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About Me

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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.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Great Debate

As you may remember from my first post, I have not yet decided what I want to be when I grow up. I know I want to work in the legal field. It's challenging and interesting, and I learn something new every day.

My problem is this: I am smart and driven. There is a part of me that wants a law degree just because I could achieve it. If I can achieve it, that voice says, then why not?

The answer, of course, is that I like my current career. When I weigh the benefits of law school (J.D., bigger salary, getting to use the term "profession" legitimately) with the costs (a ton of money, a saturated market, three years of my life in a place I would have to move to since there are no law schools in my area), my current position as a paralegal seems so much easier to accept.

I don't want to settle, though, not at all. I just haven't figured out yet whether not going to law school would really be settling. Over the past two years, I've grown to enjoy what I do on a daily basis. My attorney supervisor views me as a partner in the business - not literally, that would be unethical - but rather as another person whose daily efforts are necessary for the success of his practice. I've found a niche for myself at our little office. He gives the legal advice, goes to court, runs the major client meetings, and drafts the complicated documents; I do just about everything else. Our jobs do continuously overlap. My goal, though, is to become so competent in all the things non-lawyers CAN do that he does not need to do anything else except that which only lawyers can do.

Perhaps beginning my career in such a small atmosphere has shown me how important yet generally undervalued paralegals are in the rest of the legal world. I'm one of the lucky ones who has a truly appreciative boss.

But the undervalue of paralegals is another reason I want to remain in this career. I like the idea of getting involved with the promotion of paralegalism while it is still a fairly young arena. I want to help shape the legal world's view of the importance of paralegals by encouraging higher standards within my community.

In order to be taken seriously, all "para-professions" and under-recognized career groups need those people who could move on to a supposedly higher level in the field but choose to use their talents and education to further the cause of the under-recognized group. Just look at the nursing field, where more and more highly educated people who could go to medical school choose to become nurses instead.

It is not necessary, yet, for a paralegal to attain the level of education that even a registered nurse must possess. Though I'm not necessarily suggesting that we completely intellectualize the career, wouldn't it be nice if we required at least certification and/or a college degree? Wouldn't it be nice if some group actively governed us? (At least in Alabama, the Bar Assoc. refuses to govern paralegals because, they believe, it would overstep their bounds.)

I am not suggesting we completely intellectualize the field, or that paralegals should all hold master level degrees. But I know first hand that my job requires more than "routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work", as the Department of Labor suggests in its FLSA2005-9 letter/opinion regarding the paralegal career.

I want to be involved in my career field in a way that allows me to watch it grow and expand over the course of my life. Right now, organizations cannot gain a consensus on the very definition of a paralegal, much less the educational standards that should be required and what kind of work they should do. It's exciting to be a part of such a career.

On the flip side, lawyers have a pretty set place in the professional realm. If the career field for attorneys is changing, it is mainly in response to the influx of non-attorney legal professionals carving out these new niches in the legal world. But by and large, most people know and understand what an attorney is and does. While there is much room for individual career growth in that field, it is not nearly as dynamic as the paralegal profession.

For these reasons, I believe I have decided, at least for now, to remain a paralegal. To be a part of something so new is like getting to press one's hand into drying cement. It's exhilerating to imagine that what I do and say, the standards I choose to promote today, might stick around for years to come.

Monday, July 27, 2009

When Mondays Attack

Monday. The beginning of another work. I usually look forward to them, and today was no exception. See, I enjoy the anticipation of what the new week will bring, which new clients will walk in, what new topic I will have the chance to study for a case, etc. The morning at the office usually begins with the following conversation:

Me: Good morning!
Boss: How was your weekend?
Me: (I go on for about two minutes about my weekend, although I know he was just asking to be nice.) How was your weekend?
Boss: It was a weekend. It was long, I wasn't at the office, now it's over.
Me: (Insert witty remark that cleverly leads into a question regarding an ongoing project...)

This happens the same way every week. It has become quite the routine. Today was no different.

But this is where the similarities between this and other Mondays ended. It began with internet troubles. The Boss had given me a very interesting topic to research and had even requested that I discuss my findings in the oh so professional memorandum-of-law format I have begun sneaking into my work. When I started working there, and every time thereafter, the Boss expected my research findings to consist of print-outs of cases with pertinent parts highlighted. I would bring these to him and discuss in person the major points of the cases and their relation to our present case. I did not engage in such casual research out of laziness; I was merely doing the Boss's bidding. But when he was out a few weeks ago, and I had a little time on my hands, I took the opportunity to type out two wonderfully long, law-rich memorandums for two separate research assignments. Apparently he realizes now that something was missing all along... the great divide between Boss and Employee, Lawyer and Non-lawyer, Owner and Worker, King and Plebe... perhaps I'm being hyperbolic. To the point, Boss liked my dissertations and now wants more.

So there I sat in my comfortable chair, about to indulge in a little case law, when I realized the internet was running very slow. Then I realized that slow was poor word choice. What I meant to say was that it was not running at all.

