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DCE Magazine

Leading the Way at Work

Winter 2019

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.

Zachary Zaharek“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 your brand.”

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.”

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