Search This Blog

About Me

My photo
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.

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.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Planning and Zoning - The Fun Begins

I spend part of my working life reading and applying Alabama state statutes and case law. Tonight, I began an adventure into the world of municipal law. I observed my town's planning and zoning commission.

Next month, I should be a full blown member.

For years now, no matter where I have lived, I have treated it as a temporary homestead. Since leaving home for college in 2001, I have failed to stay in one place continuously for more than 12 months. When I first started this job I love, I only meant it to last for a year or two, to serve as my soft introduction to the paralegal world. I remained ready to go in an instant, for whatever reason. Mine was a restless heart.

And yet though I put forth a slight effort to leave, I remained. This past spring, I decided to stop fooling around and to make this community my home. I moved into a new apartment. I began attempting to branch out by attending community events. I told the Boss I intended on staying indefinitely, no plans or desires to find another job in another place. I started setting down roots.

Then I joined NALA and NALS. There's a saying about two birds and one stone; try five birds with two stones. By joining NALA and NALS, I also joined their local affiliates AAPi, BCALP, and AALS. I attended the AAPi summer conference, and I have had two monthly meetings with BCALP. Despite a few awkward moments, which are inevitable when trying to expand one's comfort zone, I've largely enjoyed these events.

But the moment that will solidify this town as my home will be my appointment to the planning and zoning commission. My participation in this commission is different and separate from my joining the other organizations. While professional organizations encourage some amount of community involvement, planning and zoning is involvement. It is community and policy and, notably, something completely separate from my job. I joined professional organizations for networking, knowledge, and opportunities; I am joining planning and zoning just for me, as my own project separate from my career and career considerations (though we only meet about one hundred feet from my office).

Tonight was extremely intriguing to me. I kept my mouth shut and my opinions to myself, but I can already tell that I will enjoy these discussions once I am an official member. We are of different ages, backgrounds, and quite obviously, political beliefs, but I soaked up every word that was said.

I think I will enjoy reading and discussing town ordinances. All day at work I am thinking of state law, which is big and forceful and yet untouchable. I learned tonight that I find ordinances to be tangible and real, small enough to affect even me, and small enough, even for me to affect somehow. This is going to fun.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nobody Likes a Know-It-All

You don't have to work in the law for very long to learn that many people like not liking lawyers. In my office, I hear everything from tongue-in-cheek comments emphasized with a wink to angry ramblings about how someone's last attorney screwed up their case, supposedly. I very rarely hear anyone volunteer that he actually likes his attorney, except for the people who do business with my Boss. Even opposing parties have a hard time disliking him.

I read today that a major reason people don't like lawyers is that lawyers are smarter than them, and lay people are jealous of their abilities. I thought we left that line of thinking back in high school, but alas. The fact is, people go to a lawyer precisely because he or she is more knowledgeable and more capable than them when it comes to legal issues. This should be a given.

In my experience, the problem of the too-smart lawyer has a more complex answer than jealousy or inferiority of lay people. First, the field of law attracts intelligent people, especially into the lawyer role. Second, sometimes intelligent people are not happy with just being intelligent... sometimes intelligent people want to make sure everyone else knows they are intelligent. Finally, this group of intelligent people likes to beat everyone else over the head with how much they know and how smart they are. This is not inherently a lawyer problem, but it arises often in the legal profession because of the type of people the law attracts. Simply stated, people just don't like know-it-alls, and there are a lot of know-it-alls in the legal world.

The solution to this is very simple. Lay people do not have to try harder to accept that attorneys outrank them in legal knowledge and sometimes education; I think by and large people already understand this to be a given. But those attorneys (and anyone else, for that matter) who have a deep desire to share their intellectual prowess with others for no reason other than to prove how smart they are probably need to work on toning it down a bit.

My Boss is a fabulous example. I know, because they tell me, that the vast majority of our clients and even opposing parties like him. They find him to be down-to-earth, easy-going, and very honest. He does not talk above them, but he does not obviously "dumb down" the conversation when discussing legal issues with clients. The key, I think, is to talk to people on their level in a way that implies you are also speaking at your own level.

