Tools of the Trade

Ten Tips for Paralegals on Slaying Stress and Surviving
guest author: Jamie Collins

Survival is defined as "the state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances." But as a busy litigation paralegal, I'm here to tell you that the words "attorneys, deadlines, and utterly ridiculous expectations" must be added to the tail end of that for it to ring true for us, the legal gladiators. Yep. The ones rocking those black power suits, looking outwardly calm, while inwardly wanting to kill people. You don't have to work in the legal trenches long before you find yourself cloaked in panic and plagued by uncertainty, suddenly feeling compelled to make your lunch reservation for the day under the pseudonym: "Crazy Paralegal - Party of One." That's you. Truth is, that's me on most days, too. In honor of the craziness that comes standard with the paralegal gig, I felt compelled to share these 10 simple tips for slaying stress and surviving the crazy. Oh, to heck with just surviving - let's thrive, instead! Here goes:

Organize the chaos. (Stop laughing. I mean it.) Clean your desk, organize your office, condense the sea of Post-It notes, and for the love of all that is legal: rethink all those piles of papers hovering atop the wood and relabel those trays and baskets. This is the part where you tell me that you don't have time to organize your desk or office. This is the part where I tell you: you do, and you must. It will soothe a small piece of your soul. It will set you up for success. Organization is key. Organize today or double down on stress tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. Fifteen minutes increments here or there will help to clear the clutter. Reorganize your life. If you do not organize the chaos, you'll find yourself drowning in the deep end of the paper pool.

Identify and slay the dragon. This is especially important when you have 309 tasks on your running to do list, an overwhelming project, or a boss who is unorganized, unprepared, or better yet, running around the office like the second coming of Chicken Little - the suited edition - now R-rated, due to language. (Not that I would know anything about that last one.) But if I did, I would tell you the easiest way to rein in stress is to determine the most pressing deadline or project causing it. It's usually the thing you know you need to do, but haven't yet. The thing that will take you a lot of time. The task you swear he'll ask about next that isn't done. The thing that keeps you awake at night engulfed in a full-onset of paralegal panic. Figure out what the most pressing stress trigger is at the moment and tackle that first. Get knee deep in that box of papers. Type up 10 letters to unload that pile a bit. Create a plan. Begin the big project. Slay the dragon.

Remember NOT to kill your boss. And the award for "Best Procrastinator in a Legal Series" goes to...your boss! This is frustrating. You try to get him to look at things earlier. You calendar reminders. You hand him pieces of paper to serve as tangible reminders. You bring up a particular task to him verbally. You do what you can to move him down the hill of dreams a little sooner. It does not seem to work. What I do know is this: you cannot change him. (Trust me, I've tried, one million times.) What you can change is the way you react to the esquire, his lack of organization skills, or lack of preparedness. After all, that is the job. For all intents and purposes, you are the master of the legal disaster. Corner that hot mess of bold action and do something to rein it in. This is a mindset issue more than anything else. While you cannot change him (you might actually die trying), you can acknowledge, for better and for worse - that it is your job. Own it. Shift your mindset. Remain calm. Remind yourself not to kill the boss. Do your best to control the situation.

View the deadlines and chaos around you as an opportunity for greatness. The great ones rise from the ashes of impossibility victorious, or pretty darn close to it. I've built a successful career managing the crazy. I've accomplished impossible tasks I never thought I could do. I've turned out a pleading in half the time I thought it would take. I've worked relentlessly to save esquires from deadlines or other legal tragedies. This job isn't for everyone. Definitely not the weak. It's for the called. The chosen. The few who do not bow down or surrender to chaos, but step up to deadlines and esquires, instead. It makes you a legal rock star. (I'm pretty darn sure of it.) I tell you this so that you'll realize the stress is normal. Yes, we all have too much to do. Yes, the lawyers all can get a bit crazy or panicked at times. Yes, you can make it out the other side alive. Choose to view every "impossible" task that comes your way as an opportunity to prove yourself and what you can do. (The answer is a whole lot more than you think.) As the Chinese proverb goes: Crisis has two meanings: danger and opportunity. The good news? You get both.

Don't berate yourself, mentally or emotionally. Shut off the negative voice in your head. Immediately. I know it's there. I have one, too. It's the one that says things like, "This isn't possible." "How could I possibly get this done?" and the far more colorful phrases that shall remain untyped on this page, but burn brightly in our hearts and minds when a moment of stress arises. You can do it. It is not impossible, and even if it is, you'll be amazed at what you can do. Tell yourself, "I know I can do this." "This is going to be crazy, but I've got this." "Impossible project? Just bring it." A simple shift in mindset makes a huge difference in your spirit level. Silence the negative voice within, focus intently on the task at hand and nothing else (not even the pacing, agitated esquire), and begin. You can do it. And you will. Besides, in the event you actually die trying, you'll probably be erected into the Paralegal Hall of Fame or something. Shut down the negative committee in your head and get to work.

