Do I risk looking stupid by asking more questions? If you are a new paralegal, this question undoubtedly crosses your mind as you stand before an attorney receiving a new assignment. It’s a question that bedevils veteran paralegals, too. However, I can assure you that asking questions is one of the most important things you can do at that conference.
It may seem as though attorneys often take that “need to know” guideline to the extreme. There can be a variety of reasons for their reticence to provide information but, whatever the cause, it’s probably not a lack of trust in you. From your perspective, obtaining sufficient information at that initial conference is essential to a timely and successful completion of your assignment.
Take commercial litigation as an example. The attorney often does not involve a paralegal until discovery has begun. If you are being asked to review you client’s documents for privilege and responsiveness to discovery demands, you should be given a copy of the interrogatories and document demands. But it’s never that simple.
A privilege review will require that you recognize the name of any attorney whom the client may have consulted. In addition to members of your firm, you will need to ask about in-house counsel.
As you begin the actual document review, you will want to have a broad view of what you are looking for. If you don’t ask questions, you are likely to be hampered by tunnel vision. That is what can happen when the attorney identifies only a few things s/he wants you to look for. These first requests may be vague or quite specific, but the result is always the same. As you select documents for review and production, the attorney rethinks the assignment. The search criteria keeps expanding, requiring time-consuming and costly repeat reviews of the same files.
Before you begin, aim to know what your review is expected to find, what the attorney is hoping to find and what the attorney is hoping not to find. Having this broader view will help you to identify responsive documents and key information the first time through. Your questions might also help the attorney to focus or elaborate on issues s/he might not have thought of until a later time. At the very least, the expanded search criteria will provide a challenge, helping you to concentrate and maintain your momentum as you complete what can be a mind-numbing assignment.
Do take notes at the initial conference and review them as soon as possible. Within a day of receiving your assignment, hand the attorney a memorandum outlining your understanding of the task and deadlines involved. If you have misunderstood anything or the attorney has changed his/her expectations, the memo will point this out and allow both of you to clarify the assignment before valuable time and effort are wasted.
I could write much more on this topic, but let me answer the question I posed at the beginning: you risk much more by not asking questions, and the time to ask them is at the beginning of your paper chase.
Margaret S. Dick