When you hire a personal injury lawyer, you will likely have a paralegal assigned to your case. Your paralegal is usually the one that is managing the day-to-day on your case file. This includes requesting and organizing your medical records, scheduling hearings and depositions, and, often, your primary contact on the case.
When you call the firm for a status update on your case, the paralegal will usually be the one to give you an update. Paralegals act as gatekeepers between you and your lawyer, keeping you (and all the other clients) from taking up all of the attorney’s time asking questions that don’t require a law degree to answer.
So why do some clients treat their paralegals rudely?
The Paralegal is Not Your Enemy
If it seems the paralegal keeps you from talking directly with your lawyer, you’re probably right. But that’s part of the job. Routine questions about what is going on with your case do not require your lawyer’s expertise to answer. When something important arises, like a deposition, a settlement offer, or an order from the court that affects your case, your lawyer will speak with you directly. Trust that your paralegal knows when you do or don’t need to talk directly with your lawyer. The paralegal has likely been screening calls and handling cases like yours for years.
I’m involved with several national trial lawyer groups, and I’ve taken informal surveys on this. Still, it’s hard to find exactly how many case files each firm assigns to their attorneys. I talked with one attorney (not in Oklahoma) who has a sizeable volume-based practice, and he said his associates average around 150 case files at any one time! That’s crazy volume.
It seems like most personal injury attorneys will have at least 50 clients at any given time (and for many, I am vastly understating that number). They cannot afford (time-wise) to talk with every client every day of the week. Otherwise, the legal work on their cases wouldn’t get done. Between working on existing cases, taking potential new client phone calls, and meeting new clients, your attorney’s free time disappears.
Think of it this way: If your attorney was in the middle of writing a brief for your case, would you want him or her to constantly be interrupted by “status” phone calls from other clients? Of course not. The paralegal keeps that from happening. In a way, the paralegal is like a triage nurse, helping to keep the attorney focused on time-sensitive matters. Frankly, a lot of times, a basic question about a case is not urgent. For those time-intensive matters, your paralegal will work just as hard to ensure other clients don’t distract your lawyer from working on your case. At those times, your paralegal is your best friend!
Bad Manners Won’t Get You Far
There is no excuse for a client shouting at or cursing at their paralegal. I don’t care how frustrated you are. I don’t care how “stupid” you think the paralegal is. If you are upset with how your case is handled, the best thing to do is make an appointment to come in and speak directly with your personal injury lawyer.
Remember, the paralegal does not work for you. He or she works for the attorney. If you have a legitimate complaint about your paralegal, address it the next time you speak with your attorney. Complaining to the paralegal won’t help your case, so talk with your attorney.
Keep something in mind before being abusive toward your paralegal or grossly overstating your grievance about the paralegal to your lawyer: Your attorney can fire you just as quickly as you can fire him or her. Do not think your lawyer won’t fire you for abusing the staff, but some won’t.
I had a client last year who was always super friendly with me, but one afternoon, I was working on a case in our conference room (a large table is more accessible for a large file). This was near where my paralegal was talking with the client who happened to stop by (he rarely had minutes on his cell phone, so he would randomly show up at least twice a week). He was belligerent to my paralegal– and after talking with him – he said he didn’t know why(!). So, I said – hey, if you’re not happy, we need to go our separate ways. No case is worth you yelling. After that, he was great to work with.
I’m much easier on clients who are abusive towards me than my paralegal (I guess I’m thick-skinned). Either way, I would much rather hear what you are frustrated with (insurance company, OU/OSU football, OKC Thunder, etc.) than listen to it secondhand.