Behind every contract and case that passes through the desks of a law department or firm is a high-functioning team of paralegals that operate in synchronicity with the firm’s attorneys. These legal professionals play a critical role in maintaining efficiency, data accuracy, and client relationships, making them paramount to a firm’s profitability.

The resounding problem is that while many firms have decent onboarding processes that train newly-hired paralegals in the necessary SKILLS to do the job, there is a near complete void of KNOWLEDGE training. Without essential knowledge, the paralegal must ask question after question to paralegals, attorneys, and support staff and wait on answers before communicating with a client or drafting case work. The inefficiencies are stressful and frustrating for all involved.

So, how can law firms efficiently train paralegals, not only in the hands-on skills they require but also to soak up the enormous volume of information they need to step seamlessly into their organizations and swiftly get to work, productively, without having to be micromanaged?

In this guide, we explore both the problem and the solution, ultimately guiding hiring firms towards a more efficient onboarding process for paralegals!

The problem: paralegals swiftly gain skills but get stuck on knowledge

Most newly-hired paralegals are trained through an “apprenticeship” model, where they learn by doing. For example, if a firm wants its paralegals to be skilled at performing quick research, they start by giving them a first project, teaching them how to use whatever software or resources they have, and then giving them feedback on their research comprehensiveness, accuracy, presentation, format, and time management. By a paralegal’s third or fourth project, they should have the process down and efficient, enabling them to continue without supervision.

It’s through constructivist activities like this—participating in projects, making client calls, observing other lawyers and paralegals, and asking their own questions—that onboarded paralegals acquire the necessary skills, as well as an understanding of the particular demands of their employing law department or firm.

While these activities introduce the paralegal to statutes, regulations, procedures, and policies, they lack the breadth, detail, and repeatability necessary to learn and apply KNOWLEDGE.

Effective training on processes, resources, software, people, & culture set the employee and employer up for success.

You are different from your colleagues and competitors. That’s how you survive and thrive. Despite these differences, you want new paralegals who will absorb all your clients’ FAQs and your team’s preferences, rules, and eccentricities just by being in your midst, right?

With all our differences, one thing is the same: the applicability of the rules of professional conduct. We cannot have an unlicensed paralegal providing legal advice or otherwise jeopardizing our license to practice. We are obligated to supervise, and effective supervision is not limited to reactionary or punitive measures taken to prevent or mitigate mistakes. Effective supervision entails ounces of preventative training to avoid the pounds of curative actions.

What details, big or little, do you want your paralegals to know intuitively so that they are empowered to step seamlessly into the firm and immediately get to work?

This knowledge might have taken more experienced members of a firm years or decades to amass. Yet, when we train paralegals, we spout off rules verbally as a side note or, in more “developed” systems, dump a six-pound training manual in their lap, trusting that they will study it between calls or cases and retain it all.

This “linear” way of dumping information, if it’s even done at all:

  • Is brutally boring, overwhelming, and decreases job satisfaction;
  • Doesn't achieve the desired outcome: paralegals aren’t efficiently acquiring a firm’s knowledge, processes, and culture;
  • Even if they do eventually learn all the facts, it takes too long, and
  • While on the steep, brutal learning curve, they are acting under your license.

Since time is money, the inadequate transfer of knowledge to paralegals is costing firms money and exposing you to professional conduct violations.

The more knowledge employers can equip new paralegals with in the shorter amount of time, the quicker these employees will become assets by working more efficiently and performing better for clients.

And this frees the firm and its attorneys up to do what they enjoy most: representing more clients, taking on a more varied caseload, participating in bar associations, pro bono projects, impact litigation, or even enjoying vacations and family time.

So the solution lies in employers packaging all their knowledge in a way that is easily and efficiently digestible by newly-hired paralegals, and using proven cognitive science techniques to help them learn exponentially more in less required study time.

How can they do this?

The solution: leveraging the science of knowledge acquisition to train paralegals

There are four powerful ingredients to fast, efficient, and effective learning: motivation, active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition. Combining them all in a paralegal's training will ensure that newly-hired employees are quickly and seamlessly able to become a productive part of the greater “machinery” of the firm.

Motivation: the “why” of learning

Motivation is the driving force behind how much mental energy we commit to any learning task. It’s the fire that compels one forward, even when the material itself might not be all that interesting or engaging. “I’m learning this because I need it for something”

Think about it: if you’re trying to learn a new language just because you think it would be nice to expand your skill set, you likely aren’t going to get very far before your efforts peter out. If, however, you’re strongly motivated to learn a new language because it is crucial to you being understood—able to communicate with the people around you—you’re likely going to learn that language much quicker. This is why immersion is such a powerful driver of language acquisition.

