Professional growth          Court news           Productivity           Technology          Wellness          Just for fun

Fixing problems in your attorney-paralegal relationship

If a law firm is going to thrive, there must be healthy relationships between its attorneys and paralegals.

As with any working relationship, relationships between attorneys and paralegals have the potential to yield very positive outcomes — increased productivity, better case results, and ultimately, happy clients.

From time to time, however, these relationships can become strained.

When they do, all of those positive impacts can be lost. Plus, nobody enjoys working in an environment where there’s stress between coworkers.

In this post, we’ll explore what healthy vs. unhealthy attorney/paralegal relationships look like and discuss how to fix three of the most common problems that arise between these professionals.

Healthy and unhealthy working relationship between attorneys and paralegals

Put simply, healthy working relationships between attorneys and paralegals are characterized by mutual respect, trust, and effective communication – all of which foster a collaborative environment.

If you’ve ever seen one of these positive relationships in action, you know what they look like. These are the teams that seem to get more done than everyone else, and they also seem to be having fun while they’re at it.

Unhealthy working relationships, on the other hand, are highly toxic.

They tend to be plagued by misunderstandings about roles and responsibilities. Team members are confused and frustrated. Attorneys often micromanage, and paralegals, in turn, may gossip and complain.

These are the teams that just look miserable around the office, and it’s no wonder. They’re also the teams that miss deadlines, anger clients, and make excuses for all of it.

Of course, this isn’t a one-or-the-other situation.

Relationships can be mostly healthy, mostly unhealthy, or somewhere in between. You might experience problems in a specific area while you’re highly effective in others. It’s important to identify what about a professional relationship is problematic so that you can take the right steps to fix those issues.

Common problems in attorney-paralegal relationships and how to fix them

So, how do we go about fixing these unhealthy attorney-paralegal relationships?

Before you can fix anything, you have to identify the core problem. Here are some of the most common problems that are at the root of unhealthy relationships between attorneys and paralegals:

#1: Misunderstandings about roles and responsibilities

This problem often arises when someone new is added to the team.

Let’s imagine, for example, that a firm hires a new paralegal, Phil. At his last firm, he was given very little substantive responsibility and was actually treated as more of a file clerk than a paralegal.

When he starts at a new job, however, his new attorney/boss expects him to perform legal research, check brief citations, calendar hearing dates, and explore new courtroom technologies.

Unfortunately, no one really told him about these responsibilities. They just assumed he’d function exactly like the previous paralegal he was replacing.

Very quickly after his hire date, Phil is extremely overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated. Although he doesn’t mean to, he begins snapping at coworkers and bringing everyone else down. Even the attorney he’s assigned to notices his poor attitude and avoids Phil at all costs.

As a result, productivity decreases, the relationship between attorney/paralegal deteriorates, and frustrations rise.

The fix:

There’s a lot wrong here, some of which we’ll discuss in the next section. Primarily, though, this unhealthy relationship results from a vast misunderstanding of the paralegal’s roles and responsibilities.

In order to fix this misunderstanding, there are a few key things that both parties can do.

First, they can begin by looking at the paralegal’s job description. It should lay out exactly what’s expected from the position. Once everyone is on the same page, they can proceed from a place of mutual understanding.

Additionally, the paralegal could talk to other paralegals with roughly the same amount of experience to see how their skills are utilized at this particular firm. If nothing else, they might be able to help him learn some of the tasks he simply wasn’t responsible for at his old firm.

On both sides, the fix for this kind of situation involves communication, which brings us to our next common problem:

#2: Poor communication

The fact that poor communication can cause an unhealthy relationship will surprise no one. Good communication is essential to any healthy relationship, including those that arise in the workplace.

One of the most common communication issues, especially as law firms have transitioned to remote and hybrid models, is that information simply doesn’t get shared. Someone makes a decision over a business lunch and never shares that decision with others in the office.

Problems often arise over differing communication styles and preferences.

