Archive for January, 2010

Paralegals in Film – Another Point of View

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Normally I let comments be comments, but the post, “Paralegals in Film – One Point of View,” drew a comment from Chere Estrin of KNOW: A Magazine for ParalegalsSue Magazine for Women in Litigation, The Estrin Report, and a bunch of other organizations, that merits a full post not only because of its length, but because of its content. Also it helps prove my original point which is that a course on the depiction of paralegals on the big and small screen would provide a good forum for discussion and education regarding paralegal practice, history, ethics, and professionalism. So here is her comment in full:

It’s very interesting the hot debate that the Erin Brockovich role has played over the years. I have heard more paralegals than not state how much they “hate” the role portrayed in the movie. Whether or not you choose to designate Ms. Brockovich as a “real” paralegal, it is very important that you understand the history and development of the position.

In the 70’s and ’80’s and far reaching into the 90’s, anyone who wanted to could call themselves a paralegal. As the risk of revealing that I am definitely a member of the Boomer generation, I personally came up through the ranks starting in 1981. There were few paralegal schools at that time. Becoming a paralegal meant, for most, that you would receive training on the job. It is true that some paralegals came through the ranks of legal secretary but those were in the minority. During those times, let’s also understand that certain states, such as California, did not require someone to go to law school in order to take the bar. You were eligible if you worked under a mentor but law school was not required. That may still stand today, I’m not certain.

Paralegal schools were also rare in rural areas. This is one reason NALA was formed – to provide education. There was no Internet or online courses. Even in Los Angeles, a major metro city, there were two primary paralegal schools for a very long time – UCLA and UWLA. Some “match-book” cover type schools popped up, however, what was worse? Learning on the job or plunking good money down for a school that also taught you how to be a bartender?

In 1980, I started out as a paralegal in Seattle for $1500 a month. I did have some legal secretary training. I got my first job at a prestigious small firm. I was trained on the job like anyone else. The administrator hired me because, at that time, I was in the theatre. He happened to have seen one of my shows, so he hired me. True story. I moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a large, prestigious entertainment firm that handled the A list. Working with movie stars was common.

In that role, I was very active becoming the firm’s first paralegal administrator. I recall that some of my assignments included meeting a cargo plane at LAX and working with customs to board the plane in search of fake ET dolls. (Really!) I was sent to the bottom of a famous L.A. hotel in search of evidence for a case. I waded through muck, spiders and ankle deep water in search of the “hot” documents. I went to Georgia to a carpet mill in search of evidence. In Seattle, paralegals were allowed to go before the judge on non-contested matters. The first judge I went before put our case over when it was apparent the other side was not showing up. Apparently, the defendant’s counsel had decided to go moose hunting. The judge thought that was a perfectly good excuse. Meanwhile, I was always taught by the best attorneys, took seminars, read books, and learned my job as it pertained to the firms in which I was working. And that’s the key element here – as it pertained to the firms in which the paralegal worked.

To put down those paralegals who literally blazed the trail for other paralegals while the education system for paralegals was in its infancy is a travesty. Passing a paralegal course does not ensure that the paralegal will be a good paralegal. Passing the bar does not mean the lawyer will be a good lawyer. It only means that they have studied should possess the core competencies.

It is interesting that years and years later, I make my living in continuing legal eduation. I am a very strong advocate and a firm believer that paralegals should not be paralegals without an education in paralegal studies. However, to discredit those who came up the hard way – with no schools available, training was on the job, they took it among themselves to develop good assignments, they trained the attorney how paralegals could be used, they started paralegal associations, they worked hard getting the word out about this new position, is to discredit your history. Remember, it took California 10 long hard years to get AB 6450 passed that now requires mandatory education for paralegals but still grandfathered in those without it.

As for Ms. Brockovich, not once in the movie was she referred to as a paralegal. Was she rough around the edges? You bet. Was that taking literary license in the movie? For those of us who haven’t met her, we don’t know. Was she then and is she now called a paralegal? No. Did she get a “percentage” of the settlement? Now, we really don’t know, do we? In California in the ’80’s and decadent ’90’s, paralegals at some firms were given large bonuses. (The firm I was with in 1986 was giving out $20,000 – $30,000 bonuses – and that was 1986 dollars.) Truthfully, none of us know except Ms. Brockovich and Mr. Massry what that bonus was based upon or how it was calculated. We only know rumors. If there was any impropriety, I am quite certain the State Bar of California would have stepped in.

