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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Gift Giving at this Paralegal's Firm

Every once in awhile, one of my guilty pleasures is to visit Bitter Lawyer or some other website full of equally snide, vile, or snarky comments from the ranks of the unhappy lawyer world. I'm not sure why I look specifically for unhappy and sarcastic lawyers... perhaps it is because I have not found a site for unhappy and sarcastic paralegals yet. The comments seem to perk my mood in much the same way soap operas do. Reading them makes me realize how good my life really is. If some fellow making four times my salary working in a firm with marble floors and taking home a bonus the size of my yearly paycheck is unhappy with his life, then my little ol' apartment, broken TV and barely running car seem less tragic.

So when I found the Above the Law open thread, Making the Holidays Happy for Your Secretary / Administrative Staff (thanks to Lynne DeVenny at Practical Paralegalism), I jumped for joy. With all of the painful delight that tonguing a loose tooth brings, I read some of the super bitter comments with a smirk. Not all of them were horrible. There exist, after all, wonderful people in the legal field. However, very many of the comments seemed to come from people who were unhappy with their assistants (or maybe just their lives).

While I feel devilish for taking a little pleasure out of the pain of these commentators, I can't help but feel that many of them bring it on themselves. For instance, # 27 suggested, "give them more paper. That's all the bonus secretaries want anyway."

Number 35 suggested, "CHECK YOUR SECRETARY. If she's not working right now her bonus should be $0." Number 35 should look up the word "irony" in the dictionary and hope his/her supervisor doesn't read Above the Law open threads.

Number 42 was going to give his secretary a take-out box of his lunch leftovers while Number 55 thinks his secretary has a bad attitude because she's "taking orders from someone half her age." (Methinks the problem might not be the age difference...)

And it looks like Number 103's deep seeded respect for firm staff, as exhibited in his response to a secretary's remark, will get him far in life: "What exactly are you "knocking out of the park" for your boss? The work you do isn't exactly you consider formatting a document to be "knocking it out of the park?" You sound out of touch with reality."

Some of these guys needed to take the advice of Number 63, who said, "if you're willing to be cool with the secs who hook you up, you'll find life easier in big law. that [sic] being said, secs like that are rare."

Fortunately for me, my Boss is not the Bitter Lawyer or ATL type. Though I didn't expect a thing, he walked into the office this morning and handed me a beautifully wrapped box. Inside were four long-stemmed wine glasses with fun yet classy polka dots all over them (which I'm sure the wife picked out - thank the good Lord for Bosses' wives).

I'm not sure what I did in a previous life to somehow avoid working with jaded, depressed, or elitist attorneys in this one. Sometimes those attitudes seem rampant in the legal field. Thankfully, at least in my part of the world, such personalities are few and far between.

Oh, and lest you worry that I didn't do my part in the holiday exchanging of gifts, I gave the Boss a very manly candle (oxymoron?) for his office.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Country Clients Are the Best

As I begin this post, I'm lamenting the fact that all the holiday goodness going on has kept me from posting as much as I should over the past couple of weeks. But here I sit, wearing an odd mix of comfy/work clothes, taking a time out before I finish sloughing off the work day, writing to give you, dear reader, a sense of what the holidays have been for me so far. Only then will I complete the transformation from WorkMel to PresentWrappingVeggingOutMel.

I basically want to take a moment to praise country clients. As a small town paralegal, I do not make a top bracket income. My firm does not have marble floors, we barely have enough room for our closed files, and sometimes my Boss walks around the office in his socks. (Though, to be fair, he does wear shoes to court.) My point is that we are not fancy shmancy or rich.

However, we are wealthy with good clients. Last week, as I was speaking to the clerk's office on the phone, one of these clients walked in the door holding two Christmas-tree-shaped platters full of cupcakes and cookies. One for the Boss, and one for me. "Ho ho ho," she said, before slipping back out the door, presumably to continue making the rounds with her homemade goodies.

One of our small business clients came by later with a basket full of canned deliciousness. Not your store-bought canned goods, either. I'm saying, someone picked these vegetables then spent all day canning them. We had pickled string beans, pickled okra, homemade tomato juice, homemade pepper jelly, and even a bottle of homemade blueberry wine.

By the end of the week, we also had a very pretty candle holder that I intend on sitting at my desk after the holidays, once the holiday decorations come down. (I'll have to sneak it off the Boss's desk first, though.) The two attorneys down the street, who get some of our referral business, even brought by a huge basket of gourmet crackers, cookies, chocolate and popcorn. 'Tis the season to eat, I guess.

And that's what we're doing right now. We divided the canned goods and each took them to our respective homes. I got the blueberry wine - cha ching! Everything else is sitting at the office begging me to eat it... and I'm trying. Aside from edible wonders, we've also receive countless Christmas cards wishing us well and thanking the Boss for his efforts in various cases.

We have the best neighbors and clients a law office could ask for. While receiving gifts is always nice, it is the meaning of the gifts and cards that gives me great joy. Every gift or card is the equivalent of someone saying, "You've impacted my life in a positive way, and I appreciate you." I'm not sure anything can beat that.

Now, off I go to finish wrapping those gifts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Tis the Season...

The season, that is, for your author to find herself so immersed in holiday goings-on that she barely has time to pen a blog entry or two. But while my extra-curricular self is basking in the busy and joyous holiday season, my office self has time-travelled to the New Year. I'm making all sorts of resolutions for 2010 as we speak. While I'm sure to add more, I have compiled a short list of projects I am going to begin when I get back from the holidays. Because I don't have several years of experience or an attorney with several years of experience using an assistant, please feel free to leave your own suggestions. I might just add them to my list to help our office become as productive and efficient as possible.

1) Monthly status letters. I've always wanted to do this, but I have gotten so bogged down in my many other duties that it has been pushed to the side for far too long. I'm not saying we don't keep in touch with our clients. We definitely do. I already send letters for every step of a case. But it is my goal to start sending letters even between steps, just to let the clients know we have not forgotten about them during a period of waiting in the case. I intend to give clients a rundown of their case over the entire previous 30 days as well as a heads up on what is to come. Again, while our office already keeps in touch with most of our clients on a week to week basis, I believe the monthly letters will provide a big picture view which will help explain how much progress has been made or perhaps why little to no progress has been made in certain situations.

2) Working 30 days out. I got this idea from Linda Whipple, who was quoted by Mr. Mongue at The Empowered Paralegal in his entry entitled "Combating the 'Hire an Out-of-work Lawyer as a Paralegal' Trend", as follows:

"I also work 30 days out from a deadline – got a pre-trial conference coming up? I’ve already set up the attorneys’ meeting, exhibit exchange (meaning I have my exhibits already prepared and ready for trial), and provided a draft of a pre-trial statement to my boss – this is a signal to Bob that we are now moving from 'pre-trial' mode to 'trial' mode."

While the Boss and I have a pretty smooth work flow, we have not yet reached a pace of 30 days out on anything. Sure, I look thirty days ahead just to see what is coming up, but preparing him for trial a month ahead of time? I had never even considered it until I read Ms. Whipple's comment. Granted, every practice is different, and with only two people in our office and my job duties including everything from taking out the trash to emergency case research, it might be nearly impossible to create trial notebooks and summarize depositions without another set of hands. Still, I would like to come as close to meeting that mark as is humanly possible. There is always room for improvement.

3) Paper - less. Yes, I know I had the audacity to denounce paperless offices once on this blog, and I still don't believe going completely paperless is time-feasible or within our means right now. However, since I have actually begun to think about it, and since we are running out of filing space here at the office, I am starting to see the benefits of using less paper. So, I'm going to focus on saving our electronic notifications to file rather than printing and filing them. I'm going to email clients when feasible and appropriate. I'll even try saving online research materials to file rather than printing them out. While we cannot go completely paperless, I believe being paper-less will have its benefits.

4) Curtains or shades for the front windows. What does this have to do with office administration? you might be wondering. Oh, dear reader, everything. On sunny winter days, I sit in a pool of sunshine. Beautiful though it may be, it is hotter than hot. Our big shop-style windows bleed heat into the office during the winter because the sun is angled at us from the south. This keeps our heating bills low, but it also keeps me in a constant state of persperation. I keep telling myself we need curtains or shades (something 50-60's style, to make us look classic), but I never remember long enough to do anything about it. So, starting in 2010, we will have shades.

There you have it. My super short list of resolutions for the new year. The Boss doesn't know about these yet, but I believe when I bring them up, hopefully this week, he'll be on board. In the mean time, I still have a few weeks before the New Year. If you have any tips or suggestions you believe could help a small law office (or me), please don't hesitate to leave your comments here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Don't Mess With the Help

Title aside, I don't usually describe my job position with words like "the help." But it is helpful to look through the lens of a legal outsider from time to time, and when I do so, I have to face the fact that many lay people who don't know any better see me as just that. Still, their opinions usually take the outward form of helpful condescension or unknowing patronization, and while my ego may get slightly scuffed, I can usually laugh it off. Until today.