And so, when training paralegals, it’s important to give them a focal point towards which they can drive their efforts. Sure, the ultimate goal is so that they can do the job to the required standards but if, in the short-term, the goal of all that studying is just to “check the box” and tell their boss that they read through their training, they're probably not going to absorb much of it.

A stronger and more immediate motivator would be that they’re actually going to be TESTED on what they learn; even just a verbal test where their boss asks them a few questions. The opportunity to prove themselves to their employer—and, conversely, the prospect of looking like they haven’t been paying attention—is a huge motivator to commit more fully to the training.

[Additional reading: Finding study motivation when you want to procrastinate]

Active recall: satisfying a knowledge gap

The second key principle to efficient learning is actively retrieving the knowledge learned from memory. Instead of just having a paralegal passively read through a training manual containing all the information they need to know, compel them to engage that knowledge by using it to answer questions. The employee then has to remember from scratch what they’ve studied in order to progress. For example:

Active vs passive learning
The panel on the left presents a fact or item of knowledge a firm would want its paralegals to know. In order to help an employee to learn this fact far more efficiently, the firm could reframe this fact as a question-and-answer pair, as is shown in the two right-hand panels, thereby leveraging the principle of active recall.

If the employee cannot answer the question from memory, a knowledge gap is created, which will strongly prime the brain to seek out an answer. Think of that frustrating itch you feel when you don’t know the answer to an important question. The first thing you’ll likely do is search for the answer and when you find it, you won’t be likely to forget it again in a hurry.

The active retrieval of knowledge and the satisfaction of knowledge gaps establish deeper neural pathways to the information being learned, helping it STICK in the memory. Remember this principle when training paralegals.

Metacognition: “thinking about your thinking”

The third key principle to efficient learning is metacognition, which is “thinking about your thinking” or, in the context of learning, reflecting on how well you know something. This self-reflection may sound like a cumbersome additional step in the learning process, however, it is scientifically proven to deepen the neural connections our brain makes to information, helping us to acquire knowledge more quickly and remember it for longer.

Interestingly, one of the reasons flashcards are such a powerful learning tool is because they compel one to think about how well they know the information on the flashcard before moving on to the next one. Did you know it well? Put it in the “easy” pile. Did you struggle with it? Put it in the “hard” pile.

It’s only through this confidence self-assessment that you can manually separate the cards so that you know which ones to come back to later on.

[Additional reading: Use metacognition strategies to enhance your studying]

Side note: Brainscape leverages the learning power of metacognition by requiring learners to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5—with 1 being “not at all” and 5 being “very well”—how well they knew the information shown by a flashcard. The algorithm then determines the perfect time interval at which to repeat that flashcard so as to optimize memory retention.

Brainscape compels learners to self-assess how well they know a flashcard, rating it on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being “not at all” and 5 being “very well”. The algorithm then automatically determines the perfect interval at which to repeat that flashcard to optimize learning and memory retention.

Spaced repetition: the secret to all learning and development

The key ingredient missing from almost all paralegal training is systematic repetition, spread over time. The more someone hears information, the more likely they are to remember it. Then, at a certain point, that information will become so deeply ingrained in their brain, they’ll never forget it. This is why so many people still remember the telephone number from their childhood home.

Without repetition, however, newly-onboarded paralegals will forget 90% of what they learn within a matter of months, if not weeks. So, is the solution to get paralegals to reread the entire training manual or redo their onboarding again and again until they remember everything? Obviously not: that would be a waste of everyone’s time and money, not to mention terribly boring for the employee.

A system for the spaced repetition is needed, and it’s provided by adaptive web and mobile flashcard platforms like Brainscape. The reason these apps are so effective is because they automate the spaced repetition of information, helping learners across the academic and professional spectrum to learn more efficiently and actually remember what they learn.

In fact, spaced repetition is the single most important tactic that someone could use to optimize their learning, literally helping people learn 2 to 10 times faster than they would with traditional linear methods. Let’s take a look at an example of how mobile flashcards can be used to train paralegals more efficiently …

[Additional reading: How we learn: the secret to all learning & human development]

Using mobile flashcards to train paralegals more efficiently

Flashcards for paralegal training
Brainscape’s pre-made MBE flashcards break down the entire law curriculum into a certified, expert-vetted collection of flashcards (left) that helps law students and grads study more efficiently. Leveraging active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition, each adaptive flashcard (middle) brings learners a step closer to memorizing all the blackletter law concepts they need in order to pass the bar, all the while keeping a finger on the pulse of their study progress (right).

