The role and job description of a paralegal has changed greatly over the last decade. Previous generations of legal secretaries would be bewildered and amazed at the scope and variety that their role encompasses now.
The most recent change is that, in several (but by no means all) areas of law, caseworkers (essentially, paralegals…) are now able to manage cases from start to finish. Sometimes, this will include court appearances and representing clients before magistrate or tribunals.
As such, modern paralegals (and those considering the profession) should be advised to brush up on their advocacy skills. Learning how to effectively argue a legal position in court, how to present a case, court etiquette, debating and public speaking skills are only a few things which the modern paralegal needs to consider before standing up in that courtroom.
Before making that bow to the magistrate, paralegals should bear in mind one often important aspect of public speaking; appearances. How are you appearing in that courtroom?
Are you, the caseworker representing your client, calm and confident? Are you looking the judge in the eye, or avoiding his eagle gaze? Are you speaking too fast? When asked a question on the case, or face opposition or a convincing counter argument from the other side, do you wilt under the scrutiny and pressure- or do you confidently hold your ground, and come up with an answer? After all, any answer will often do, as long as it is given with confidence and sincerity.
That aura of confidence (or appearing as confident) is absolutely key and vital. For a paralegal, having the self-assurance and self-confidence before a judge, in a conference, in a presentation, is vital. Indeed, often the appearance of being a legal expert, the appearance of being knowledgeable and on top of form, can go a very long way.
When managing a case, either on paper or in discussions or correspondence with the other side- or indeed even in court- if the client has a losing position legally, an air of confidence can take the advocate far in furthering the client’s case or position. A bail application made on shaky grounds which would normally be rejected can actually be successful if made calmly, without stress or emotion, and with great authority and quiet determination. If made in such a manner that assumes that the application will be granted, in a style that does not invite scrutiny, a weak legal application or case can often prove to be successful.
Conversely, a paralegal who has excellent legal submissions, a wealth of evidence, whose client’s case fulfils all the relevant legal criteria, can actually be undone. A stutter, not engaging with the judge, constantly referring to their notes, simply not being a good public speaker, being intimidated by the formal, legal surroundings will all help to undermine an otherwise strong case.
If the presentation of a legal position is weak, then the audience will often assume that the legal submission itself is weak- even if that is not the case at all. Both paralegal and client alike will end up leaving court empty handed in such a situation.
All because of that one overlooked factor- a confident demeanour and attitude.
Appearances also count when applying for legal jobs. After getting through to a face to face interview (well done; getting even that far is an achievement these days), a good candidate on paper (top of their class, president of the chess club, expert mooter, and so on) can be very much let down by themselves. If they happen to be one of those people (of which the vast number of job applicants are) who quite simply does not interview well, or is unable to sell themselves and their (undoubted) ability- then that interviewee will not get the job.
Despite being a perfect candidate, because they did not come across as confident and articulate in interview, the job will go to someone who can interview well. That candidate will come across as confident and articulate, and will engage the interviewer. That candidate will have that spark of personality, social ability and ease which will get them hired- and which will take them far in life.
The irony (and concern, perhaps) is that that second, confident candidate is often not that ideal after all. Although very personable, and exuding a sense of authority and knowledge, with an air of being a legal maestro, there are other abilities needed to be a paralegal. Probably their academic and legal knowledge is not up to scratch. Perhaps their ability to apply the law is weak. Such application is absolutely vital to any legal practitioner; the application of the law to the given case, the ability to judge legal situations, that makes a paralegal a paralegal, as opposed to a laymen with access to legal information.
Perhaps, that first candidate, nervous and shy as they were, was the better one to hire. Although stuttering during the interview, and looking away nervously, underneath that exterior lies a minefield of legal knowledge. Their mind, although easily intimidated, is able to easily get to the root of any legal problem, and to analyse and apply the relevant legal principles. Despite such legal aptitude and ability, it was that second, self-assured and assertive candidate, that was presentable and engaging, that was actually hired over the must better candidate. Due to an inability to be assertive, and to sell their legal abilities to the interviewer, the first, ideal candidate, lost out.
As in law, in life. In life, appearances count, more than many people think. Indeed, a large number of studies show just how much appearances can influence other people. This applies not just in the legal arena and profession.
As mentioned above, the innately human way that appearances count can prove awkward in law. The 21st century paralegal would be well advised to bear this in mind- especially when making their bow to the judge.