A call came through the office with a very minor administrative question, which I was able to answer with no problem. However, when the caller began asking for legal advice, I began the "I can't answer that question, but I'll have my attorney call you back to discuss it" routine. I cannot count how many times I had to repeat that phrase. Somehow from there, and with little to no involvement on my part, the caller realized he was angry for something that I still could not help him with. He proceeded to take his anger out on me before hanging up furiously.

I was dumbfounded. A simple conversation with a simple answer had suddenly erupted into a bitter display of what seemed like unfounded anger. I admit I got a little self-righteously ticked off and may have forgotten myself for a moment and slammed the phone down on the receiver. When I took a few deep breaths, I decided to be the better woman. I called back only to receive voicemail after several rings. I left a message regarding our "disconnection" and let the caller know that I would pass his message onto the attorney.

Then I tattled, or at least, that's what it felt like. I ran through the entire conversation with the Boss because when you're in a two-person office and something silly or outrageous happens, you have to tell the other person. It's almost a rule.

The Boss was not happy... at all. I have only seen this side of him once or twice before, the "oh no you didn't" side that comes out when someone's actions toward me offend him. It's nice, really, working with someone who has my back. It's also strange and unexpected. I expected him to say, "That happens, now buck up and move on." Because that's what I tell myself. But instead he dialed the caller and made it clear that he had crossed a line. I think the caller may have even apologized by the end of the conversation.

At the end of the whole mess I was left with a bitter sweet feeling. On the one hand, it's nice to work for a person who respects me enough to make sure others treat me with respect. On the other hand, I was unable to fight my own battle, to say anything at all to this person who spoke down to me. In my position as the assistant, not being at all sure about anything this guy was saying, I could neither apologize nor explain. I could only tell him I would pass the message along to the Boss.

The lesson I learned throughout this inconvenient afternoon was mainly this: Don't mess with the help. More specifically, don't mess with a lawyer's staff. If he appreciates them, you will not win any points by belittling them.

Monday, December 7, 2009

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Well it's here again, the end of the year. I went through a spell in my late teens and early twenties when I found it difficult to get into the holiday spirit. It seemed mundane, sad even. The end of the year signifies the fleeting nature of time like nothing else. My soul feels addictingly sore, like the misery of pressing one's tongue against a loose tooth as a child. But the past two or three years have slowly relieved me of this strange wintery depression, and I've been re-introducing myself to this magical season again.

I am actually busy this year. While the only parties on my plate since coming home from college have been family get-togethers, this year my schedule is packed with a diverse set of parties. Tonight was the Town of Silverhill's Christmas pot-luck. Of course, I had forgotten all about tonight until around noon today. I had to scurry to the store after work to pick up canned green beans, mushroom soup, and french onions. The only "covered dish" I know how to prepare off the cuff is green bean casserole.

I arrived just in time to eat. For the first time since I started branching out this year, I attended an event and did not feel the least bit awkward. If you've been following my entries, you know that I have been to a few different Chamber of Commerce events and other professional style meetings (like BCALP), with varying degrees of success. It finally appears that putting myself out there is starting to pay off. I'm starting to have fun at these things.

But tonight's town pot-luck was not the only shindig of the season to date. Last Friday night was the Silverhill Christmas parade, which runs through the main street right in front of our office. The Boss always has an open house on that night, and this being my first year full time, I was there. We had snacks in the back and set a table out in front of the office with coffee, hot chocolate and cookies. The office was and still is all decked out in fun holiday attire.

This week I have two more gatherings. The first is a friend's Christmas party, and the second is BCALP's. I've never been to a BCALP Christmas party, but with Dirty Santa and a liquor raffle, it has to be a good time.

While I may seem to be rambling, there is a lesson in here somewhere. I think the lesson is that it's worth it to blaze new ground for yourself, to go out and make new friends and contacts. If I had never joined BCALP or gotten involved with the planning and zoning commission, I would be missing out on two fun crowds and good food this holiday season. And now that I'm finally moving past the awkwardness inherently involved in trying new things, I am finding potential for real relationships with my fellow members of these organizations.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Who Should Set and Control Paralegal Standards?

Being only two full years into my paralegal career, I'm not sure how long this question has been asked. I am willing to bet it has been a regular question since the dawn of paralegalism, though. I keep crossing this question in my perusing of other blogs and articles. For instance in Patty Dietz-Selke's article at Paralegal Gateway, titled "Paralegals are Professionals," she states:

"[W]e have to stop relinquishing control to Attorneys, the ABA, and other organizations or professionals! Paralegals need to step up. We may work for and with Attorneys, but we need to take ownership of our profession starting with the education of our new/prospective members (Paralegal education/certification). We need to determine our own destiny, set our own course and resolve to approach the legal business/environment from the standpoint of being valuable and significant contributors. "

Robert Mongue of The Empowered Paralegal, in a recent entry, posed the following:

"It is not at all clear that the ABA should be the organization making these determination, at least not in isolation. Within AAfPE (American Association for Paralegal Education) there is some ongoing discussion about whether the ABA is the correct institution to be “approving” paralegal programs: does it make sense to have lawyers rather than educators determining what makes a good educational program, even if the topic being taught it law?"

On the one hand it seems obvious that the ABA, as the apparent standard bearer of legal education, should have the controlling opinion over paralegal educational standards and perhaps even over the ethical conduct of paralegals. First, the ABA is already there as an accrediting institution, whether we all agree it should be or not. It has already developed a set of educational criteria, and while questions remain as to whether it should maintain that sort of subtle control over the paralegal profession... it does right now. Also, an ABA accredited paralegal education looks great to employers, most of whom are beholden to the ABA criteria for their own educations.

Yet at the same time, paralegals are not lawyers. And bar associations all over were created for lawyers, not paralegals. Paralegal education is not "mini lawyer" education, either. It does not only consist of shorter versions of law school classes, and it does not train students to "think like a lawyer," as my Boyfriend the Lawyer calls it. Paralegal education should be tailored to the specific skills and requirements of this challenging and often demanding career. Those skills and requirements, while often similar to their attorney-styled counterparts, are importantly different. We all know or should know that not all lawyers could or should be paralegals, and not all paralegals could or should be lawyers. So why should an association for lawyers be in charge of our careers, our standards, and our educations?

While the two sides I've stated above are very black and white, there is at least one possible solution. Mr. Mongue further states in his entry, "Perhaps we need for all interested groups to chose a representative to a committee to establish a model act – ABA, NFPA, NALA, NALS, AAfPE. It may be there should even be a seat at the table for a group representing “independent” paralegals."

With a group of representatives working in collaboration, I only see good things happening. Patty is correct: if paralegals are to be widely accepted as professionals, we have to take/keep control of our education and standards. Of course the groups for legal professionals listed above by Mr. Mongue are all doing so in their own terms. Now imagine how much more ground could be made if all of them were working together.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

All In A Day's Work

I've been feeling like Wonder Woman the past few days, though nothing exceptionally interesting or exciting has happened at the firm.

Well, I take that back. Interesting and exciting things have happened, though the very nature of the business means I can't tell you about it. Sigh. It's hard to write a blog about being a paralegal sometimes. I have to leave out all the juicy stuff.

Still, I've been drafting complaints and motions and petitions in a whirlwind of paper and bytes. But it amazes me that I have been so busy, and I am worried that the work is going to run out soon. November - January is our slow time at the office, and since the recession took a little longer to hit Alabama, this year I think it will be v-e-r-y slow. Perhaps I should have paced myself, but I am trying so hard to bill right now since the Boss always seems stuck in a meeting or out of the office for some reason or another.

It's not the Boss's fault though. Clients drop in unexpectedly needing to speak with him urgently. The phones are ringing off the hook right now, but so few of the callers are willing to speak with me, the paralegal. The Boss himself had to explain to a client that she could meet with me to pick up her estate planning documents if he wasn't able to be there when she planned on coming in. Though I had already told her this, she kept subtly insisting that the lawyer should be the one to hand her the documents. Sigh. In a way I don't blame them. It's hard for people, especially new clients who do not know us very well, to understand that I am not just the girl who answers the phones and greets them at the door. Because my desk is in the lobby of the office, though, I understand the misperception.