Paralegals have made up a story about Brockovich, believed it and made it their truth. It’s not that this message is defending Erin Brockovich. It’s that those paralegals flouting their Masters and B.S.’s in Paralegal Studies claiming they are better than those without have no respect for the trailblazers that came before them. It’s disrespectful and has an arrogant tone to the thousands and thousands of paralegals who came before them. Things have changed but only very recently. Those paralegals without the schooling are the very same paralegals who pushed for better training and education for paralegals nationwide. The least we can do is honor them.

Paralegal Unhappy

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

I’ve noted that the searches that brought viewers to this blog recently included not only “sexy paralegal,” a search that appears to come up about twice a month, and “paralegal unhappy.” Although it is still without any legitimate basis, this blog still appears to be the first Google hit for “sexy paralegal,” but I did at least get an explanation for the reoccurring the search: there is a website selling “Sexy Paralegal Gifts, T-shirts,” etc. While none would be considered anything near outrageous, they are not suitable for professional wear or use. (This is not an endorsement of the website or the products sold there. I have no connection with the website and have not received anything from them in exchange for mentioning the website. I’ve never purchased anything from the website. I could go on about this, but you – and the FTC – have the general idea by now.) However,  I’d happily accept just about anything they offered me including a discount on “Empowered Paralegal” mugs, T-shirts, etc.)

I was pleased to see that this blog is no where near the top of a search for “paralegal unhappy.” In fact, it is so far down that I wondered who had time to go through all the higher hits to get to this one! It’s one of those searches that make one also wonder the story behind it, something I seldom get to know.

The search did bring me, however, to the Legal Support Personnel webpage on “Paralegals as Profit Centers: Are Utilizing Your Paralegals Effectively.” I don’t recall referencing this article on this blog before but I have on other occasions. It is pertinent now because it does proffer some indication of the primary reasons why paralegals are unhappy – a reason that coincides nicely with the premise behind The Empowered Paralegal:

In speaking with paralegals on a regular basis, we hear time and time again why they are unhappy in their current positions and what issues are most important to them. The common theme is that they seek challenging and interesting work, as well as professional respect and acknowledgement [sic] for exemplary job performance. Paralegals, like all career-minded professionals, crave challenge and increasing levels of responsibility. If you tap into these desires, not only will you provide your paralegals with a sense of accomplishment and motivation, you will reap the benefits of exceptional work product, as well as employee allegiance.

It also provides this insight (often not perceived by attorneys, although well-known by all professional paralegals):

Paralegals should play a key role in both private law firm and corporate legal teams. If utilized effectively, paralegals have proven to be invaluable players in the provision of legal services in a number of ways: in supporting attorneys in their daily functions; in acting as liaisons between attorneys and their clients, as well as the courts and governmental bodies; and in offering expertise in a number of practice areas in which they have received specialized training. If used successfully, from a pure economic standpoint, paralegals can offer cost savings to consumers of legal services and be true profit centers for your firm.
We have found that there tends to be misconceptions in the legal marketplace as to what paralegals can do. As a result, the uncertainty often leads to the under utilization of stellar talent.

I advocate a fairly direct approach to establishing the mutual respect and professionalism between attorneys and paralegals necessary for legal team to dance without tripping over each other. However, in some instances it might be helpful for an unhappy paralegal to start things off by printing off a copy of the full article and leaving it where their attorney can’t help but see it.

By the way, I know nothing at all about Legal Support Services, so this is in no way an endorsement of the company. You can draw your own conclusions after reading the article.

Paralegals In Film – One Point of View

Friday, January 29th, 2010

My post regarding suggestions for movies or TV shows including paralegals for a possible course has drawn several interesting responses. The point of the course is to use the films as a starting point for discussion on issues ranging from ethics and professionalism to dealing with attorneys and clients. The idea was given a boost by this post by Melissa H. at Paralegalese and then one by Lynne DeVenney at Practical Paralegalism both of which provide insight into both the role of the paralegal in real life and the discrepancies between that role and the reality of paralegal practice.

Here’s one of the comments which I found particularly interesting. While the opinion is that the films do a horrendous job of depicting paralegals, it does prove the point that they films may be a good starting point for discussion of issues affecting paralegals. This comment has been edited somewhat to protect the identity of the paralegal who sent it to me:

I read your post today about developing a class on the role of paralegals in film.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot to offer for suggestions about which films/shows to utilize because I don’t think that paralegals are accurately represented in these mediums.  In fact, I am writing because I think that Hollywood portrays people as paralegals when they are not really fulfilling these roles. 