Keep yourself inspired outside of the office. While we can't always do a lot to adjust our stress levels inside of the office, outside of the office, we have more control. Feed your inspiration after office hours. Read an inspirational book, or sign up to receive posts from an inspirational blog. You will be surprised at what a shot of inspiration here or there will do for you. Jim Rohn once said you're the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. What he didn't say is that those people had to be in your flesh-covered presence. Read the best-selling books of famous writers; listen to motivational speakers online; mingle with influential and inspiring celebrities. Who are your top five right now? No excuses. Pick your five and fuel up. I'm hanging with Brendan Burchard, Michael Hyatt, and Seth Godin at the moment.

Plot an Escape. I know I won't have to tell you this one twice. (A mere mention of the word "escape" and we have a runner, folks. A heel just fell off, but she's still going...). This one is important. No, you aren't too busy to leave your desk. Take a deep breath, flee the desk or office, walk around for at least a minute, and grab your favorite beverage of choice. Whether that's a bottle of water, a soda, big mug of coffee, or like me, you prefer the "tall black iced tea with no extra water," spun by a local barista, consider it a prerequisite for happiness. It is a quick, easy way to frontload your immediate future. Take a break. Walk around. Drink up. (Heck, hide out in restroom stall number three, if you must. But do plot an escape, albeit a brief one.)

Seek counseling. I'm not kidding. But probably in a less formal fashion than you think. No hourly billable or comfy couch involved. Find your own Paralegal Whisperer - one respected peer or colleague with whom you can enter into a mutually beneficial agreement to become honorary members of the "Venters Anonymous Club." Rather than complaining to every individual who walks within 5 feet of you (hard to resist, I know), vent to your one trusted colleague. Allow the crazy to pour out of you. Let her pick up the broken pieces of your soul. She'll tell you it is normal. He will tell you aren't crazy. Heck, maybe you are crazy but it's entirely warranted, given the situation. Do not breach confidentiality of your firm or its cases. But do chat with the Paralegal Whisperer in your life. Inner office, online, a close friend - you just need one. You get the idea. Find him or her today. Make a secret pact, split a chocolate bar, and confess your stress.

Find a mentor or become one. Accelerate your journey or someone else's. Put yourself in the path of someone more knowledgeable or successful than you. Take her to lunch. Ask him to teach you a lesson. Invest in yourself. Better yet, invest in someone else. (Be sure to write a heartfelt thank you note or personal e-mail to express your gratitude later.)

Set your trajectory. Where do you want to be in your career 3-5 years from now? What does the ultimate future look like for you? Don't be some schmuck with a default auto-pilot setting for the future. The only place that will land you is smack dab in the middle of mediocrity. You were born to do great things. Wake up and decide what those things are. Who do you want to be? What would that person look back and tell you to do in order to become her in 3-5 years? Then do them. Map out your future today. Design a plan of action. Set goals. Meet people. Become inspired about your future. Aspire to more. Swing to kill. Set your trajectory.

Reinvent yourself. Regularly. Attend a webinar. Follow legal blogs. Learn a new area of law. Get up to date on current technology or e-Discovery. Consider whether it's time for a change. Do not allow yourself to go stagnant. Do something new, fun, or beneficial that your future self will thank you for. Hit the line hard. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep striving. You determine what you do from here.

Lastly, remember to smile outwardly and scream inwardly. We didn't come here to survive. We came to thrive. And if you want to know the best way to arise from the ashes, it's one leg at a time. Just keep climbing. Don't ever stop.

 

Jamie Collins is the fearless founder of The Paralegal Society and recently launched Just Being Jamie, her brand spankin' new personal blog. She works, by day, as a litigation paralegal for Shartzer Law Firm in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she handles personal injury and wrongful death cases. By night, she is a legal columnist for "KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals," and has penned more than 100 articles geared toward paralegals with her articles featured in "Paralegal Today," "The Paralegal Reporter," "Facts & Findings," "About.com - legal careers," and in paralegal newsletters throughout the nation. She loves writing posts like this one to inspire paralegals to thrive in the profession. You can reach Jamie at: jamietheparalegal@yahoo.com. She would love to hear from you.

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