If you are talking above your clients' heads, and if you are making them feel inferior, then you are not properly serving them or their needs.

Some people, it is true, will be very sensitive and may even feel jealous of someone with a certain title and a higher degree. As an intellectual person who has for her own reasons not yet made it to graduate school, I feel that small twinge of jealousy when talking to anyone who has a higher degree than I do, whether it is in business, education, medicine or law. It has little to do with my perception of the other person's intellect or my own. It has much more to do with the fact that I envy the time and/or money he or she had that I have not yet found and the piece of paper that reminds me of a goal I have not yet achieved.

Back to the point, our law firm provides a service to its clients. My attorney does not perch on a pedestal to be admired but rather digs into legal issues with the clients by his side. He has more knowledge of the law than they do, but that knowledge is a resource for clients, not a way of holding himself above them. Thankfully, he is able to speak to them in a way that projects this fact.

My guess is that some of these people who don't like attorneys dislike them not out of jealousy or inferiority, but probably because they had the misfortune of meeting one who wore his intellect on his sleeve.

My completely unresearched suggestion is that you will find quite a few attorneys who, usually unintentionally, make their clients or other lay people feel inferior. Again, this is not an inherent lawyer characteristic, but a consequence of a profession that draws highly educated and intelligent people to it. A certain yet unknown (at least to me) percentage of highly intelligent people have this know-it-all complex.

Knowledge and education are wonderful things when they serve clients' needs, and therefore the firm's needs. But empathy, understanding, and the ability to communicate on the client's level are also necessary parts of meeting these goals.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Refreshment Break

I've been so immersed in paralegal and legal community information, news, ideas and the like that I have almost forgotten the original purpose of this blog: Reflection, stories from my life, and an outlet for the thoughts constantly bouncing around in my head.

I am hereby returning to my original intentions and writing according to my daily experiences and subsequent thoughts.

Of course, today was not a work day, and yet I still found myself exposed to the legal field. I went to visit a good friend who has been ill, and her mother was in town. Unbeknownst to me, the mother once worked in a law office for a short time. We had a long conversation about how law firms are run, local court systems, small town versus city firms, and the seemingly lucrative career of court reporting. She put me to shame with her pampering of the attorneys she worked for, taking in biscuits, brownies and cookies. She knew how each lawyer took his coffee and would prepare it for him without being asked. She cleaned the office and organized the closed files closet.

I hope the Boss doesn't read this and realize all the wonderful things he is missing out on in his office staff. To be fair, I do turn on the coffee in the mornings if I get there before him.

Youth, Inexperience, Naivety

Ah being young. It has its perks. The youthful energy, the fresh perspective on the world, and the constant, everyday learning that occurs in the sharp yet sometimes overzealous brain.

But youth has its downfalls. Naivety is one such downfall.

My default setting is trust, and no matter how many times I learn against it, the lesson never sticks. I can't help but trust what people say and how they represent themselves.

Countless times, I have been excited and intent on getting to work on a prospective client's case right after the initial interview, and the Boss has simply said, "That person was not telling the truth." I don't know how he knows it. He tells me that it is a result of his being jaded by time and experience. Perhaps in three more years I, too, will be so discerning.

But for now I still swallow every line with a smile.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Regulate Me

Update 9/16/09 This post has given me some grief. In the moment, it made perfect sense to me. Several re-reads later, I only partly agree with myself here. In the interest of full disclosure and complete honesty with my readers, it is left available for your reading pleasure. I still hold to the idea that state level associations should move toward their own certification standards for paralegals, which would help employers choose highly qualified individuals by a familiar and closed set of standards, and would further promote education and professionalism of legal professionals in the state. In my own state, and especially in my more rural area, paralegals and their employers would likely greatly benefit from such a system.

"So how does the paralegal profession deal with ethics violations?" asked the Boss. It was a perfect question. We were discussing the idea of non-lawyer practice that some states allow, licensing standards for legal professionals, and the fact that it takes knowledge and experience, not inherently a degree, to be competent in the legal field. That being said, we both agreed that regulation is key in the legal field to weed out the incompetent, unethical, and otherwise dangerous people from taking advantage of the public. So when talk turned to paralegal standards, he asked the above question.