By way of background, I have been working as a paralegal for a little for many years.  I am very well educationed including Master of Legal Studies.  Currently I am the Senior Paralegal in the office where I work.   We are in the process of replacing our legal assistant who has been doing paralegal work over the past year.    My supervisor was willing to accept simply a high school diploma with 1-2 years of legal experience.  This does not seem right to me.   As I explained to him, paralegals go through extensive training to learn not only legal concepts but how to complete legal research and legal analysis.  And, most importantly in my opinion, we learn the ethical responsibilities associated with being a paralegal. This is not something that any person off the street can do.  We (paralegals) work hard for this designation and it is insulting to assume that a person with simply a high school diploma can be considered a paralegal. 

The same holds true for how paralegals are portrayed in film.  Not to pick on Erin Brokovich but that film irritates me more than anything.  As portrayed in the film, she had no legal training and education.  She was looking for a job.  I think as an investigator she did a fantastic job but to classify her as a paralegal is an insult to all of us who make the effort to go through school and gain legal experience.  For some, they even go the extra step to become certified.  When I hear people touting Ms. Brokovich’s movie as a prime example of paralegals then I find it incredibly insulting. In fact, it might be best to use the movie to give ethics students examples of things not to do (i.e. accepting a percentage of profits from the settlement)!  It is possible that some of the work that she engages in can be considered within the parameters of a paralegal position.  But please make it clear that, at the time, Ms. Brokovich was not a paralegal.  I am unsure as to her current status.  Again, by no means am I trying to slander Ms. Brokovich.  In fact, I admire her for all of the work that she has done and is doing.  But students should know that parelegals don’t generally climb through water wells, walk around insulting co-counsel, and accepting contingent payments from settlements.

I am sure that what I am saying are things of which you are already aware.  I just felt the need to give you perspective from yet another paralegal on the portrayal of our profession in film and television.  I wish you the best of luck as you develop your class.

I do like the part where the writer says he/she is sure that what he/she is saying are things of which I am already aware! Even if that is true (and of course it is), students and other practicing paralegals can benefit, and often benefit more than when hearing it from a professor, from hearing from a practicing paralegal. So, feel free to express your thoughts here or by email at theempoweredparalegal.com

Poor clueless Katie the paralegal

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Every now and then I get lazy and do a post that simply siphons off energy from a post on another blog. Since all bloggers do this, one day there will be a fancy Latin name for the phenomenon, but I’m way too tired tonight to coin a term. However, I already have posts written and scheduled for the next two days and several more in the works so this is not one of those times.  Or maybe it is.

I don’t watch TV and have no urge to watch “Deep End.” But since I’m contemplating a course based on paralegals as they are depicted on the big and small screen, I do read blog posts regarding “Deep End.” In theory this could allow me to write posts that seem really intelligent based on other bloggers’ fixation with the show without ever doing the hard work of watching the show.  (This is the basic premise and business plan of a new magazine called “The Week.”)

So where I am going with all this. Nowhere. Instead I’m providing a link to Lynne DeVenney’s post at Practical Paralegalism where you can read her short, but entertaining and insightful, post regarding Deep End.

In answer to her question whether there is a book entitled, ” ‘Everything You Need to Know That Law School Doesn’t Teach You So You Can Seem Really Smart at Your First Law Job’?,” I think the answer is “No,” but the reason I cannot take the time to do a real post on this topic is that I’m busy writing a proposal to my publisher.  Look for it on Amazon.com right after I finish The Empowered Paralegal Approach to the Elder Client and The Empowered Paralegal Professionalism Anthology.

Don’t point that smiling emoticon at me!

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Tuesday’s New York Timescontains an article regarding advice from a law firm senior partner to young lawyers regarding the use of email communications. The point of the article is really that there are some things that simply must be done face-to-face. He is advice was in the context of using communication technology to avoid travel costs, but it seems to me it applies not only to lawyers, but paralegals, and applies even when the person with whom you are communicating is just across town or in the office down the hall:

Emoticons may work in personal communications. But Don G. Lents, the chairman of Bryan Cave, the international law firm, said he doesn’t like seeing them in business communications. If you’re depending on a smiley face to communicate a thought to a client or a distant colleague, he tells young lawyers in his firm, you should probably step away from the keyboard, get on a plane and communicate in person. Especially if the communication involves any kind of dispute.

