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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.

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?