My answer was simply that probably paralegals who violated the rules of the organization that certified them, whether a state bar association or a national paralegal association, could lose their voluntary certification. I have never heard of this happening, but I simply imagine this to be the case. What is given can be taken away. Of course, because there are no uniform standards that all paralegals must uphold, and because certification on national and some state levels is purely voluntary, the punishment does not seem very severe. So I explained that this is one reason I am in favor of regulation and uniform standards, at least at the state level. This assessment led to another question:

"Would you really want to be held to a standard that took away your paralegal status if you engaged in the unauthorized practice of law? The rules are so vague." He went on to describe the rules for attorneys as hard and fast, unchanging and definite, compared to gray and varying rules for paralegals. Cha-ching. My attorney gets it. He went on to describe me as more careful than most, and yet agreed that some of the things I do on a daily basis could be stretched to be construed as UPL. After all, I have read some crazy UPL opinions in my time. My favorite was the suggestion that paralegals should not use words like "our" or "we" when talking about clients or the firm, I suppose because those words imply a level of representation. I am guilty of using "our" when referring to firm clients or firm actions. As I see it, I am an extension of my attorney, so "our" is perfectly appropriate. Also, my state was not the one which expressed the restrictive opinion.

But the Boss hit the nail on the head. How can we hold ourselves to regulatory standards before hammering out definite uniform rules? When are we going to gather together under one banner and one set of accepted rules and values, at least state by state? That is the first step. Many states have begun taking such steps, with paralegals submitting to certification and/or regulation from one organization within the state. Of course, one of the problems in other states, including my own, is that while paralegal ethics rely upon attorney ethics for their existence, many bar associations refuse to associate with paralegal organizations in a meaninful enough way to aid in governance. Unfortunately, they must do so if paralegals are to be meaningfully governed. This is a conundrum. They do not seem to realize that they already inherently govern our standards by extension, just not in an organized and effective manner.

And yet, at the same time, I am not of the mind that all state bar associations should adopt a paralegal division and begin regulating paralegals. That is merely the answer that sounds good to me today. I am not sure what the specific answer is. I do know that until we have hard-line rules in each state and at the national level, the profession itself will remain fairly unorganized.

This is the conclusion I came to today. Please give me some feedback and your thoughts. I'm not married to these ideas, but this is a discussion that we must start having, for the legal community, for our profession, and for ourselves.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Best Worst Interview Ever

I was inspired by a recent Twitter conversation with Lynne DeVenny (your favorite author of that lovely paralegal blog Practical Paralegalism) to recount one of my favorite interviews of all time. I did not get the job, but within twenty seconds of entering the office, I knew I did not want it.

In a vain effort to move in what I believed to be an upward direction in my profession, I began searching for a job at a larger firm last Fall. After peppering the Birmingham, AL area with unsolicited resumes, and subsequently interviewing for three jobs which I did not get, I resorted to answering Craigslist ads. Now, I know Craigslist is reputable in other parts of the country, but that statement doesn't hold true all the time in Alabama.

So I received this call from a very nice guy working at a law firm in Birmingham. I have forgotten the name by now, but we can call it "Shady, Skip & Trace" if you catch my drift. I had a difficult time finding the place, as it is located in a post office building, upstairs, through a painted white door with no window. I rang a bell, and a girl in a t-shirt and khakis answered. She was very young, probably in her early twenties. Her hair was pulled into a casual ponytail.

The office was dimly lit with bad overhead flourescent lights on a low ceiling. There were no visible windows. The entire office space was filled with rows of cubicles. The girl directed me to the break area, which was really a half-room that opened straight into the office. It had a sink, a refrigerator, and one small table with two chairs. The chair I sat in reminded me of those plastic chairs made for children. I was given an application to fill out. They already had my resume and nicely typed cover letter. As soon as I realized that I was supposed to fill out an application, I decided I did not want the job.

The sight of a rough looking lady in casual clothes with a few exposed tattoos confirmed that this was not the type of law office I was interested in. Still, I couldn't just get up and walk out. Good manners dictated that I complete the interview process.