On a lighter note, we recently switched from using Lexis Nexis to using Westlaw, and as a result, we were given some free books. I'm excited because many of these books are full of forms... and for some reason I love forms. They state things ever so much better than I can with my simple words. They make petitions sound elegant and complex. My own writing is very straight forward and no nonsense. Sometimes I wish I had a softer rhythm and larger vocabulary. Then I remember that our judges in Baldwin County seem to favor substance over form any day. I am learning not to assume that all judges are like our Baldwin County judges, though. So perhaps the forms will help us in Mobile County court. Ah the diversity between the two counties' legal communities... but that is a topic for another day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Why Paralegals Need to Help Market Their Law Firms - by Jay S. Fleischman, Esq.

When you're a paralegal it's easy to get caught up in the, "I am not as powerful as the lawyer," frame of mind. After all, it isn't your name on the door.

The problem is that the mindset ultimately threatens to become the reality. You're at the mercy of the lawyer, chasing him or her for basic information and bearing the brunt of bad days in court, spousal feuds, and just the notion of, "s**t rolling downhill."

How does a smart paralegal level the playing field and make the lawyer realize the true value of a great right-hand (or left-hand) man (or woman)? Simple, really - start bringing in business.
Did you think I was going to recommend that you become better educated about the law? Better organized? Show up on time? Not so, dear reader.

Because the reality is that the law firm is a business, and that business runs on profit. Without profit, there's no firm. No firm, no job for you come to Monday morning. And this reality is made all the more pointed when you consider that increased competition and a harsh economic landscape is causing more law firms to downsize and even simply vanish.

When you take a hand in your law firm's legal marketing efforts, you are getting closer to the firm's target audience - the people who can benefit from the services your office provides. You're not hawking wares on the street, you're educating people and hoping to guide them into your firm.
In so doing, you enable your firm to bring in more clients and, ultimately, make more money. When you do that, you force the lawyers to look at you with respect; you're not merely some person pushing paper back and forth in a cubicle, you're a valued member of the team. A member who helps pay the rent and keep the lights on.

Is this crass? Not at all. Sure, education and organization matter when it comes to doing your job well. But even the most well-informed paralegal can find himself or herself on the unemployment rolls if there isn't enough work coming in the door.

So long as the coffers are full, your employer will be more likely to not only treat you with the respect that is due to you, but will also be more receptive to your requests and direction.

After all, it's bad form to bite the hand that feeds you.


Jay S. Fleischman is a New York bankruptcy lawyer as well as a legal marketing consultant. Visit for tips and insights on how to market, manage and grow a profitable law firm.

Monday, November 30, 2009

My Car Has It Out For Me

My car has been turning off. While I'm driving. It's very inconvenient. Until last week, the inconvenience and a slight curiosity were the only issues I had with my car pressing pause as I was fast-pacing down the highway. However, because of the nature of my job, it was inevitable that I would begin realizing liability issues.

To bring you up to date, reader, this trouble began several months ago. When it did it the first few times, I was idling at a red light or I had just pulled into a parking spot. The car felt as if I had lifted my foot off the clutch a bit too early, it shook and then died. I took it to the shop and was told it was my battery. Problem solved, or so I thought.

A couple of months later, the sporatic halts began again. Only while I was idling, never while in motion. I imagined it was just old age. Sure, I could take the car to the doctor and get her all fixed up, but I could also deal with the age issues and save a ton of money in the process. I opted to save. But when all the lights on my dashboard lit up and my power steering went out a few weeks ago while I was running at a brisk 55 miles per hour, I decided that a tune up wouldn't be so bad.

The mechanic diagnosed a faulty sensor that was telling my car something was wrong and that it needed to turn off. They changed it, and I went on my merry way. Last week, just as I was driving down the same stretch of dark county road, my car shuddered and turned off again. I sighed as we coasted for a second, then turned the key and restarted her up. Now, I should have immediately taken it to the shop. However, real life does not work that way. I still needed a vehicle to get around.

When the car turned off as I turned into the post office, and the power steering shut off so that I had to put all my weight behind the wheel to turn and roll into the parking lot, glancing behind me hoping to heaven that no one was barrelling down on me from behind, I realized how bad the situation was. If my car's bad habit were to result in an accident, guess who would be at fault...

The good news is that I got it into the shop first thing this morning. The not bad news is that I drove it when necessary over the Thanksgiving weekend without even the slightest incident, no shudders or shut downs at all. Especially no wrecks, no insurance companies wagging their fingers at me, and no law suits. I guess that's something to be thankful for.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Naughty or Nice?

Several days ago, Lynne DeVenny at Practical Paralegalism asked "Who's the nice one on your legal team?" On my team, it's me. I admit that I need to grow teeth in some areas, but I also enjoy that legal work requires a sense of professionalism and civility. To me, lawyers act as a sort of buffer for the client. Their job is to advocate vigorously, but to focus on their legal strategy, not to begin personal feuds with opposing counsel.

Ideally, two attorneys should be able to meet in court (or on some other field of play), argue their points, and shake hands amicably at the end of the matter. Ideally, it is not the best arguer or the most sarcastic voice, but rather the strongest legal argument that wins. When someone gets personal in an argument, the only thing I hear is that my rival is losing his message.

Still, many lawyers (and their staff) get caught up in the moment and spew viciousness that goes beyond the argument to the person. I've seen it in letters prospective clients have brought in from other attorneys. I've seen it in letters other lawyers have written us. I have even found it in court filings.

Now, I partially understand the purpose of being rude and intimidating in letters to the lay opposition, though I cannot in good sense commend it. I suppose those who engage in it believe that the meaner the letter, the more likely the debtor is to respond out of fear. In my own experience, the best way to get a debtor or defendant to pay up or to contact you to work out a deal is to be very nice. The people who generally pay quickest and easiest or call immediately to work out a deal are those who believe we at the law firm are good people just looking out for our clients' interests. If we put them on the defensive, they tend to disappear.

I even understand sending opposing counsel a harsh letter every once in awhile, although the most effective negative letters are the ones that focus only on the merits (or lack thereof) of the case. It seems counterproductive to me to make opposing counsel angry because in that case you are even more unlikely to work out a settlement or come to agreements on a variety of other issues that will arise during the course of the case. Besides, the legal community is so small, you will likely work with or against that person again. Even if you don't, word gets around. It is much better to be known as the nice guy who advocates professionally than someone "I wouldn't turn my back on."

Even worse, though, it makes no sense to me to place snide comments in a court filing for the Judge to read. I highly doubt judges enjoy reading such distracting and embarrassing garble. Sure it feels good to be snide sometimes, but that is why they made the Delete key. Type it out, feel the anger, then delete and enter something professional and seemly. Or hand your draft to a co-worker who will nice it up for you. When a motion or response is riddled with ridicule, it is nearly impossible to trust the author's argument and sincerity. It is also unprofessional to attempt to make the other side look bad just for the sake of making the other side look bad. This can backfire in so many ways. Besides, the best way to make the other side look bad is to win the argument through intelligent research and skilled argument.

So when it comes to being naughty or nice, I choose nice. Respect is not earned through fear or intimidation, but through proven proficiency.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Good People to Know: Court Reporters

Last night I attended my monthly BCALP (Baldwin County Assoc. of Legal Professionals) meeting. We meet at a local restaurant one evening a month to eat, chat, and learn. We usually receive a 1/2 hour CLE credit for whichever topic we visit. As I am sure you can relate, sometimes we really learn something, other times I feel like using that 1/2 hour toward my CLEs would be cheating. When our meeting began last night, I felt sure that I would be setting aside that CLE certificate for the benefit of my conscience. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

Our guest speakers were from Freedom Court Reporting, which, if you are not familiar with them, is a very large court reporting service. In my neck of the woods they are known for their awesome free gifts and homemade chocolate chip cookies at conferences. Sadly, I have no real firsthand experience with Freedom because our office rarely hires court reporters. Even when we do, neither we nor our clients can really afford Freedom.

All that being said, I learned more about court reporting during this 1/2 hour CLE than I thought was possible. For instance, I learned that a "dirty ASCII" is a depo transcript straight from the scene, no editing. I learned that a witness can make changes to his or her testimony at any point, even at the end of the deposition. I also learned that the witness has the right to review his or her testimony. This makes sense, of course, and it's in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but I rarely think about these things, since we do so few depositions. I learned that under the Federal Rules a deposition lasts up to seven hours, and that the court reporter is entitled to end it if it is growing over-long and pointless.

I also learned neat things about Freedom that are super impressive and super expensive. For instance, they have a real time feature which allows you to connect your laptop to their machine and download the transcript as it is being typed. You can even make notes as it is being entered. In addition, Freedom also has a captioned video deposition feature which scrolls the words across the screen as the deponent speaks.

But the reason I really like Freedom, though I've never used them, is their customer service. You can schedule a deposition online, and you have point-and-click access to any transcripts you've ever ordered through them, 24/7. The representatives last night called it a one-stop-shop. If you need to take a deposition from someone in another state, without leaving your state, done. If you need to find a conference room in an unfamiliar location, done. If you just have a question about general rules regarding depositions, call anytime. I have never spoken with an unfriendly Freedom representative.