A paralegal that likes a lot of instruction and check-ins is likely to feel lost when they work with an attorney who only wants to assign a task and then get an email when it’s done. One person might prefer face-to-face conversations while the other really wants to have everything in writing.

Misunderstandings are also common when people make assumptions about intent. For example, if an attorney asks their paralegal about a case status, the paralegal might assume that they’re being told to prioritize that matter.

Using the example with Phil the paralegal above, it seems that perhaps the biggest cause of this unhealthy relationship is lack of communication. The attorney never communicated his expectations, and Phil never asked any questions. Instead, they both chose to dwell in their dissatisfaction until the relationship became toxic.

The fix:

The fix, of course, is for these two to talk it out.

Before they do, however, someone in HR would be wise to give them a few tips on how to overcome poor communication in the workplace.

Things like having (and following) a communication strategy, being open to negative feedback, and holding regular meetings for the purpose of hashing out these sorts of issues can go a long way toward resolving a communication gap.

Using process documentation and other written records is a great way to address widespread communication issues within a law firm.

#3: Personality clashes

Nearly half of all workplace conflicts are the result of personality clashes.

We’ve all seen what these conflicts look like. In fact, we’ve probably been frustrated by exactly these types of situations.

Imagine that an extremely introverted, quiet attorney hires a loud, boisterous paralegal who can’t seem to enter a room without cracking a bawdy joke. Chances are, these two aren’t going to love working with one another. They’ll probably have an unhealthy relationship from the get-go.

The problem with personality clashes is that they’re not task based. You can’t point to the other person and say, “if you only calendared hearing dates better, we’d be fine.”

Instead, you would have to point to a perceived personality flaw – which is a good recipe for hurt feelings. Personality traits aren’t something that can be “fixed,” especially if they’re not detrimental to the business.

Trying to mitigate clashes over cultural norms, political leanings, and other potentially protected factors can land you in hot water. It’s important to proceed delicately in these cases.

The fix:

That’s why, when it comes to personality clashes, it’s good to get someone else involved in the conflict.

Whether it’s a managing partner, an HR representative, or even a mediator, it can be really helpful to have a go-between as these sensitive topics are hammered out.

Ultimately, the resolution may involve shifting around personnel so that incompatible people don’t have to work together. If that’s what it takes to create and maintain healthy relationships between all of the attorney/paralegal teams in your office, so be it.

If you’re in this situation now and moving to a different position isn’t an option, consider practicing your skills with empathy. You don’t have to like someone or agree with them to understand them better, and that understanding goes a long way towards helping you be more tolerant.

There’s an old saying that you’re not at work to make friends, and that can be true here, too.

Focus on professionalism above all else. It’s okay to limit social contact with a coworker that you don’t really get along with as long as you can complete work tasks effectively.

Finally, if you are dealing with a personality clash, be very mindful of your attitude and actions. It can be easy to cross the line into inappropriate and disrespectful behaviors when you have to work with someone you’d rather not spend time with. Don’t roll your eyes, try not to snap, and keep all communication as professional as possible.

Bonus tip: mindset over matters

All types of relationships, whether they’re professional, personal, or both, take time and effort to build.

Remember that problems can be fixed. New bonds take time to create. You’re not stuck, and the more time you spend working with someone, the easier it will be to strengthen that connection.

As you set out to improve the relationship you have with your attorney or paralegal, be patient. Both of you likely have some adjustments to make, and that’s okay. Your effort will be well worth it, and you’ll soon have a working relationship that is the envy of legal teams everywhere.


  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson is the founder of Attorney To Author, where she helps legal professionals bring their book projects to life. She was a California attorney for nearly two decades before becoming a freelance writer, marketing/branding consultant, ghostwriter, and writing coach. Her upcoming book, Breaking Out of Writer's Block, Exercises and inspirations for getting the words out of your head and onto the page, is due out in September 2023.

    View all posts

Our recommendations

Follow InfoTrack