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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, 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.