I am now just twelve months shy of finishing my law degree, and over the last four years of study I have gained considerable theoretical knowledge about the law. During this time, I never had any doubt I wanted to be a lawyer, but if I was being honest with myself, I was clueless as to what the day-to-day life of lawyering looked like (beyond my heavy consumption of legal TV dramas that is). So, I did what most aspiring legal practitioners do in their final years of university, I applied for a position as a paralegal.
It is now six months since I started my job as a paralegal with Balance Family Law, and this is a reflection of my experience so far.
Most people understand a paralegal as a lawyer’s assistant. They answer phones, manage emails and appointments, read an abundance of legal material, and draft and proofread correspondence, the everyday tasks that lawyers just don’t have time to do. I thought this too, but, reflecting on my time as a paralegal so far, I have found this is a misconception. In short, my role in the firm goes far beyond ‘assisting a lawyer’, and often, I am expected to bring my legal knowledge, opinions, and thoughts to the table alongside the lawyers I work with.
During my short time working as a paralegal, I have found the work challenging, intellectually stimulating, and extremely rewarding.
Working in family law means that every day is different. Some days are filled with drafting, editing and legal research. Other days I may attend client meetings, liaise with clients over email and phone, communicate with paralegals and lawyers in other firms, prepare documents for court, and engage in discussion with our lawyers around the direction of client matters. While every day is different, it is always fast paced. It is certainly not mundane. I am often assigned urgent tasks that need to be completed in short timeframes. We do try to avoid multitasking in our firm, but in the fast-paced environment of the legal profession, this is sometimes inevitable. There is no doubt that the busy nature of our firm has provided an opportunity to hone my organisational skills!
While my passion has always been to practice law, I also have an interest in the human mind – how people think, how they react, and the reasons people do what they do. I always saw psychology as a good fit with law, which led me to my double degree in law and psychology. While much of psychology is often focussed on the pathology of the individual, it is also the study of human interactions and relationships. It is this understanding of social psychology that I find particularly applicable to my work as a paralegal in family law. Divorce, for example, is the second most difficult event an individual will go through. The disruption of family life can be traumatic. Through my study in psychology, and now my practical experience of family law, I have learnt that a relationship breakdown, and a person’s reactions throughout, are not linear. In a nutshell, it is emotionally complicated. Because of this, it is especially important to always have regard for a client’s emotions and acknowledge the pain they may be feeling throughout the process. It is often my role to liaise between our clients and the lawyers in my firm. The experience of separation for our clients is often stressful and overwhelming, and every client (or person) experiences these unpleasant emotions in a different way. I find in my work, while people may react to a letter you send, or a phone call you make, in a negative manner, it is vitally important to remain empathetic, to apply my active listening skills, and ensure that each client feels and is heard, every step of the way.
My experience as a paralegal has so far been extraordinary. I have learnt that working in family law is not just about the legalities, but just as importantly is about assisting clients as they re-build their lives going forward. It has been extremely rewarding to assist clients and their families to negotiate their way through the complexities of the family law system. It is especially fulfilling to see those occasions where while clients conclude their relationship as a couple, they continue their relationship in a changed but positive capacity, for example, as co-parents.
It is also a privilege to work alongside and learn from the lawyers in my firm. To have access to their knowledge and experience, and their willingness to share this with me, is invaluable. My exposure to and working with a variety of professionals in the legal sector, including lawyers, mediators, barristers, and psychologists, has also allowed me to develop a more in-depth understanding of what it is to actually work as a lawyer.
In just six months I have learned so much in my role as a paralegal. I look forward to being able to further develop my skills, and learn so much more, as I approach my final year of university and begin my career as a family lawyer.
You can also follow the author of this blog, Claire Bousfield on LinkedIn.