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

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Gift Giving at this Paralegal's Firm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Country Clients Are the Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, off I go to finish wrapping those gifts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Tis the Season...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Don't Mess With the Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Who Should Set and Control Paralegal Standards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

All In A Day's Work

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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