I don't mean to tout Freedom. They are simply the only court reporting service I've had any contact with. Their services are above and beyond what I, so inexperienced, would expect from a third party service. The Boss has a deposition tomorrow, and all I can think about is how cool it would be if he could bring back a video depo with closed captioning. Or how easy it would be to set everything up through such a well established, big service.

But even though our small firm cannot yet enjoy the fancy extra services Freedom Court Reporting provides, I enjoyed last night's presentation on court reporting and depositions. I actually found myself interested in such a dry topic. While I do not yet know any court reporters, I believe I should get to know a few. At some point in the future, some time before our firm is big enough to benefit from all of Freedom's extra services, we'll still need the services of a local court reporter. At that point, it would behoove me to have a name in mind.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Race Against Time

In my job as a paralegal, I am nearly perfect. I'm not gloating - I did say "nearly" after all.

Hyperbole aside, I feel like I'm pretty good at keeping the office moving forward. I am a fast worker who can turn around assignments like that. Since you can't see it, like that is really fast. I also try to be thorough and complete. I try to jump on tasks before being asked. As soon as we win a default judgment, I try to prepare the collection paperwork.

It is my job in our office to keep track of the progress of major client collection cases. We represent several HOAs and landlords that are in constant needs of these services. On these cases, my job is to make sure they move. We don't want to end up sitting on a case that does not get scheduled for trial because the defendant never answers and we forget to move for a default judgment. So I calendar and check and draft letters telling people they have 14 days to respond to us before we file a complaint. And when we file, I keep up with service, and if service fails, I try again. And once they are served, they usually don't answer and we move for the default. Okay. So, as I was saying, I'm pretty decent at this and many other daily tasks.

One thing I am not good at is babysitting the Boss. I know, I know, it's part of my job. Or rather, most people think it should be. I've said before that he gets his own coffee, and ties his own shoes. But the longer I work with him, the more dependent he becomes on me... which is a good thing. A great thing even. I still have a job in a bad economy because of this very fact. But I only recently came to realize that he really really does need me to mention things like the deposition tomorrow morning or court next Monday. Not because he's incompetent or wants to be babied -but because his plate is full and the Now work keeps him from checking on the Later list.

I figured this out when the same situation occurred twice within a two week period. He came in one Monday morning right after I arrived. I had just made coffee and had not turned on my computer yet. We did the morning chat thing for a few minutes while he sat down and got ready to assign me something. Then suddenly "Oh crap." He had a deposition in fifteen minutes.

The Boss went flying out the door and I sat there wondering why I hadn't remembered. After all, part of my job is to know what the Boss needs before he knows he needs it, isn't it? #ParalegalFail

One evening the next week, I was clearing off my desk and getting ready to leave. The Boss was in his office doing the same when, "Wow, glad I checked the schedule. Hearing tomorrow morning at 8:30." #MajorFailAgain

But at that moment, I took out a yellow Post-It and wrote "Check next day before you leave!" This Post-It has saved my life if not his several times now. Because it is sitting there right by my phone, it encourages me to check the next day several times. It even encourages me to check the next week and even the next month. But most importantly, the next day. I have no way of knowing if my reminders are helping the Boss keep track of important dates, but I like to think that he was on time for his 9 am status conference this morning because he received the email I sent Friday evening before leaving the office.

My Boss was self-sufficient for so long, and still is in many ways. Still, I've begun to notice how much I do for him and the firm these days compared to one year ago. I enjoy the responsibility and the sense of fulfillment that comes with being someone's Number Two. But at the same time, each day marks a new way he relies on me. And every little thing I forget, each tiny mistake I make, feels like a major letdown on my part. It seems silly to be so involved in how good or sucky I am at my job in our little office. You big firm people would probably laugh at me. But it's terribly important to me that I am the best paralegal, the best all around assistant that I can be, even as my responsibilities grow and evolve.

That's why I have the Post-It. It won't be the last of them, I'm sure. With my new system in place (better late than never), at least the Boss shouldn't have to race away at lightening speed to make it to early morning appointments anymore.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Principled or Practical?

Over the past few weeks, I have found myself wondering several times whether I am more principled or more practical.

There is something to say for each of these concepts. Principles keep us on the honorable path and require a dedication to something bigger than ourselves. Practicalities promote efficiency and effectiveness. When I am away from the office, I find it easy to envision law as a noble and mathematical art. Between the hours of 8:30-5, I forget beauty and high intellectualism as I plunge into the real life issues our clients face.

I like to believe in believing in something bigger than myself, but I also dislike the notion of holding onto an ideal merely for the sake of that ideal, especially if it comes at great cost and serves no practical purpose. Yet I shy away from cold rationalism.

Faith in the unseen and untested is difficult for me, but I value those individuals who possess it. I enjoy conversations about literature, but what really matters to me when I read a book is whether I find myself entertained. I don't eat high-calorie, low nutrient treats, not because I should not, but because I feel healthier when I refrain. Most of my decisions are deliberate and based on facts.

For these reasons, I have difficulty swallowing arbitrary rules, I find it silly to punish people for victimless crimes (Alabama sex toy scandal, anyone?), and I ask questions until something makes sense to me. I tried the sorority thing in college, but I hated performing purposeless tasks with the only objective being to join a group that would continue to perform purposeless tasks every single day.

Still, I need something bigger and better than myself to guide me and give me a purpose. This is why I love my job. At my office, we somehow take big, expansive law, toss in a few case-specific facts, and create a unique argument applicable to our client's cause. While I lean toward the more practical side of things, I enjoy the balance of principles and ideals (as long as they are reasonable and useful). I suppose you could say I am principled whenever it is practical. Or perhaps I'm practically principled. Whichever is the case, I find it suits me well in my role as a paralegal.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Messing With the Totem Pole

Every work environment has its invisible ladder of authority. I'm not talking about the one we all know. In the regular law firm, the regular ladder looks like this, to varying degrees: Senior partner, junior partner, senior associate, junior associate, senior staff, junior staff, etc. I hesitate to divide support staff into different levels of authority because there are plenty of secretaries and receptionists who could kick my young paralegal butt. But of course, that is a perfect example of the "invisible" ladder to which I refer. We all think we know and understand the hierarchy, but sometimes the most unassuming positions hold great unseen authority.

In my firm, I am the Second In Charge. Actually, that is by default, since the firm is pretty much the Boss and me. I would like to believe I hold some sort of authority over the fish, but there still seems to be a slight power struggle involving how much algae we allow to grow in the tank. It's an ongoing battle.

My Boyfriend the Lawyer has mentioned more than once that the natural order has been disrupted in his government job, where time on the job often seems to command more respect than does one's title and level of education. Of course, I'll be the first to agree that experience, in many ways, trumps title - at least when you aren't looking on paper.

I write about these things because the Boss and I had a delightful conversation today about what he would do if the firm made millions of dollars - whether he would retire to the Carribean or stay on for the sheer love of the law. I told him that whatever he does, he needs to be sure not to leave me at the firm with snarky jerkfaces for lawyers. (They are out there. And if you don't believe me, check out some of the posts and comments at Bitter Lawyer sometime.) Basically, when the time comes, I hope the Boss hires decent people who understand the value of team work.

To reassure me, he told me a tale of a prominent law firm where for years, the most senior partner's assistant was basically the Number Two in the firm. Of course, to anyone on the outside, she was probably "just a secretary." But within the firm, well, that invisible ladder messed up the hierarchy a bit. He told me about a time when said senior partner was out of town and said assistant asked another partner to perform some task that she knew from experience the Big Guy would like performed. Apparently the partner told her, probably not too politely, that he did not take orders from the help, no matter how close she was to The Big Guy. As the tale goes, the young partner received quite the reeming when El Muchacho got back in town. I'm guessing, hoping for his sake, that that was the last time he spoke down to the "help."

I have not put in the time or the cumulative effort yet to conjure the Boss's spirit when he is away. I am pretty sure that takes about twenty years and a ton of trust. But a client I personally know was in the office the other day, and when he jokingly told the Boss, "Oh, I don't listen to a word Mel says," The Boss's answer was simple and affirmative: "Good Lord, I sure do."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pursuing a Career as a Paralegal

The following guest post was written by one or more Kaplan University representatives. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not receive any benefits whatsoever for posting this article. I believe the information below could be helpful to those of you who are considering a paralegal career. I did not receive my undergraduate degree or my educational paralegal certificate through Kaplan University, so I am in no position to give an opinion on a Kaplan education. However, I am a huge fan of legitimate online studies, especially for individuals who do not have time to attend traditional brick and mortar institutions yet who still desire an education in any field.

