So you’ve got your first law job and you’re keen to put some of that legal learning into practice. If you’ve never worked in a law firm before there’s going to be a steep learning curve, and because your firm’s clients aren’t hypothetical parties from a tutorial exercise, there are a few things you’ll need to get right first time…
Most matters dealt with at a law firm have deadlines: settlement dates, filing deadlines, court appearances, etc. You need to keep track of them. Missing these can have major legal or financial ramifications for your firm’s clients. Forgetting a court date can mean the client has to pay the other party’s costs, missing a settlement could mean a monetary penalty or that the deal falls through altogether.
Ever heard of the statute of limitations? Essentially, the law stipulates how long people have to bring an action. Different types of matters have different deadlines, so do your homework. If you miss the all-important date, the client will have to go through the extra expense of getting court approval to file their claim out of time and this permission is not always granted. If you’re in New South Wales, I recommend downloading the schedule of limitation periods from Law Cover and keeping a copy at your desk.
As a paralegal you’ll be handling a lot of documents: marriage certificates, certificates of title, contracts, wills, etc. You should always know where original documents are because in many cases, a transaction cannot be completed or an application may not be successful unless original documents are available. If documents such as a certificate of title are lost, they can be replaced, albeit at additional time and expense. However, some documents, such as an original will (where the testator is now deceased) are not replaceable. Take care of any original documents in your possession as the authenticity of damaged documents is sometimes questioned.
I know it’s totally exciting to be working in the law and you probably have some cool matters or some interesting clients. But don’t tell everyone about it. In fact, you can’t tell people about it. Legal matters are often personal and financially sensitive. Solicitors owe their clients a duty of confidentiality. Even as a paralegal you may as well start practicing.
Don’t advise clients
A client has asked you a question about their legal position and you know the answer. It’s exciting to know the solution to a real-life legal problem, but if you’re not a lawyer yet, legally you’re not allowed to give that advice. If you haven’t finished your studies there may be relevant laws that you’re yet to learn.
Communicate with your supervising solicitor
If you don’t know how to do something, ask. It’s simple, but it avoids so many problems. When you make a mistake, tell your boss straight away. Don’t try to fix it yourself or hope that it will go unnoticed. The sooner you tell them, the sooner they can take steps to fix it.
Hopefully all those tips and worst-case scenarios haven’t freaked you out. Law firm work is a fantastic experience; supervising solicitors are often wonderful mentors and the work you do really helps to give your legal education a practical context. Take all the opportunities that come your way and know that you’ll be a lawyer soon enough!
FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story first appeared on Survive Law on 8 April 2011.
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