We’ve already mentioned that web and mobile flashcard platforms like Brainscape are helping learners across the academic and professional spectrum to learn more efficiently and remember what they learn. In fact, Brainscape has a complete set of certified, expert-curated flashcards designed to help law students memorize the blackletter law content they need to have internalized in order pass their final law school exams and the bar.

But law firms and departments can also use these types of platforms to create their own adaptive web and mobile flashcards that can be used by newly-hired paralegals or lawyers to learn, understand, and memorize the information they need to know to swiftly become a productive member of the team.

The following image shows a screenshot of Brainscape’s dashboard for a collection of flashcards created by an immigration law firm. Each heading in the white panel represents an individual deck of flashcards themed according to the focal subject.

For example: Government Organization and Agencies (fourth deck down) contains 12 flashcards about the various—you guessed it—government organizations, agencies, and contacts this particular immigration law firm has relationships with and prefers to work with.

Flashcard app for paralegal training
Brainscape’s dashboard—central hub—for a collection of flashcards created by an immigration law firm, which is used to efficiently onboard newly-hired paralegals.

These flashcards have been made for the firm’s newly-hired paralegals and are intended to drill them on the definitions, concepts, processes, and contacts they need to know, thereby bringing them up-to-speed quickly and efficiently.

Since Brainscape’s flashcards leverage those previously-discussed core cognitive principles of learning, this system introduces a hyper-efficient onboarding process that staff can use anytime, anywhere, and on any device. This saves the firm an enormous amount of time and resources on training because when they've onboard a new paralegal, all they have to do is share the flashcards with them, rather than spending their own time holding their hand and teaching them every fact themselves (which they'd likely forget anyway).

Additionally, every newly-hired paralegal’s study data and progress is visible to the firm on the “Learner’s Dashboard”, so that they can make sure the work is being done and that they’re making the most of their investment in time creating the content.

In short, these kinds of web and mobile flashcard platforms are really the IDEAL training tool to onboard new paralegals, even more so since there is such a high turnover rate in the industry, which would otherwise constitute an enormous drain on law firms’ time and resources.

Recognizing advancement to feed motivation

The final term in the equation to effectively train paralegals at a law firm involves recognizing advancement through measurable milestones. This gives employees goalposts to focus on throughout their training—something covetable, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, to work towards—while helping to motivate them as they progress.

For example: tests or quizzes could be created for each “unit” or “level” of training, serving as motivation for employees to really learn and ingrain the material being taught by the flashcards you have created. Then, successful completion of each level could unlock some kind of reward, such as a gift card, small bonus with their salary, a certificate they can hang on their wall, tasks with greater responsibility, and/or a personal congratulations from, or lunch with the boss.

According to the Ivey Business Journal’s article ‘The Four Intrinsic Rewards that Drive Employee Engagement’, there has been a rise in the importance of intrinsic rewards (like pride in one’s work, respect, and satisfaction) and the decline of extrinsic rewards, like material or monetary rewards; although, of course, pay is an important consideration and unfair pay can be a strong demotivator. The point is to design a system that taps into an employee’s psychological satisfaction, which is a much more powerful motivator than the prospect of winning a gift card, for example.

One might even consider prosocial bonuses, a novel type of bonus spent on others rather than on oneself. Read: ‘Prosocial Bonuses Increase Employee Satisfaction and Team Performance’.

Sure, developing such a rewards-based system and the assets to go along with it (the flashcards and the tests) would require an investment of time but once they have been created, they can be reused again and again—with minor adjustments and additions, as necessary—for all future paralegals who pass through the firm.

And, again, since there tends to be a high turnover rate with paralegals, this up-front investment will help absolve law firms and departments from having to spend so much expensive lawyer time training future generations of paralegals.

Effectively training paralegals in summary

Paralegals at a law firm

For even the most seasoned paralegals, onboarding at a new law firm requires that they learn a vast suite of new processes, systems, software, resources, and culture, all of which are incredibly particular to the individual firm. The pervasive problem is that while attention is paid to training paralegals in the necessary skills, there is rarely an efficient and effective system for ingraining the required knowledge.

In this guide, however, we’ve discussed the four powerful ingredients that, together, constitute the antidote to the ineffective traditional model of onboarding: motivation, active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition. Adaptive web and mobile flashcard platforms like Brainscape leverage these principles to help employees learn much more efficiently, thereby empowering them to step seamlessly into the firm and immediately get to work, which frees the firm and its attorneys up to take on even more clients.

And more clients equals greater profitability.

[Learn from the best by joining our Law Community in Discord. Here, Brainscape’s top past, present, and future law students gather to share their best tips and hacks for mastering law content, tackling bar prep, and even prioritizing their own health and wellness as they approach the bar exam and a thrilling career in law!]

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