Pursuing a Career as a Paralegal

According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 22 percent through 2016.* These increases are estimated to create positions in a number of industries and offer career opportunities that include count clerks and administrators, legislative assistants, and committee staff members in a legislative setting and nonprofit roles, such as contract evaluators. For those looking to jump-start a new career, the paralegal track could be a great option, given that an associate’s degree can be completed in under two years, and a bachelor’s degree can be completed in under four.

At Kaplan University, the undergraduate legal studies program is one of the largest offered.† Many students enrolled in the paralegal program are already in professional positions and do not have the time or alternative to commute to a ground campus. The invaluable flexibility of Kaplan University’s online programs allows these students to pursue a degree while balancing current commitments. Furthermore, as technology becomes more embedded in the legal industry, an online paralegal program could provide an increased comfort level with technology that can transition directly into a student’s work environment.

Paralegals or legal assistants are generally responsible for a variety of tasks that include assisting clients, performing investigative functions, preparing legal documents, and assisting with litigation preparation. Some additional day-to-day tasks may include preparing briefs, pleadings, or wills; preparing real estate closing statements; researching and gathering data such as statutes and legal articles; handling escrow accounts and billing; or helping to arbitrate disputes between parties.
Kaplan University offers three programs for those interested in the paralegal track: an Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies; a Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies; and a Pathway to Paralegal Postbaccalaureate Certificate. Both the associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs are designed to provide students with practical knowledge and technical skills that can immediately be applied in their careers.‡ The bachelor’s degree program provides a broad foundation of core subjects plus higher level courses in areas such as torts, legal writing, and technology. Students in the bachelor’s program also complete a number of courses that provide instruction in specific topics such as dispute resolution, social security, health law, divorce mediation, and law office management.

The Pathway to Postbaccalaureate Certificate program is intended for students that have obtained a bachelor’s degree and are seeking a career as a paralegal. The program is designed to provide the foundational paralegal skills and knowledge needed so graduates can communicate in a legal environment, conduct legal research, and evaluate sources, as well as understand the court system, law office management, and litigation.

Success in the online paralegal program at Kaplan University is built on a strong foundational knowledge, the beginning of which is acquired at the high school level. Taking high school classes that develop writing skills, technical aptitude and knowledge of the law, government, and math would be beneficial to students considering a paralegal degree program.

In addition to the paralegal programs, Kaplan University offers degrees in legal studies, public administration and policy, or environmental policy and management. Those students that already have an associate’s degree from a regionally or nationally accredited college may qualify for the advanced start option, offering the ability to obtain a bachelor’s degree in as little as two years.§ Graduates with a bachelor’s degree could then choose to pursue their master’s degree in legal studies or attend law school.

For more information on Kaplan University’s paralegal and legal assistant degrees, please visit

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Paralegals and Legal Assistants, on the Internet at These employment projections are provided for informational purposes only. Long-term projections are not intended to predict short-term changes in employment demand due to the current economy. Graduates are not authorized to practice law and will not be eligible to sit for any state’s bar examination.

† Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), 2006–2007 Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred, Law and Legal Studies, on the Internet at

‡Kaplan University's programs are designed to prepare graduates to pursue employment in their field of study, or in related fields. However, the University does not guarantee that graduates will be placed in any particular job or employed at all.

§Speak to an Admissions Advisor or refer to our University Catalog for our Transfer of Credit policy.

#While many of Kaplan University's degree programs are designed to prepare graduates to pursue continued graduate- or doctorate-level education, the University cannot guarantee that students will be granted admission to any graduate or doctoral programs.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

More On Independent Paralegals

I hate to beat a dead horse, to return to the question of independent paralegals and whether it is possible to walk that tightrope between serving an attorney and committing UPL - but here I am, doing just that.

My friend Professor Mongue at The Empowered Paralegal Blog, shared quite an interesting letter from an independent paralegal today. I encourage you to take a moment to read his entry and the letter he supplied, which can be found here, before continuing reading my thoughts on the subject. (It should open in a new window.) Go on. Read it. My words will be here when you get back.

Now that you are thoroughly informed, at least as informed as you can be at this point, you know that a self-proclaimed independent paralegal is currently being investigated for UPL. While we could argue the pros and cons of independent paralegals until we're blue in the face, I am more interested in one or two issues this letter brought up.

1) First, it seems that the complaint for UPL was filed, not by a dissatisfied or misled customer, not by someone who felt taken advantage of, but rather by a lawyer. Now, I have no qualms with someone doing what he feels is necessary to protect or defend the legitimacy of his profession or field. I just find it interesting that the only person who has enough of a problem with Mr. Martin's independent paralegal practice to file a complaint against him alleging UPL is a lawyer. This reminds me of some of the information I found regarding nonattorney practice in California when I first began researching independent paralegals. In that post, found here, I mentioned the apparent success of some independent paralegal (or rather, legal document assistant) companies. My limited reading and research found that at least customers are at least as satisfied, if not more so, with these businesses as with licensed attorneys when using them for situations in which they are not in need of legal advice.

2) If we take the letter at its face, Mr. Martin believes he is providing a necessary service to those who could not otherwise afford it. He does not sound like an incompetent attorney impersonator trying to pull the wool over an unwitting public's eyes.

3) Think about what Mr. Martin says about fear in the legal profession. Whether I agree with his stance regarding independent practice or not, I have a hard time rebutting his allegations of fear of UPL. It's the scarlet letter no one wants to wear. One mistake, one wrong word, and BAM, you've committed UPL. And whether you are even guilty of committing it is irrelevant. Once a complaint is filed, no matter what the verdict, your reputation can be blemished. I understand that UPL is an attorney issue too, but the lines are in different places. The problem for paralegals, as I've said before, is that the UPL line is to some extent subjective. We all know those things that MUST NOT BE DONE. But there are some things that may be unsafe to do, not because we are worried about the client's welfare, but rather because we are worried about the perception of some unnamed person who might wrongly construe our actions as the practice of law (as Mr. Martin seems to think happened in his situation). For instance, in some courts paralegals can sit with their attorneys at the table. In others, paralegals are restricted to the public seating, presumably to avoid appearing to the public that they are acting as a representative of the client.

4) Mr. Martin hits on an important question: Should it really be necessary for someone to pay a lawyer to assist him in such common sense instances as signing his name in a specific spot? Does telling someone to write his debts in this column labeled "debts" really take a graduate degree and a license to practice law? Should that really be construed as legal advice? The people who need such assistance rarely can afford an attorney, and this is a dilemma. I'm not saying tat the answer is limited non-attorney assistance; I'm just saying that if we discount limited non-attorney assistance, we have to do a better job of finding a real answer to better serve those who need it.

It is not my job or within my limited area of expertise to give a solid opinion of Mr. Martin's letter and all the points he raises. I chose here to write about the points of interest to me, the specific areas I find curious, the statements that made the cogs in my brain start turning. If you have comments, feel free to leave them here, or even better, return to Professor Mongue's blog to contribute your opinion. We all learn best when we enter into a dialogue and share our thoughts.

I am wishing Mr. Martin luck in all his endeavors. As for myself, I am glad I have a Boss to depend on.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Well-Meant Sexism is Still Sexism

Mulling over the past half-week, I came across a memory of Monday night that made me cringe. A very nice, well-meaning, older attorney had graciously described BCALP as a "wonderful group of ladies."

To be fair, I believe 100% of the members of BCALP are female. We are all paralegals, secretaries, legal assistants, and judges' assistants, and in Alabama (and many other places in the legal world), it is taken for granted that these positions are filled by women. So few, if any, other people probably frowned at this description of our organization. As I said, he was a very nice man attempting to thank us for putting on such a fun night.

Still, try as I might to ignore it, I can not. I am simply not one of "those ladies." My job is not the type of thing reserved for the "weaker sex." There are plenty of men, plenty of attorneys even, who would not be as productive at my job as I am. I am not good at my job because I am a woman, though. I am good at my job because I am dedicated, thoughtful, intelligent, and relateable. I am good at my job because I have half a brain and I try.

Likewise, though the members of BCALP all just happen to be women, our collective gender does not make it an organization of or for women. It is an organization of and for legal professionals. Labeling us as a group of women diminishes the perception of us as professionals. Coming from a male attorney, it sounded almost patronizing. It is much harder for a group of "ladies" to be taken seriously than it is for a group of "legal professionals."

