in a binder on my desk. When I was assigned to a case project, I logged it by date, assigning attorney, specific project and due date. The assignments were substantive — responding to complaints and discovery, drafting motions and subpoenas, and investigating cases in conjunction with the claims department. I was always mindful of the due date and, when the assignment was completed, I crossed it off the log.” Although she chose to create her log by putting pencil to paper, Creekmore said it could just as easily be done in a database or in Microsoft Outlook.

Creekmore’s method for keeping projects on the radar screen at all times is to keep a case-related to-do list that encompasses all tasks assigned to her on all of her cases. It could list preparing a subpoena in one case, following up on bankruptcy filing in another, and summarizing depositions in a third. Each entry is marked with the date the assignment is due.

She also keeps a working file on each of her cases. “Each file contains handwritten notes from meetings, copies of pertinent pleadings and anything else I need to complete my assignments,” Creekmore explained. In the corporate setting at PECO, she kept project folders containing everything on her assignment list for that particular project: the assigning memo, the complaint and anything else necessary to complete that task.

“If you stay organized yourself, you will be happy and you will keep everyone else happy,” Creekmore said. “It saves time later on if you’re organized at [the] beginning.” Her favorite way of making sure clutter doesn’t hinder progress on the case: “I don’t leave on Friday until the assignments I’ve completed are cleared out of my office.”

Kaczmarek, on the other hand, reconciles her too-much-to-do-and-too-little-time-to-do-it dilemma in two ways: maintaining visible lists of projects she will complete and, when that isn’t possible, delegating to others. “Many of the assignments I get through memos include scheduling independent medical examinations (IMEs). During the past year, because of a heavy trial schedule, the additional assignments have been a bit cumbersome. Scheduling an IME involves retaining an expert, sending records to the expert for review, gathering supplemental records and preparing for trial, all at the same time,” she explained. She keeps everything organized and prioritized — in writing — by keeping a bulletin board on which she posts every assignment and task.

“When a task is off my plate, whether I’ve completed it or handed it off to someone else for completion, it comes off the board and I know I don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Kaczmarek explained.

When Kaczmarek has more on her plate than she knows she can effectively and efficiently handle, she turns to some of the firm’s other five litigation paralegals. She might set up the actual IME, while another paralegal with a lighter workload might organize and send off the documents to the examining physician.

She also gets help from the firm’s secretaries. Three or four years ago, she said, the firm’s paralegals lost their individually assigned secretaries. The secretaries were put into a pool and the paralegals were given their own computers. She now does a lot of her own typing because she needs to generate things quickly, especially during trial. But if, for example, she needs a number of subpoenas, she will prepare the first one, which she then gives to a secretary as a template for the others.

In addition, Kaczmarek outsources routine tasks, such as obtaining records and copying documents, to outside companies. Because those specific areas are the service provider’s core business, she said it can complete those projects more efficiently than she can.

Just Say ‘No’

When an attorney comes to you with a project, is it ever appropriate to just say ‘no?’ “It’s hard, but this past year I’ve had to,” Kaczmarek said. “I’ve had a lot of trial work with Tom [Drury]. When he had multiple trials scheduled for the same time and assigned some cases to other attorneys, I didn’t move with those files. I stayed with him and the case he tried.” How does she do that without offending the lawyer to whom the case was handed off? “I demand — in a nice way — that I continue to work with Tom on his case,” she said. And, after 10 years of working together, it works.

When she is working on Drury’s cases, Kaczmarek said she has little difficulty prioritizing tasks because she has worked with him for so long. “We’ve worked together for 10 years,” she said, “so I don’t have to be told what tasks are priority. I know the trial schedule, the court requirements and all the deadlines.

“We both started in our respective professions at the same time. We’ve built up a trust and camaraderie that’s tough to break. We can anticipate how the other will react. Our personalities work well together. He allows me to do as much as I want on a case,” she said. “If your hand is in it, the lawyer has to depend on you. By doing everything you can on the case, you may create [your] own monster, because it’s a lot of work, but you can also control it somewhat.”

Finding a way to control the monster takes practice. It demands that you develop a system that works for you and those with whom you work. Sometimes it means delegating a project you wish you had time to tackle. And sometimes it means just saying “no.”

Find Your Balance

Organization isn’t a skill that is easily taught. Communicating effectively is even more difficult. But it can all begin once you have established your priorities. To achieve that goal, you must strike your own balance.

No matter how many books and self-help articles you read, it’s ultimately up to you to find your compass where establishing your priorities is concerned. And, ironically, to do that, you will need to use those other two skills — communication and organization to the best of your ability in order to be successful in your project management.

Talk to your local association members or use online paralegal communities to seek advice. Organize your schedule so you can take time — 15 minutes or one evening a month — to network with your peers on project management tips. Incorporate methods that fit your comfort level, and above all, commit yourself to doing the best job possible — always a top priority for any professional.

Once you strike that sometimes illusive, balance between work priorities and personal preference, you are on the road to achieving your other important professional goals.


10 Tips for Managing Multiple Cases, Tasks & Attorneys

  1. Ask questions about the assignment, the case, the trial and the strategy. It will help you be more efficient in your work.

  2. Write down your questions before you meet with the attorney with whom you are working. If he or she is busy, ask all your questions at once.

  3. Don’t hesitate to ask for help and delegate.

  4. Ask more experienced people for guidance. Someone probably helped them when they were in your shoes.

  5. Think about the whole picture. It will lend perspective to your part.

  6. Stay organized. Saving time at the outset will save time later on.

  7. Schedule things to help yourself remember when they are due.

  8. If you get pulled into another practice area for an assignment, ask the assigning lawyer to discuss the situation with your supervising attorney as a courtesy.

  9. Offer to become the point person on a case to facilitate team communication and organization. Schedule team meetings and make sure all team members are aware of case developments.

  10. If you can’t handle everything during normal business hours, decide whether you want to work more. Although there will always be times when you need to put in extra hours (when preparing for trial, for example), but for the long-term, you need to weigh the pros and cons of putting in more than a normal workweek on a regular basis.


Debra Levy Martinelli is an Oklahoma writer and former paralegal who holds a master’s degree in journalism.



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