My boyfriend likes to say the internet is not a big truck, but today it was. Today it was a big truck stuck in the mud. So my big project of the day got delayed. Problem One.

Around lunch time, I noticed that my face felt a little flush and that I was perspiring a little. I said to myself, "When I told the Boss to save energy by putting the thermostat on 76, I had no idea it would be so hot." When I tasted salt on my lips, I felt I better do something about the heat before I melted. The Boss was out buying office supplies.

The thermostat had no lights or digital read out on it. This was not good. I was not tall enough to reach the fan in my part of the office. So I sat there in the heat, which was all the more oppressing once I knew the a/c was somehow broken.

The Boss arrived sometime after I had escaped to my apartment for lunch and returned to the sweltering cinder block that was our office today. I thought my day was turning around when I say him step through the door with a big box... a big box holding a brand new all-in-one printer! Finally, I could toss out my little squeaker printer from 199__! Finally, I would be able to scan documents in my own area and send faxes straight from the computer!

While the Boss conducted an afternoon meeting, I set up the beautiful new printer. It took me ten minutes to realize that the computer it was hooked up to didn't even know it existed. I felt bad for the printer... I remember being in its position once, wanting someone/thing that didn't even know I was alive. Sigh. No matter what technological prowess I used, no matter which trick I tried or how many times I reloaded the drivers, the computer insisted on ignoring my beautiful new printer! My solution would be to get a new computer, but someone I feel the Boss might disagree.

The office I left this afternoon was a hot mess. No A/C, a dysfunctional computer-printer relationship, and spotty internet. I only hope Tuesday will let up on me a bit.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Paralegal... Profession?

When I go into work, my attire is usually a step above business-casual. My job requires me to type correspondence, call courthouses and other law firms, draft real estate documents and litigation documents, speak with clients, write checks, file documents, research law, etc. I have been told by at least one new lawyer that I do more substantive legal work than he does.

Because of the nature of our business, many paralegals, myself included, call ourselves professionals. We see the paralegal field as a young, growing, and evolving profession. Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not always agree with us.

While my attorney supervisor recognizes and appreciates the importance of my role in our small office, it seems that many other paralegals are set aside as mere laborors in the practice of law. This is as much our fault as it is the attorneys who put us there on the sidelines. After all, assistants in other fields oftenare recognized in a professional capacity. For example, people have no trouble acknowledging nurses as medical professionals.

Nurses have something we do not have, though. They have educational requirements and/or mandatory certification requirements. To enter into nursehood requires a certain level of knowledge that calling oneself a paralegal does not... yet.

I am the type of person who wants to be at the top of my profession, but I want it to be a challenge, not a given, that I will be there. I want to be proud to call myself a paralegal, but it is difficult to feel pride for my general occupation when the law firm down the street has a high school drop-out working for them, calling herself a "legal assistant".

Don't get me wrong; I detest the idea that someone's education or title somehow places him above others on the imaginary totem pole. I don't care about being better or smarter than others. But I care about my chosen profession having standards and requirements for me to check myself against. Speak to any lawyer, and her assistant is usually a crucial part of her practice. If lawyers are placing so much faith in us, shouldn't we rise to the occasion and have at least some uniform standards?

The National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Association of Legal Secretaries are both working toward this goal, but it takes effort on an individual state level to encourage and promote uniform certification standards. At least four states require certification on some level for someone to designate him/herself as a paralegal. We have 46 more to go.

If you are reading this blog as a legal professional, get involved! Contact your local legal organizations to find out what needs to be done to enhance our credibility as professionals. I understand that some attorneys and bar associations may feel threatened by the idea of certification requirements for paralegals, at first. But they only stand to benefit from better educated assistants who meet minimum requirements necessary to play such an important role in the law firm. If you run across any of these people, just have them call my boss to verify how having an educated, aspiring professional for a paralegal effects the day to day business of the law firm. Here's a hint: It helps... a lot.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Learn Something New Every Day

This has been a week of revelations, and it's only half-way over.

For the first time, I have been building a case from scratch, with the mere supervision and guidance of my attorney. Usually, he will hand me a file, or a stack of papers he needs me to create a file for, and tell me exactly what he wants. He will usually tell me how he wants a suit drafted, which causes of action to use, and the format he desires. I will have all the information I need in my hands as I begin my task.

Last week, however, he handed me a few notes and said, "Find out what kind of suit we need to file on this and what we need to file it." He gave me a very general topic, one which he himself is not all too familiar, and then released me into the wild, threw me into the water without a life jacket, per say.

So I worked, I found ten causes of action to bring in this case, I crafted a beautiful complaint out of basically scratch. It took me a full day. When he looked over it, he found it to be nearly perfect. After adding a few details and peppering it with legalese, he declared it ready to review with the client.

On Monday I arrived at the office as chipper as ever. I despise weekends without a goal, and this last one was empty. I love my job, and an empty weekend doesn't even give me a good reason to be out of the office. So in I skipped, happy and excited. The Boss had left me a message from the weekend. "Mel, find out if we need to file a complaint with an administrative agency before filing suit in this matter."