The worst thing about it is that these moments, moments when my profession is shoved into a box full of only women or into a box full of people who "couldn't" be attorneys or a box full of , I get these major cravings for law school. I realize that this is my problem and no one else's, but it is still a problem. I don't start craving a law degree for myself, for my career, or for any good reason at all. I start craving it because I feel that someone is not taking me seriously. Deep in my heart, I know another degree would not make them take me any more seriously, nor would it increase my value or worth. And yet, when I am lumped into a group of women rather than professionals, that desire rises into my chest like a bad case of indigestion.

I am amused by my feelings, too, because I would not label myself as a feminist. I simply like to be taken seriously in whichever roles I choose to fill.

So since I cannot say it to this well-meaning man, I will say it to my readers here: BCALP is an organization of professionals. We all happen to be women, but this does not preclude participation of men. The fact that many paralegals, secretaries and other assistants are female is not a necessary one. These jobs are not better performed by women, just like the job of attorney is not better performed by a man. Take me seriously as a paralegal. Take me seriously as a person.

Stepping off the soap box now.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bosses' Night

Every year, the Baldwin County Association of Legal Professionals puts together a night dedicated to the local judges and attorneys. They call it Bosses' Night. Since I only recently joined this organization, this was my first year. Obviously, it was also the Boss's first year.

I sensed the hesitancy in his voice when he asked me on Friday what kind of function this was. Since I had never been, all I could tell him is that it involved food of some sort and a skit. I emphasized the fact that everyone goes. I wasn't wrong about that.

Within ten minutes of the appearance of the appetizers, I was munching on an apple slice chatting with a judge. Judges are must less intimidating outside of the courtroom. Judge R. had no reason to know me, but he introduced himself and we ended up sharing our favorite things about Bar Harbor, Maine before the Boss and his Wife showed up.

I was so glad when the Boss and his Wife appeared. Not because the Judge was boring me, but because I don't know many people in the legal community. Even though going to BCALP meetings has been wonderful, I'm still in the awkward I-kind-of-know-you-but-not-well-enough-to-just-start-talking phase. I'm forcing myself to get over it, little by little. The ladies are so nice. But I take getting to know people in stages. I won't feel truly comfortable in this arena until around the sixth meeting.

Back to Bosses' Night, I finally got a chance to chat with the Boss's Wife, who I'll call C. because it seems wrong to only call her the Boss's Wife. I've worked for the Boss for nearly two years, but C. and I cross paths very rarely. I was delighted to have the chance to really, truly meet C. for more than a quick wave and passing words.

The night was a great success and the first of this years' Fall get-togethers. The members of BCALP carved pumpkins and brought them to the dinner to sell in a silent auction. We gave away several door prizes.

Perhaps the best part of the night was the skit. A cast comprised of lawyers and judges, who had only received their lines five minutes before, put on a disaster of a sketch that kept the crowd giggling. I won't go into detail because, well, you just had to be there. I'm not even sure the sketch was good, but it was effective.

At the end of the night, after the skit and the door prizes, we gave out the Boss of the Year Award. I was hoping my own Boss would receive this prize. I was sure that my essay had knocked the socks off the judging committee. However, I was outdone by an entire staff who's attorney happened to be a former pastor who decided to go to law school at the ripe age of 52. They had us beat from the get go. But there's always next year.

All said, it was a fruitful night. I'm continually impressed with everything BCALP does, and I'm slowly gaining friends in the group. I'm already looking forward to our next meeting/event.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Higher Education

It's no secret to those who know me that I'm a glutton when it comes to knowledge. My grandfather used to read encyclopedias for fun, and I'm not far behind him. So even though a college degree is a wonderful thing, my skimpy bachelors degree smells like underachievement to me. I am definitely not trying to undermine anyone else's educational achievements, be they big or small. I'm a fan of getting the education you desire, not the education anyone else may think you need. (Case in point, when my 17-year-old cousin T. talks about getting a vet-tech certificate instead of jumping into college right away, I encourage her to pursue the path she enjoys. Maybe she'll decide to become a veterinarian along the way; maybe she won't.) All explanations out of the way, I desire a higher degree. Until I figure out which degree I want, and until I further figure out how to pay for it, I will have to settle for scrounging up educational opportunities where I can find them.

So of course when our speaker at last night's BCALP meeting was from a local community college, my ears perked up. I half-expected her to push classes like Intermediate Computer and The Professional Resume on us, but I was pleasantly surprised. She definitely talked about the short term classes that teach Word 2007 and advanced spread-sheeting, but she also mentioned a class called "Spanish for Courts and the Legal System." I wasn't the only person in the room who suddenly started listening at that point. As an organization consisting of dedicated secretaries, clerks, paralegals and other administrative professionals, most of us are pretty adept at basic word processing. We couldn't function at our jobs if we were not. But how many times have we stumbled through conversations with ESL clients? Being in Alabama, I'll tell you it happens pretty frequently.

I took Spanish in high school and college. The courses were required. I aced them somehow without learning much more than the very basics. This does not help in a conversational situation with a native speaker who is trying to figure out the next step in her case. I realized within a moment, like everyone else in the room, how valuable this "Spanish for Courts and the Legal System" could be. I have to look into it a bit more, but a class such as that could provide me with challenging yet practical knowledge while temporarily settling my ache for higher ed. I never would have guessed I could find such a gem of a class at my local community college.

So my challenge to you, dear readers, is this: If you have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, or unfulfilled curiosity about anything, check out your own community college courses. They aren't glamorous, but I think community colleges are probably drastically overlooked when it comes to valuable and necessary knowledge in all kinds of areas. As for me, I better stop writing and go check out this class.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What To Do With a Small World

Vicki Voisin, the one and only Paralegal Mentor, kindly allowed me to guest post for her 10/15/09 Paralegal Strategies (The "In Between" Issue) newsletter. If you do not already get her newsletter, you should sign up for it ASAP. In the mean time, you can find my piece - "Small World? Make It Big!" - at the Paralegal Mentor blog.

To keep up with Vicki's posts, as well as the posts of her other contributors, be sure to check back often at

Monday, October 19, 2009

Words That Do Not Mix: Paperless Law Office

I keep reading about all these strange entities called paperless law offices. I try to imagine a place where you don't go digging through endless D's to find the John Doe file (or numbers, if that's how your firm's filing system works), but it is difficult.

Perhaps the first reason I have a hard time envisioning a paperless office is that my own office is very paper-full. We print everything, from the e-filed orders to drafts of motions for review. We make copies of everything that leaves the office. When I am researching case laws, I print out the cases to highlight the pertinent parts. We print emails from clients to place in their files for quick future reference.

Now, I understand that everything we choose to print could actually be saved to file, and we could scan all of our paper documents into the system. But that is impractical for a law firm with one lawyer and one paralegal and, at any given time, fewer than 100 active client matters. I would spend much of my day scanning documents. Some days would be completely shot.

But let's imagine that we had a third person who's job was only to scan documents and store them. While we're at it, let's imagine that my office also has enough electronic storage for the endless amount of data being shoved into the system. It would still be impractical for my firm to go paperless.

First, I must print out research material for the sake of my poor eyes. It is unhealthy to stare at a computer screen for hours of reading. I also have to highlight the relevant parts. Second, since we keep copies of everything that leaves the office, we keep copies of all signed letters. It seems impractical to print a letter, sign it, then rescan it into the system before sending it off. At least, in our office it is.

And if time and effort cannot be saved, then going paperless to save paper seems silly, too. In my office, we would still hit the print button. But without a file in which to save the newly printed paper, we would shred it when we were done. In our office, that is a lot of wasted paper. In a medium to large firm, I'm imagining a ton of wasted paper a month as lawyers and staff print hardcopies to read or pass around or for various other reasons then dispose of them only to reprint the next time they need to have a hard copy.

I could have it all wrong. Perhaps being paperless is great. It's probably the next best thing, for firms that have the staff, the time, and the money to do so. One look at the dwindling space in our small office will convince anyone that files take up precious space. I am sure large non-paperless firms have entire warehouses devoted to file keeping. At my firm, our closed files take up one small conference room and half a storage closet. And those constitute only four years worth of a new firm's cases. If we don't move into a bigger place or find safe storage for our closed files, we will drown in paper within five more years. So I completely understand the benefits of going paperless. I just doubt it is as without paper as it sounds.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ode to Great Bosses

On this Boss's Day day, come, hearken my dears
Let my tales of great Bosses fall on open ears

One was a man so tall and so kind
The company forgot him and left him behind

One was a former bad-boy, all reformed
Hiding all his tattooes with long sleeves to conform

I once had a Boss who built race cars from scratch
He was funny and nice but our goals didn't match

One Boss was a Mouse with black ears and white hands
But I had to quit, couldn't meet his demands

One restaurant owner let me serve for a summer
I worked very hard but the tips were a bummer

But working for restauranteers got me through
My last couple of years in school

Before I learned teaching would not be my all
I subbed under my old highschool principal

Only one Boss has creamed all the rest
My pickiness and assertiveness put him to the test

He makes the office a fun place to be
And when it comes down to it, lets me just be me

He asks my advice and treats me so fair
And imparts on me wisdom when I ask him to share

Never talks down to me, respect abounds
Working with him is as good as it sounds

I'm lucky, I know, to have found such a thing
A Boss who doesn't drive me crazy, a job that makes me want to sing

On this Boss's Day, if you're this lucky, too
Let your Bosses know; they'll definitely thank you.