A few minutes later, the girl led me to one of the cubicles in the back, where she introduced me to the man I had spoken with on the phone about the job. He gave me a hard copy of a motion to type into a word document. I am not sure whether he was timing me, judging my accuracy, or just testing my entire demeanor. I will never know.

When I had completed the short test, he printed my page out, handed it to me, and directed me to the boss's office for the real interview. Upon looking at the test page, I realized that I had guaged the font incorrectly. Sigh. When I entered the boss's office, the door was left wide open. I handed him the paper with my sample motion and stated that I noticed I had made an error in choosing the font size. He looked at my over his small glasses lenses and did not crack a smile. His face seemed to say, "Oh god, another one of these people."

I shook his hand, sat down, and did not feel comfortable for one moment. As he looked me up and down without saying a word, I could feel my legs prodding the rest of my body to follow them to the door. And yet I remained.

Because I had responded to so many craigslist ads and because they are usually very vague and so few of them actually give the name of the law firm, I had brought with me my generic resume. The man on the phone had neglected to specify what type of job I was interviewing for. The boss was not impressed with my generic resume because it was not the one I had first sent to him. Obvious interview foul on my part. To this day, I have no idea which resume I sent to him. I searched for it on my computer over and over when I returned home. I am not even sure I applied for this job. I think the devil made them call me so he could have a little fun. I explained that I must have printed out the wrong one for that specific interview.

The boss did not seem to heed my explanation. Instead, he started grilling me with questions about why I would bring a paralegal's resume to an interview for a job collecting debt. I looked him straight in the eye and told him that nothing I had read about the job, nothing I could find about the law firm before the interview (and I looked), and nothing the man on the phone had told me had ever given me reason to believe I would be working for a collection agency. He still did not seem to understand. He continued explaining the job duties to me, emphasizing that I would have to do all of my own skip-tracing. If he had not already lost me at the front door, this is where it would have happened. I am 5'1" and 110 pounds.

Then he moved down to the salary request on my resume. He explained that I was asking too much for the position he had open. I repeated that the resume I brought was not written for the position at his firm, and I even stated that I had not realized I would be interviewing as a debt collector and skip-tracer. And again he ignored me to discuss in great detail what type of pay I could expect from this job. When I told him his compensation would be inadequate, he finally seemed to understand that the whole thing had been an accidental interview.

But rather than dismiss me from his office, he gruffly explained that I would rather be a skip-tracing debt collector than a professional paralegal because paralegals in big firms work such long hours preparing for trials and are forced to dress in business attire. I found myself at a loss for words. His description was exactly what I was looking for, yet he spoke of it with disdain in his voice.

The interview ended as he asked whether I would be interested in being considered for the position. With as straight a face as I could muster, I thanked him for his time, declined consideration, and escaped.

Perhaps that was the moment I realized how grateful I should be to have the job that I have working for Boss I have. Not long after that interview, I related the story to the Boss and eventually decided to stay in my small town law office. Thanks to Craigslist, I have never looked back.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Come On Alabama, Join the Paralegal Bandwagon

The paralegal blogosphere has been riled lately by the South Carolina state bar's stance against voluntary certification. You can read about it at the Estrin Report. My opinion of this news and some of the reasoning behind it could better be expressed by a facial expression rather than words.

However, while I am connected with paralegals all over this great country, and some of you actually live and work in South Carolina - keep up the good fight, you'll get there sooner or later - I live and work in Alabama. This report inspired me to investigate my own state bar's stance on paralegals. It was quite the interesting research project.

The first source I found was the February 2009 minutes report from an Alabama State Bar Board of Commissioners Meeting. The state bar of Alabama has apparently created a "Task Force on Allied Professions," an effort which goes to their credit. At the February 2009 meeting, this task force presented a new definition for the word "paralegal" in the state of Alabama. The presenter gave several reasons for a new definition, including profitability of law firms and proficiency in staffing. However, a few objections to the definition arose. First, someone believed that describing paralegals as performing services similar to lawyers, which the definition apparently provided for, would appear to permit the unauthorized practice of law. Another objector stated that the bar association's job is to regulate attorneys and that the attempt to define the term "paralegal" would lead it down a "slippery slope."

