For Mary Powell, there’s something special about August 22. In 1988, that was the day she was promoted from paralegal to office manager at Faison Law Group in Durham. Twelve years later, Aug. 22, 2000, she noticed that her quote-of-the-day calendar said, “You don’t manage people; you manage things. You lead people.”
Powell, now a paralegal manager, tore off the quote from U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper and hung it next to her desk, where she sees it every day. It has become the philosophy she seeks to live by.
The question rings true for many paralegal managers, most of whom started out as paralegals, knee-deep in day-to-day details and case deadlines. Those who move into the ranks of management find themselves in a variety of situations: working managers who continue handling cases, full-time managers who solely supervise paralegals, directors who oversee multiple offices.
Whatever their duties, paralegal managers seem to agree that being a supervisor is more than just an advanced form of paralegal work – it’s a different scope of responsibilities requiring distinct skills. While a strong paralegal background is generally considered a prerequisite, equally important are being able to effectively manage people, coordinate caseloads and serve as a liaison among paralegals, attorneys and clients.
Paralegal managers also are closer to the nitty-gritty of office politics, deciding who deserves a promotion, and counseling and firing difficult employees. It’s not a job for the faint of heart, but those who succeed in this role say it’s deeply satisfying – the reward comes in keeping everything running smoothly.
The Georgia-based International Paralegal Management Association, the primary professional resource for paralegal managers, will offer a seminar for new managers on April 20 in Atlanta.
According to the IPMA’s 2011 salary survey conducted with ALM Legal Intelligence, average salaries for managerial positions are $86,548 for a paralegal coordinator, $93,152 for a working manager/supervisor and $114,834 for a paralegal manager.
IPMA President Stacie Straw began her career as a paralegal, but is now the director of human resources for O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles. She believes the ability to adapt and multi-task is a manager’s most critical skill.
“Law firms are such intense environments and a lot of things come up at the last minute. If your staff is busy, it’s going to take some juggling to make it work,” she said. “Having strong interpersonal skills is important when those emergency requests come up.”
Unlike other kinds of businesses, where managers might have final say on how to handle their staffs, in a law firm that typically falls to attorneys, Straw pointed out.
“You have to be able to…be diplomatic in working with them and working through any difference of opinion you have,” she said.
She noted that new managers often face an unexpected adjustment when it comes to navigating office dynamics.
“People sometimes get frustrated because they think, ‘Okay, I’m going to come in and supervise paralegals and get all these great things done,’ but once they get into the more political side of management, they see they may not always accomplish what they want to accomplish,” she said. “They might have to draw other people in and get buy-in for their ideas before they can make them happen.”
Mary Powell, Paralegal Manager/Office Manager, Faison Law Group, Durham
Powell keeps tabs on all the medical malpractice cases handled by her firm’s attorneys, four in-house and one of counsel.
“I’m responsible to make sure that all of the requirements are met by all of my paralegals for particular cases they are working on,” she said. “I’m sort of a safety net.”
Since joining the firm 25 years ago, Powell worked as an administrative assistant and paralegal before taking on greater responsibilities. Today, she supervises three paralegals and six staff in accounting and administrative support, though she has supervised up to 30 people.
“Supervising the size I have now is relatively easy,” Powell said. “When I had a larger group of paralegals, one of my most difficult responsibilities was balancing the case load.”
To assign cases to paralegals in a way that gets the job done without overly burdening anyone, a manager must be familiar with case deadlines, depositions and discovery flows, and how they will affect the work load as the case progresses.
“If you do it right on the front end, it does not involve a whole lot of changing, but it does require a little bit of juggling every now and then,” Powell said.
She is copied on every case-related e-mail so she can track key milestones and assist paralegals when they have questions. She also ensures that attorneys get what they need, when they need it. The role of being a coordinator appeals to her: “What I enjoy most is seeing it all happen – getting questions and being able to smooth the way so that everybody’s needs are met and it all gets done with as little stress as you can possibly put on someone.”
The key difference between her role and paralegals’ is that they focus on day-to-day details, while Powell watches the big picture. Sometimes, that means doing something few managers enjoy: giving constructive criticism in a way that leaves paralegals cooperative, not defensive.
“It is much easier said than done,” she said. “The first several years when I would have to call someone in to talk to them about something they were not doing right, or ways they could improve themselves, I spent hours getting ready for it.”
Early in her career, Powell took a management skills seminar, which she recommends to anyone new to supervising.
“Anytime you want to manage one person or 100 people, learn from anybody and everybody you can how they were successful in doing the same thing,” she said.
Brad Baber, Director of Paralegal Services, Troutman Sanders, Atlanta
As the director of paralegal services for Troutman Sanders, Brad Baber manages 100 employees in 14 offices, including Hong Kong and Shanghai. His team has mostly paralegals, but also fiduciary accountants, legal nurse consultants, assistants and others.
Baber started his career in 1988 as a paralegal, but was soon promoted to a paralegal recruiting and training coordinator position and then paralegal manager in 1999. One of the trickiest parts of moving up the ranks was adjusting to a new dynamic with coworkers, he said.
“One day I’m just like everybody else, every other paralegal, and the next day I have some management and supervisory responsibility in the group,” he said.