- This is my hasty, goofy Boss's Day poem. I'm no poet, of course, but take heed, and do let your good Bosses know you appreciate them. You'll reap the benefits.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dreams and Such

The Boss asked me yesterday to try my best not to schedule meetings for today. The schedule was clear, completely free. It had the potential to be a very productive work day. And we needed a work day, believe me. The phone has been ringing nearly constantly with one thing or another, and every new client expects that his case is the only case we have. Of course, everyone who works in a law office knows clients expect this. If I were someone's client, I would expect immediate and direct attention to my situation, too. Unfortunately, that's impractical at a one-lawyer-one-paralegal law firm. So we do our best.

Still, clients drop in unexpectedly to check on the cases they brought us only the day before. It is the nature of the beast that is small town law.

Because of all of the calls and initial consultations lately, the Boss has been stuck in his office for much of each day. When he is not in his office with clients, he can be found in court. And even though I'm only one step down from SuperWoman, I still need for him to be available to approve drafts and sign important documents. As the attorney and business owner (his name's on the shingle), I find that he is a necessary part of the business, even more so than myself (gasp, I know). So when we are clogged with meetings, the work that needs to be done for all the other important clients gets backed up. It's a conundrum. We need the new business to keep the firm running, but the new business creates a system slow-down. What to do?

Well, today our answer was to daydream about what it might be like to work at the other end of the legal spectrum, where clients are multimillion dollar corporations and pages serve you bottled water when you ring a little bell. Actually, the Boss started this daydreaming bit. At the end of our long day, he started reminiscing about the direction his career could have taken had he taken the fancy, travel-heavy, big-money job he was offered out of law school. "I could be a partner now," he sighed whimsically.

As he left for the day, I began to imagine my own life in a mid-to-large-sized firm where I wouldn't have to answer phones or clean the fish tank. In my dream world, I would have a 401(k), catered lunches, and the assistance of multiple other teammates. My dream was ruined by some young fellow with a brand new law degree (and no idea how to use it) trying to treat me like "the help" and a grumpy partner barking orders that made no sense because he should have retired ten years ago. I know these situations aren't status quo at larger firms, but anywhere else would open me up to the possibilities of meeting these nightmares. Apparently even my subconscious thinks I'm better off in my small town law office.

As I prepared to leave (late, too - I was at the office until 5:08 pm!), I made sure to feed the fish, water the plants, and check the phone messages. Then I thanked my lucky stars that I have the hours I have, the Boss I have, the cases I have, and even the clients. Especially the clients, walk-ins and all.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Good People to Know: Paralegals at Other Firms

This should be a given for any career-minded, relationship-oriented paralegal, but it's also helpful for lawyers and other legal professionals. First, though, I will explain why it is so important for paralegals.

These are the people with whom you will be in contact in order to schedule depositions, send settlement agreements back and forth, and receive updates on case progression. For instance, while depositions are usually few and far between in my firm's practice, when we do have to have one, I get to speak with the opposing side's paralegal regarding dates, times, and places. When I need to find out whether the other side has submitted a proposed order or how long it will be before we receive discovery answers in a case, I speak with none other than the paralegal. Being on good terms, being able to toss in friendly small-talk about the last association conference, these things make a big difference.

There are also situations, non-adversarial in nature, that give rise to the need for another paralegal. You may find yourself attempting to draft a document you've never drafted before. Perhaps a paralegal friend will have a sample of that document (any confidential information fully removed, of course) for you to use. I have used my contacts to find information for domestic abuse victims, to draft documents, and to get tips on procedural matters. I've also found that my out-of-state contacts provide encouragement and good career advice.

As for why attorneys should get to know paralegals from other firms, the reasons are numerous. First, the Boss himself has told me that if he needs information from another law firm, his first stop is the paralegal/secretary. He believes that many times, especially in our local firms, the assistant will know about the status of the case right off the top of her head faster than the attorney will. This probably has to do with the fact that the assistant is the person marking the schedule and making sure everything is done on time and according to procedure. Lawyers may also want to get to know paralegals because it is that much easier to find someone to hire when you're tapped into the scene. Only last week, I received a mass email notice from an officer of my local organization that an area attorney is looking for a paralegal. If she has not found someone yet, she will very soon. Another acquaintance of mine who is a new attorney contacted me soon after taking the bar, requesting that I keep my ears open for a tentative legal assistant for her.

No matter which role you fulfill on your legal team, get to know paralegals at other firms. The rewards are many: networking opportunities, new forms, access to general helpful information, quick access to case statuses, possible job tips, etc. With a little effort you can have the legal world at your fingertips, and you might make a few good friends in the process.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Crazy Days

Monday was an introduction to a crazy hectic week. For the first time ever, I found myself imagining how delightful it would be to have a third person at the office, someone to answer phones and do the filing. Part-time maybe ten hours a week. Give me a few more months and I might be able to fill a full eight hour day with enough work for a new person.

We started the day with an emergency that required a walk-through filing to the Judge. While the Boss was pairing a black wool jacket with his basic suit pants (he hadn't expected to have to go before a judge), I worked on several smaller projects. The phone rang constantly. People dropped in looking for some sitdown time with the attorney. (How do you tell someone nicely that they really should call first?) Once the Boss was back in the office, it was my turn to run errands. I visited the probate recording office, a police station, and the bank. None of these places were close to the others. I returned to the office just in time to realize there was no time left in the day to take care of the hundred other things I needed to do.

But you know, this is what I love about my job. Every day is a new day. I never know whether I will be reading case law, studying some topic I've never read about, comforting someone, or writing. All I know when I walk through that door nearly every day is that I can expect to put my mind on overdrive until at least 5 pm. It' s fast-paced, hardcore law. From estate planning to litigation, I am in love with every aspect of this job.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Spotlight on Minnesota

I normally leave the paralegal news commentary to Mr. Mongue over at the Empowered Paralegal Blog or Lynne DeVenney at Practical Paralegalism. However, tonight I stumbled upon an interesting story at the Minnesota Daily online. The story is not particularly significant to the greater world outside of Minnesota, but I always enjoy reading how other states approach the practice of law.

The story here, entitled Former Student Sues U For Poor Advice, describes a suit pressing forward in "Concliation Court," which is known in my state as Small Claims Court. A former student is suing the University for poor advice regarding class selection and is seeking a reimbursement of tuition fees. The case seems pretty straightforward - small claims cases usually are. Perhaps this is why the University is being represented in the matter by a paralegal rather than an attorney.

The story explains: "Paralegals, who aren’t licensed to practice law, are able to provide representation in conciliation court cases when a party — in this case the University — grants them power of attorney, University Deputy General Counsel Bill Donohue said."

Apparently Minnesota is one of those special places that has carved out a niche for paralegal representation. Though the article does not go into detail, I imagine that the paralegal is still working under the supervision, albeit flexible supervision, of an attorney.

I have to say that I do like this idea. It keeps the attorneys free to focus on more complex legal issues with higher stakes. If the paralegal is skilled and experienced, and if she keeps a supervising lawyer up to date on the progress of the case, this type of situation could work well for everyone.

The plaintiff in this case is also a certified paralegal, and though the article does not address her representation, I assume she is pro se. I imagine that if she had retained an attorney, the University also would have wanted attorney representation.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the Boss would send me to small claims court if he legally could. It would free him up to hide out in his office and get work done. We would be ultra productive. We would be, like, the super team of law. Ah, if only.

So read the story, and let me know what you think. Does your state have a Minnesota-style exception for representation by paralegals or other non-lawyer legal professionals?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Two Wrongs, But It'll Be All Right

I don't know why I focus on my mistakes, but I do. One simple, completely fixable mistake can ruin an otherwise perfect day for me.

Today, I realized that I have been making the same mistake over and over again. The clerk's office called to let me know that we had errantly filed an oringal Quitclaim Deed with a noncontested divorce package. "The attorney usually keeps the deed," she explained kindly, "and records it in Probate once the divorce is finalized." I was hesitant, but I accepted her offer to send it back to our office for safe-keeping.