My thoughts on these fine lawyers' opinions vary. First, I understand our first objector's concerns about UPL, however overbroad I think his interpretation of it to be. It is still a valid concern. Yet, if he is concerned about a new definition appearing to advocate UPL, he should be more concerned about the one we already have for legal service providers. Ala. Code section 6-5-572 currently defines a legal service provider as

Anyone licensed to practice law by the State of Alabama or engaged in the practice of law in the State of Alabama. The term legal service provider includes professional corporations, associations, and partnerships and the members of such professional corporations, associations, and partnerships and the persons, firms, or corporations either employed by or performing work or services for the benefit of such professional corporations, associations, and partnerships including, without limitation, law clerks, legal assistants, legal secretaries, investigators, paralegals, and couriers.

Under the definition provided by statute, there is very little distinction between lawyers and nonlawyer legal professionals. A state bar recognized definition of paralegals would only serve to better define and better set the limits of paralegal work.

The second objector's opinion, I also find almost agreeable. My problem is this: one of the inherent characteristics of the paralegal profession as most of us know it includes working under the supervision of an attorney. We do not exist without lawyers. Many lawyers would have a hard time existing without us. Our relationship is symbiotic and mutually beneficial. If paralegals do not exist apart from attorneys, then we need some interaction on a real level with the state bar association. We do not have to be accepted into membership, with fair reason. But it makes no sense for the men and women who hire and utilize us on the one hand to ignore the need to define our presence in the legal field on the other. Makes me feel like that dorky girl who some too-cool guy hangs out with in private but feels like he has to ignore in public. Sigh.

I was unable to find whether the definition has ever been brought to a vote by the full Alabama State Bar. I believe that if it had been accepted I should have been able to find it on their website. Alas, I found no such thing. There's always next year. And a new generation of attorneys who are entering a legal world where the presence of paralegals in this field is the rule, not the exception. I just hope my state's bar isn't the last one to join the dialogue regarding paralegals in meaningful way. Perhaps Alabama will someday jump on to the quickly growing list of states that either define or regulate paralegals. With any luck, it will happen before I retire.

Another Lesson Learned

Today I learned something I had always expected about myself: criticism makes me better. A better paralegal, a better student, a better person. Being made aware of my specific mistakes only increases my potential and reinforces confidence.

But why would criticism give me confidence? you might ask. It is negative and induces a feeling, however fleeting, of self-loathing. But I enjoy it for the same reason that I always enjoyed A-'s in school. Criticism tells me there is still room for improvement, still much to learn, and still something to strive for. It gives me a purpose.

Today I was on the cutting end of some remarks from a judge. To his credit, he answered his own phone when I called expecting to speak with his assistant. During our short conversation, before I became flustered and handed him over to the Boss, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that no, I have not thoroughly examined Rule 4 of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure to the depth that I should. He also led me to second guess myself on a few other matters that had nothing to do with the case at hand. The conversation had a domino effect. One by one, several of my previously held beliefs toppledover under the weight of this judge's opinion. And all that from a one minute conversation.

Once I had passed him to the Boss, I began reading Rule 4. I've read it before, but this time, I broke it down into elements the way they teach you in your first paralegal class or your first year of law school. The conjunctions gave me problems. Without commas (thanks, Alabama), it is difficult to decide which and goes with which or, or if the or doesn't go with any and at all and in fact sits courageously alone. So I went to case law. All because a judge held a mirror up to my lazy face. The case law told me exactly which or went with which and, and it was not the and I wanted it to attach to. I would have preferred the or to remain out there on his own. But I suppose sometimes there is something to be said for conformity, especially in the law, where it is beaten into our brains on a regular basis. Of course, I think the Boss was laughing at my over zealous study of such a seemingly insignificant rule of procedure. At least he kept the laughing on the inside.

My point is this: that criticism leads to deeper understanding and better learning. I am thankful that the judge made me feel just a little smaller than I wanted to feel at the time. His honest question led my own honest questions of myself. Now that I have read, nay, studied Rule 4, I know how to answer that question next time. Of course, with this better understanding, I am hoping there won't be a next time.