At his previous firm, Baber was the first paralegal manager, so most of his peers welcomed the idea of having someone dedicated to their needs. But a few paralegals were suspicious of Baber’s new status, he said; it took time to convince them he was committed to creating a better work environment.
Serving as that advocate, in fact, can be one of a paralegal manager’s most valuable roles. Too often, Baber said, paralegals get overlooked between attorneys and support staff.
“We work in a world where there are attorneys and non-attorneys, and so paralegals get lost in that mix,” he said. “Having a paralegal manager, I think, helps to bring the focus onto them a little bit more and demonstrate to the firm the value of a manager and the value of a paralegal.”
In 2001, Troutman recruited Baber for a unique opportunity – serve as the firm’s first paralegal manager and build a paralegal development program. In doing so, Baber has spent significant time on human resources: hiring, training, performance reviews, work assignment and team-building.
“It’s important to me, even though I have 100 people, that I have a good working relationship and open communication with everybody, even if it has to be primarily over the phone because of the distance,” he said.
But paralegals aren’t the only ones with a stake in a manager’s performance – a good manager also must work well with attorneys.
“Attorneys are smart, they’re strong communicators, they’re strong personalities, and I think you need to bring those qualities to the table to be able to interact successfully with attorneys,” Baber said. “Oftentimes, you are trying to persuade an attorney to make a certain staffing decision or to work in a different way or try new things.”
One strategy is to make sure attorneys recognize paralegals’ value. Accordingly, Baber devotes a good deal of time to tracking, analyzing and reporting his department’s contributions.
“I spend a lot of time in spreadsheets and financial reports and productivity reports, so being able to move fluently in those areas and with those technology tools, I think, is critical,” he said.
When the pieces come together through a combination of good hires and good coaching, it’s rewarding to see paralegals with the right skills and the right attitude, he said.
Joanne Mayopoulos, Paralegal Supervisor, Duke Energy, Charlotte
In addition to supervising paralegals at Duke Energy, Mayopoulos also serves as the co-chair of IPMA’s Carolinas Chapter along with Cathy Boette, director of paralegal services at Nelson Mullins in Columbia.
Mayopoulos came to Duke Energy four years ago as a paralegal in the environmental health and safety area. When senior management decided to create a paralegal supervisor position, Mayopoulos applied for the job. She now supervises 25 in-house and six contract paralegals in Charlotte, Cincinnati, Houston, Austin and Plainfield, Ind.
Since managing her team requires most of her time, Mayopoulos seldom works on cases, although she does initial reviews of complex litigation to determine which paralegal should handle it.
“Litigation is fast-moving in most instances, so I try to farm out the work appropriately,” she said. “There’s that period of time when it requires a lot of attention, then it will peter out for a while, so I try to balance workloads between paralegals.”
While Mayopoulos is responsible for far-reaching decisions, such as hiring and promoting, she said some of her most useful skills are the simplest – being a good listener and letting her employees know she understands what they are going through.
“I think in order to be an effective paralegal manager, you have to have worked as a working paralegal for many years prior to taking on the management piece,” she said.
Simultaneously advocating for her paralegals and responding to attorneys’ needs takes finesse, she said. As the voice “in the middle,” Mayopoulos tries to be diplomatic and to find solutions that work for everyone. She supports attorneys by addressing performance problems with her staff, but she also serves as a buffer for her team: “It’s nice for them to have a paralegal manager to go to and say, ‘I’m overloaded. Can you get me some help?’ without having to turn to the attorney.”
Watching her team evolve has been rewarding, but Mayopoulos acknowledged that it took time to adjust to her new role. As a new manager, she recalled seeing paralegals working on interesting cases and wishing she was doing the same.
“I loved being a paralegal. I loved doing the work, being hands-on with clients,” she said. “Once you become a manager, you’re not as hands-on with clients anymore. You’re supporting different people. So make sure you’re ready to take that next step.”
Theresa Coalson, Director of Operations, Womble Carlyle, Winston-Salem
Theresa Coalson joined Womble Caryle in 1985 as a paralegal and since 2003 has directed operations for the firm’s Case Management Facility, which uses state-of-the-art technology to organize mass tort litigation documents for attorneys within the firm and across the United States.
Coalson’s team supports the complexities of large-scale litigation, whether that’s preparing thousands of trial exhibits, creating secure Web sites to share case documents or tracking deadlines for counsel. It takes a lot of paralegals to manage the workflow: 85 of them, alongside eight attorneys and seven paralegal managers.
Because Coalson’s paralegal managers are the liaison among attorneys, technology vendors, clients and paralegals, they serve a pivotal role as the hub of communication and coordination. Their major duties include training paralegals and ensuring resources are deployed effectively.
Given the unique nature of the facility, paralegal managers need not only strong managerial skills and an expert understanding of litigation, but also competence with databases, software and other technology resources used by the firm.
“You have to have…the ability to pick up and keep up with all of the changes that are ongoing and be able to manipulate that,” Coalson said.
Most of her paralegal managers were promoted from within, but Coalson said being a great paralegal is not enough. A great manager offers a well-rounded package of managerial, communication and people skills, legal expertise and technological savvy.
“Sometimes the most outstanding paralegal here is not necessarily the person that would become the next manager,” she said. “It is a combination of all those skill sets that are analyzed.”