The thing is, I remember a very specific conversation with the Boss from the first time I prepared divorce paperwork that involved a transfer of interest in real property. The settlement agreement referred to the "attached quitclaim deed" when addressing the conveyance. I clearly remember asking him if I should attach the original deed. I remember all of this because it didn't make sense to me to file the original with the other paperwork, but I wanted to make sure of what we needed to do. In this memory, the Boss explains to me that there is no recording fee for a Quitclaim Deed that is filed with a divorce package, so filing it with the divorce docs would basically kill two birds with one stone.

However, when I told the Boss about my conversation with the clerk's office, he merely said, "Yeah, the original stays here." I wanted to respond with "Are you absolutely sure?" I did mention that I remembered a conversation about this very subject during which he explained why I should attach the original deed. He looked at me with a blank expression. I felt lost, perplexed, and a bit ashamed. You see, I have filed not one, but two of these packages with an original deed attached. The Boss didn't seem to think of it as a major mishap. He simply suggested calling the court to retrieve the other original deed I admitted having filed. He warned that they might have already shredded it after scanning it into their system, but thank goodness the ladies at the clerk's office knew right where to find it. I will have both deeds back in a matter of days. (This goes back to being on good terms with the clerk's office. They were so patient and kind to me as I bumbled through this situation today.)

With the situation almost fully resolved, and with a new lesson learned, I still do not feel settled with this matter. I am uncomfortable with the strange memory of a conversation that may never have occurred. If the Boss were egotistical or the kind of guy who passed the buck, I would trust myself more. But he has never seemed to have a problem admitting his own mistakes. If he thought he had told me something wrong, he would say so. Thus, either he does not remember a conversation we did have, or I remember a conversation we did not have. I'm leaning toward trusting the memory of the person who has been working in this field longer than I, who obviously knows not to file an original deed with a divorce package. But I have a hard time letting go of the memory of a moment that I can almost see and hear.

No major harm having been done, I will have to let go and move on to tomorrow, where no doubt more imperfections and mishaps await. However, I will take two lessons with me as I go forward: Original deeds do not get filed with the circuit court - ever, that I know of - and I seem to have a very active imagination.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Paralegal's Role in Managing the Law Firm...

Today, head on over to Jay Fleischman's Legal Practice Pro, where my guest post regarding paralegals and law firm management awaits. You will also want to linger and read some of the other great posts regarding practice management and marketing. No matter your position at the firm, you are bound to find some helpful tips.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Snakes in the Legal Field

When I decided to make a career in the legal field, people warned me to be on the watch for snakes, pigs, and various other nasty creatures. I did not realize I should have taken those warnings literally... until yesterday.

The Boss had just stepped out for lunch, but moments later, I heard the back door open. "Melissa," he called, "do you know anything about snakes?"

"Kind of," I cautiously answered.

"Do you know how to tell if it is a rattlesnake?"

"Um, it rattles?"

I followed him out the back door across our miniature courtyard to his truck. Underneath his truck, coiled casually with his tail lifted in warning, was a small gray snake. He didn't look threatening from four or five feet away. If he had a rattle on the end of his tiny tail, it was too small to make any real sound.

Living in the South, I learned early how to tell the good snakes from the bad ones. I hate killing good snakes. They eat rats and other unpleasant things and generally stay out of my way. Good snakes tend to have sleek heads, and poisonous snakes tend to have triangular shaped heads. Supposedly. But this little guy was too small for me to tell. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the way he kept wagging his tail, like my angry third grade teacher, seemed sinister, dangerous. I concluded to the Boss that it must be a pigmy rattlesnake and that we should kill it dead at least once. (I had never seen a pigmy rattlesnake in my life. I just figured that because it was so tiny, the name fit the descriptions I had heard of them.)

The Boss seemed to hesitate getting into his truck. He wondered outloud if perhaps the little guy had fallen out of his truck. "I didn't notice him until opened the door to get in," he explained.

The snake didn't get a jury of his peers, nor did he have a chance for a lengthy appeals process. I pronounced him guilty in light of the very little evidence given, and the Boss played Executioner by backing over him. Once the truck was pulled back, we examined the dead little thing close-up. He was gray with angular black spots and a hint of burnt orange coloring misted down his back. His tail was still lifted in defiance. Even close up, it was difficult to tell whether he was carrying a rattle at the end of it. Still, he had held himself out to be a rattlesnake, so I firmly believed he deserved the fate that had befallen him.

The Boss left for lunch, and I went inside to research Alabama snakes. Sure enough, I found a picture of a dusky pigmy rattlesnake that looked exactly like the little guy being laid to rest by the ants outside.

While I imagine the "ground rattler," as they are commonly called here, would have done the Boss little harm, since his bite would have likely landed on the Boss's leather shoe, I've been avoiding our courtyard ever since. My high heels are pretty and sophisticated, but I don't think they qualify as protective rattlesnake gear.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Good People to Know: In the Clerk's Office

In keeping with my Good People to Know series, tonight's post is about how truly wonderful some people in the clerk's office can be.

For any of you who are true newcomers to the practical world of law, the clerk's office is where you file court documents. But they do so much more than stamp documents. They are the lifeline of the court system. Many of the men and women working in my local court clerk's office have been working in the legal system since before I was born.

When local court rules change in any way, like when the fee schedules change or a judge begins requiring specific language filings, the clerk's office knows exactly what is going on. A year ago I attended a seminar regarding e-filing procedures. It came with a large binder full of wonderful information about local procedure, filing fees, and judge-specific directions. Some judges prefer proposed orders be attached to motions while others prefer they are filed separately, for instance. While the official association to sponsor the event was BCALP (Baldwin County Assoc. of Legal Professionals), I can assure you that most of the members who were involved in the seminar worked in the clerk's office.

On a daily basis, these ladies are life savers. I forgot a civil cover sheet for an initial complaint filing this past week. As soon as I realized my mistake, I turned to go. But the lady behind the counter, let's call her "L.," said, "Wait, we have a cover sheet here you can fill out."

I have learned a lot from the clerk's office over the past two years. For instance, while heavy bond paper is pretty, and the fact that your office can afford to buy it may be impressive to clients, the clerk's office would prefer that any paper filings be done with simple white paper. It scans better. When I related this matter to the Boss, his face showed slight indignation as he said, "But they don't understand that the presentation is important. Sometimes you have to use the nice paper." He's right, of course. Still, I've noticed lately that when I bring him a draft to review, if he finds it to be satisfactory, he will go ahead and sign the white regular paper rather than return it to me for printing on bond paper.

Rules and procedure are very important to the smooth function of the clerk's office. Every document has its place, every file has its number. That is why it is so important to get to know these people. If you have one good contact there, he or she will guide you through almost any procedural steps you may have forgotten or possibly never knew. Whether you are new, experienced, you need a good contact at the clerk's office. Of course, if you are experienced in the legal world, you already knew this, didn't you?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Good People to Know: Probate Office Personnel

I realized today that there are certain people I rely upon in my local legal community who do not work in my office. They are people who give me guidance and tips, who help me fix my mistakes, and who keep me on my toes. In nearly two years, the one lesson I continue learning above all others is that I still have much to learn. Whether you are an experienced legal professional in a new town, a brand new lawyer, a fresh-out-of-school paralegal, or an attorney stepping into solo practice for the first time, you will need these people. Tonight, I start a series on these Good People to Know, beginning with the Probate Office Personnel.

I have the choice of three probate offices to visit when I need to record a document. No matter which one I choose, the person at the recording desk is always helpful. I most often visit the nearest office, located merely two miles from my place of business. The lady there, we'll call her "G.," has patiently walked me through all kinds of dilemmas.

You may be asking yourself what kinds of dilemmas someone can find at the recording office. Well, as a brand new paralegal to a solo practice lawyer over the past two years, many situations have arisen right before my eyes. G. has been there every step of the way with me. From the time I forgot to include the "This document prepared by" stamp on a materialman's lien to the time I failed to provide a sale price or fair market value when recording a warranty deed, she has guided me through the steps to fix each and every small but significant problem that has arisen. Once, she even saved our client some money by suggesting I staple documents in a certain order.

Even before I arrived, you better believe she was doing the same thing for the Boss. As a fairly new attorney starting his own practice, he needed direction. Apparently law school does not teach local rules, like where to place the "This document prepared by" or the fact that the county will only charge half of the deed tax if a grantor is also one of the grantees on a deed. Legal professionals rely on the experience and knowledge of G. and others like her for this necessary information.

I have learned so much from G., but every time I think I know it all, she has something else to teach me. With her patient help, I have become a better paralegal and a more knowledgeable employee.

So, if you have not already tapped into the fountain of knowledge at your local probate office, get to it! I would still be wandering, lost in a forest of local rules with no way to sort through them, without the help of G. and the many other court personnel I have come to know over the past two years. The wisdom these people possess is necessary to the effective practice of even the best law firms, especially in a small town like mine.