I researched, and to be quite honest, I'm still unsure as to whether we have to file something with an administrative agency before filing suit in a county court. Lesson #1 learned. Kind of. Perhaps Lesson #1 is more a cautionary tale about learning ev-er-y-thing before doing a-ny-thing. I know this is an impossible task, and that is why, dear reader, you are destined to screw up. A lot.

Lesson #2 came when the Boss tells me that he just learned one of my carefully crafted causes of action is not recognized in state court. Pause for dramatic effect. I had researched and read and read and researched, how could I have missed such an obvious error? The answer is simple, really. Until this week, I had no clue which causes of action were NOT recognized in my state's courts. I imagined that if something gave rise to a cause for compensation, as long as you worded it carefully, or squeezed it into one of several short phrases the law reserves for this purpose, you could file suit for it anywhere that had proper jurisdiction. I was wrong.

By Lesson #3 I was worn out. How many times can someone as obviously brilliant and careful as me be wrong three times on one case? This time I found that my state does not recognize negligent infliction of emotional distress. Make that eight causes of action.

Lesson #4: Intentional infliction of emotional distress and the tort of outrage are basically the exact same thing. Make that seven causes of action.

I have to remind myself that if I'm not making mistakes, I'm not learning. I also have to remind myself that my Boss has three years of law school and four years of law practice behind him and sometimes I have to return letters he has typed with red ink all over them.

Lesson #5, then, is that none of us are perfect and making mistakes is how we make progress. Also, I'm a better grammarian than my attorney.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Moving Up in the World

For nearly two years I was the part-time "secretary" to my attorney. Part-time because he could not afford to pay me for 40 hours, "secretary" because, I suppose, it was the easiest way for him to describe me. Two months ago, things changed when I received my designation as a Certified Paralegal (through the National Association of Legal Assistants).

The Boss suddenly started thinking of things in a new light. We work in a rural town. Few people around here, even attorneys, have a solid idea of what a paralegal does. Most non-lawyer staff who do paralegal work in this area call themselves legal secretaries. Don't let the name fool you. More often than not, these legal secretaries do everything but run the firm. If you have a question or concern, as long as it doesn't involve giving legal advice or negotiating a settlement, you ask the secretary first. If she doesn't have an answer, it's highly unlikely her attorney will have one. As a still-fresh non-attorney in the legal profession, I have not yet reached that level of comfort in my job. I consult my Boss over nearly everything.

Still, things changed the day I started adding CP to the end of my name. First, the Boss asked if wanted him to send the press release to the newspaper instead of doing it myself. (NALA included a sample press release with my certificate... free advertisement for them, and I thought the Boss wouldn't mind my slipping in the name of the firm... free advertisement for us.) Shortly thereafter, he mentioned that he had not had any idea how real the whole certification process is. Since it is optional, many people assume that it is a self-designation. This is not the case. The Boss was just a little impressed that I am now one of only 199 NALA-certified paralegals in the state of Alabama.

After an awkward conversation days later about whether I prefer the term "legal assistant" or "paralegal" (I don't care; I'm doing the same work either way), the Boss mentioned that he might be ready to take my employment to the next level - the full-time level. Three weeks later I was a full-time paralegal, which has made it much easier to describe my job when asked. I had previously answered questions about my career with a muddled "part-time paralegal, part-time [insert side job here]".

To my knowledge, I am the only certified paralegal in my area... I'm the only paralegal in my town, period. The Boss seems to take me more seriously these days. I also think he secretly relishes the fact that he has a true certified paralegal working for him while the other lawyers in our area struggle with highschool graduates who can barely type a complete sentence, much less draft a motion for summary judgment. My full-time presence also seems to bring in more money, as I work more billable hours per day now. That's nothing to squeek at.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Day 1 In The Life

The title of this first entry is a bit misleading. This is actually somewhere around Day 600 of the sweet, sweet paralegal life.

First, some background. I am the paralegal to a solo practice attorney in a town so small you can hold your breath driving through. For awhile we were the only law office. In a town of 150 people, do you really need more than one attorney? The answer, of course, is yes, we always need more attorneys. To date, there are now four lawyers in the small town of 150 people, but each new office has gracefully selected practice areas my attorney detests. We send nasty divorces one block down and criminal matters two blocks past that. Since criminal matters in the town usually revolve around the town drunk stumbling home (public intox), and since small town southern folk don't get divorces (or at least don't like everyone else at church knowing about it), we still get to keep a large portion of the market share in our sleepy little town. In my short time as a paralegal, I have been exposed to all types of cases, ranging from estate contests (rarely a prize for the winner) to estate planning. And everything 360 degrees between.

You may call me Mel. Personally, I have a hard time deciding whether paralegalism is just a stop on the way to lawyerhood or the beginning of a long career as legal staff. The more acquainted I become with my field, the more enticing my current position seems.

The intent of this blog is to purely selfish. As an English graduate, communication is my outlet. However, if you are able to achieve some level of enjoyment at my expense, my words are all the more valuable. So welcome, read to your heart's content, feel free to comment, and please return often. You never know what to expect.