Welcome back to my mini-series on “frienemies,” those legal professionals that many of us either love or hate, depending on the day.
Today I highlight another frienemy: the law clerk. Paralegals and law clerks make the most perfect frienemies. I like to call it a perfect storm. Our paths don’t just cross, they intertwine, conjoin and morph into one of the potentially most volatile relationships I have ever witnessed. We cannot escape one another.
When a new law clerk arrives on the scene, it’s understandable and mildly amusing that they want to flex their legal muscles. They’ve just finished their first year at Guantamano (i.e., law school) and feel eager to impress. They shoot their hands high in the air, volunteering for a memo, a research project, anything to show off the fact they pulled an A in legal writing. It is at this moment that the paralegal should begin to feel afraid.
Speaking from personal experience, a tremor of terror seizes my brain and I find myself staring wide-eyed at an alien who has singlehandedly just made my life an actual, living hell. It’s impressive, actually, and law schools would be wise to award certificates for the clerk’s ability to strike terror in the hearts of legal staff. Since they don’t, I’ve designed the next best thing: practical wisdom for navigating these treacherous waters.
If I could give any words of wisdom to a law clerk, it would be to go back to their law school and demand a course in case management. What good is legal writing if you don’t understand a file? Organizing 21 bankers’ boxes is no small feat. Until you’ve spent a September afternoon sweating bullets in a warehouse sorting through 50 years of company records, you cannot fully appreciate a well-organized file. It is this lack of understanding that causes most wars between law clerks and paralegals.
My solution? Under no circumstances should a law clerk ever touch the file. That said, if a clerk needs a copy, the paralegal shouldn’t roll her eyes or huff and stomp down the hallway. Bad things happen when law clerks start digging in a file. Inevitably, a piece of a paper will be lost, coffee will spill on a transcript or worse, an original Bates labeled document will be torn.
Paralegals need to understand that a law clerk will have no idea what a “Bates labeled original” is or why some transcripts remain sealed. Paralegals themselves only know these things because it is our job to know them. Our files are reviewed, revised and lovingly maintained nearly every day. We do this not because we’re strange cat women, as I often hear law clerks suggest in the break room, but because our bosses have the patience level of gnats and when they needs something, it is our responsibility to find it immediately.
Until a law clerk has been fed to the wolves, understands the intricacies of logistical case management and suffered the wrath of the boss, he or she should never, under any circumstances, touch anything.
If said law clerk can agree to these conditions and occasionally bring me a caramel macchiato, I can virtually open Heaven’s gates to them. I have standard interrogatories with specific attorney preferences in a secret file, sorted alphabetically by partner name. I can find the exhibits you want to attach to your first draft memo in opposition to make you look even more like the ace you are, and I can file the motion under seal at 11:58 p.m. with my hands tied behind my back. See where I’m going with this?
Rule 1. Don’t touch the file.
Rule 2. Don’t touch the file.
Rule 3. Don’t touch the file.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s not. If it were simple, explosive arguments between paralegals and law clerks wouldn’t be occurring just down the hall as you’re reading your Carolina Paralegal News. At this moment, in firms across the nation, paralegals and law clerks are throwing one another under the bus like squirrels. We’ve got to stop this madness.
Like my frienemy relationship with the IT guy, paralegals and law clerks are working toward the same goal. So what’s the problem?
As best I can guess, it’s ego. While I could go on about the dichotomy between paralegals and law clerks, suffice it to say that in exchange for maintaining a “hands off” policy, paralegals have a tremendous opportunity to teach and to learn from a law clerk (and vice versa). If we can get out of each other’s way, perhaps we could even be (gasp) friends.
I speak from personal experience when I say I’ve met some amazing law clerks. Several gals have become close acquaintances despite the fact that they moved on to start their own practices. These are smart men and women we’re dealing with. Have you ever sat for the LSAT? I have. Three times. Trust me when I tell you that it’s really damn hard. Logic and math? This right-brained, creative gal may as well throw herself down the river.
On the flipside, law clerks should not demean their paralegals. We’re not their mother, babysitter or housekeeper. We have our own important projects to complete that, at times, may in fact take precedence over a certain someone’s research project. Just because we didn’t go to law school doesn’t mean we’re stupid. Most firms now require their paralegals to be college graduates and those that aren’t typically have more than 20 years of law firm experience. Last time I checked, that’s enough to run circles around most young associates today.
Let’s put it out there plainly—we’ve both paid our dues. Law clerks: Please don’t touch the file. Paralegals: Don’t throw a fit when asked to help out. Let’s both agree to these simple rules, check our egos at the door and go have a cocktail together soon. If we can bridge these gaps, paralegals, law clerks and IT professionals may just end up having one hell of a party.