Leading the Way at Work
Why a leadership role is a
key to success for paralegals.
Where would our legal system be without paralegals?
Attorneys need them to handle research and writing,
complex litigation calendaring, client interviews,
creating trial presentations and so much more. Some
might see it as a supporting role, but paralegals
actually operate as leaders in some respects – and
to realize their true career potential, they need to
start acting like it.
Thinking like a leader is a key to success for paralegals,
both in the workplace and in life, said Zachary Zaharek,
an award-winning instructor and curriculum advisor for
the DCE's popular Paralegal certificate program, as
well as Division Vice President, Senior Corporate Counsel
for First American Financial.
“Some people ask, ‘Why should paralegals think about
a leadership role?’ Well, I believe that's a loaded
question,” he said. “Paralegals are the backbone of
our legal community. They run our courtrooms, our law
firms, our in-house legal departments. Without them
we'd miss deadlines and have shoddy research. I
believe that assuming a leadership role is essential
for their professional and personal success.”
Simply put, becoming a leader in all aspects of life
produces positive momentum that builds your brand
and boosts your reputation. And it all starts with small
steps that can lead to big results.
“I look at leadership a little differently than most. When
most people hear ‘leadership’ they think leader of
people or an organization. I get that. I'm a VP, so I'm
supposed to be a leader. But I'm talking about being
a self-leader. Any job you have, any role you take on,
you can be a leader, an influencer on the job, in your
family, and in your community. That's how you grow
Start with small stuff, and leadership qualities will soon
permeate every aspect of your life, Zaharek said.
Volunteer at your church or synagogue, maybe coach
youth sports or join a reading program for kids. Even
suggesting you and your loved ones take an evening
walk instead of watching TV can be a positive step that
demonstrates a degree of influence.
Heck, it can start with something as simple as putting
your socks on. Zaharek, a frequent speaker with the
Orange County Paralegal Association, shares a story
about legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, a 10-time
NCAA basketball champion.
“This is when Wooden was coaching Kareem Abdul
Jabbar,” he said. “Before each season began, Wooden
would meet his team on the court, everybody expecting
to practice, but he'd tell the players to go back in the
locker room and take off their shoes and socks. He
wanted them to learn how to put their socks on
properly, without any wrinkles.”
Some players were confused but the intent was clear.
Wrinkled socks can cause blisters, Wooden told them.
Blisters can cause injuries, and injuries mean you can't
practice or play for a championship.
“Then he'd tell them to put on their shoes,” Zaharek
said. “Are they scuffed? Are they tied properly? The
message was that being a winner and leader is all
about starting with the smallest details.”
For paralegals, that means paying close attention to
correct spelling and proper grammar when composing
memos, emails and legal documents, he said. Finding
small ways to improve efficiency also is crucial. If a task
takes 10 steps to complete, try doing it in nine the next
time, and eight steps after that. Keep going until you've
reached maximum efficiency.
The foundations of leadership
Becoming a successful leader requires a set of basic
personality traits that can be identified and developed,
starting with a thorough self-reassessment. Take stock
and ask yourself: Am I authentic and passionate? Do I
open up and share aspects of my personal life? These
are traits of a leader.
“Paralegals have to talk so much about trials and
paperwork, but it's also important to talk about family and friends,” Zaharek said. “It makes
you seem a little vulnerable, which
makes other people want to share
with you. Next thing you know, you're
making connections and building
your network, growing your brand.”
After doing a thorough reassessment, consider
Zaharek's four principles of leadership – common traits
shared by many of the world's most powerful leaders.
Expand your mind by reading. We're not talking about
memos or emails, but rather a wide range of books
and magazines. Reading widely not only improves
vocabulary, grammar and spelling, it also makes you
more interesting and well-informed. Maintaining a
regular reading regimen also promotes discipline.
“Put aside about 30 minutes a day to expand your
mind by reading on a range of topics like art, history
and travel,” Zaharek said. “It'll keep you on top of your
game and make for more interesting conversations.”
Consider that Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest and
most successful people in the world, is an avid proponent
of reading. “What sets her apart? It's Oprah's Book
Club. She knows how important it is to read, and she
wants to improve other people's lives through books.”
Be a good listener. So many people just wait for a
chance to get a word in edge-wise, but really listening
to a person, as opposed to just hearing them, is a trait
shared by many of the world's most powerful leaders.
“I've met many world leaders, and they all had one
trait in common – they were all excellent listeners,”
Zaharek said. “Clinton, Obama, Tony Blair, Desmond
Tutu, Nancy Reagan. They all made me feel like I was
the only person in the room.”
Listening intently and asking relevant questions is an
effective way to make personal connections and learn
other points of view. “Body language is important, too.
Don't glance at your phone, look over your shoulder or
cross your arms. Always make eye contact and don't
be in a hurry.”
Think in silence. The ability to think in the abstract and
recognize patterns are the main factors that separate
us from the rest of the animal kingdom – and it's
exactly how lawyers and paralegals do
their jobs, Zaharek said.
“So be mindful of how your thought processes work,”
he added. “Most of all, be aware of the present
moment. Are you thinking in the past? Maybe worrying
about something coming up in the future? Effective
leaders stay focused in the present moment.”
Find time every day to quiet the mind and think in
silence. If you're going into a meeting, take time to
meditate in silence, focusing on the main issue or
reason behind the meeting. “Meditate and reflect on
that. Then come to the meeting with potential solutions.
That's what leaders do.”
Laugh often. “This is the most important principle of all,”
Zaharek said. “Every world leader I've met had a great,
self-deprecating sense of humor. These are some of the
most powerful leaders on the planet, but they know not
to take themselves so seriously.”
Starting a speech or meeting with a joke is a good way
to connect with people and put them at ease. But
laughter also has myriad health benefits: It increases
endorphins, reduces stress hormones and produces a
feeling of well-being.
“There's an old Yiddish proverb that says, ‘What soap
is to the body, laughter is to the soul,’” Zaharek said.
Constantly updating your skills is another essential
element of getting ahead as a paralegal, he added –
and DCE's Paralegal certificate program is considered
one of the most effective routes to success.
“I consider it the gold standard for paralegals in Orange
County,” Zaharek said. “We have several paralegals from
UCI at First American, and they perform exceptionally
well. They're all great people, very smart. And their UCI
education really helps them exceed and excel.”
Learn more at