“You should never engage in a disagreement electronically,” Mr. Lents said he advises them. “If you are going to disagree with somebody, you certainly don’t want to do it by e-mail, and if possible you don’t even want to do it by phone. You want to do it face to face.”…

“That’s an important message that does not necessarily come naturally to a lot of younger people today who have grown up with so much of their communications being by texting and e-mail,” he said. “I tell our younger lawyers, if you think you are going to have a difficult interaction with a colleague or a client, if you can do it face to face that’s better, because you can read the body language and other social signals.”

“In texting and e-mails or even videoconferencing, you can’t always gauge the reaction and sometimes things can have a tendency to be misunderstood, or they can ratchet up to a level of seriousness that you didn’t anticipate,” he added. “In person, you see that somebody reacting in a way that you didn’t expect. Then you can stop and figure out what’s going on, and adapt.”

The importance of body language and the ability to communicate as well as exchange information are difficult to overstate, as indicated by the extensive treatment given to them in the chapter on dealing with attorneyr relationships in The Empowered Paralegal.

However, I’d also like to emphasize Mr. Lent’s admonishion not to use emoticons and the like in business communications. It’s fine in personal communications, but just does not cut it professionally. Remember that all communications, even those between you and another paralegal working on a case, may be reviewed at some point by a client (when they take the file to another attorney), by another attorney’s office, by a malpractice insurance carrier, be a malpractice jury, or by the Board of Bar Overseers or other entity regulating attorneys. If a client’s complaint relates to a lack of professionalism (and they all do in a way), a file filled with unprofessional communications is not a good start.

I require my students to communicate with me with the same professionalism they should demonstrate in the office. An email that reads, “CN U MEET @ 4? J” will not get a response, while  

 Prof. Mongue,

  Are you available to meet with us at 4:00 p.m. today? 

 John Student.

will.

Record negativity

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Professional paralegals should be pros at concise, clear writing. Today’s exercise is to fix this excerpt from a brief spotted by Tom Freeland at NMissCommentor:

The miniscule mention of abuse in the affidavits is insufficient to find the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision was unreasonable in finding there was no deficient performance and that there is no prejudice.  Nor is the decision of the district court wrong in finding that the state court decision was not unreasonable.

I’m assuming with some confidence (translated: hoping) that this was not drafted for an attorney by a graduate of my classes.

Bonus points if you can fix make this clear and concise while keeping the alliteration!

As far as I know there have been no formal consequences to the author. However, on possible consequence of poor writing is that samples may be posted on blogs, so this goes into the “Consequences of Sloppiness” category.

Central Florida Paralegal Volunteering Follow-up.

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Cassie D. Snyder, CP, FRP (Certified Paralegal/Florida Registered Paralegal), Second Vice President & Editor of the FOCUS, and CFPA Yahoo Group Moderator provided me with information requested in my post yesterday regarding the Central Florida Paralegal Association’s request for volunteers. Here’s the low-down on the program:

CFPA assists each of the counties providing Teen Court in our general location in finding paralegal volunteers for this program to act as Jury Advisors to the teen jury they are assigned to for the evening.  These teen juries consist of legal magnet program students (who also act as the prosecution and defense attorneys) as well as teens serving out part of their punishment as a jury member for a specified number of juries.  The role of the Jury Advisor is to make sure that the jury renders a punishment in each case heard (usually 2 cases a night) that is a fair punishment and in line with the Teen Court guidelines.  In Seminole County, paralegals can actually take the training program to sit in as Judges (usually done by attorneys).  This opportunity is a great way to give back to the community as a paralegal and is very rewarding.  When I volunteered, I would even bring my teen daughter at the time to volunteer for her community service hours for high school.

Here is a link to the Orange County Teen Court Program – http://www.ninthcircuit.org/programs-services/teen-court/

Definitely a win/win/win on this one – good deeds, networking and useful experience!

Thanks, Cassie, for the fast and informative response.

Central Florida Paralegal Award and Volunteering

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

The Orlando Sentinel has several reports of interest. Here are two of them:

Annette L.S. Root, Florida Registered Paralegal with the Law Offices of Neal T. McShane, Orlando, has been awarded the 2009 Paralegal of the Year Award by the Central Florida Paralegal Association Inc.

Teen Court volunteers: The Central Florida Paralegal Association needs teen volunteers for its Teen Court program. Orange County volunteers meet Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the Juvenile Justice Center. Contact David Medvec at ctaddm1@ocnjcc.org. Osceola County volunteers meet Wednesdays at the Osceola County Courthouse. Contact Angie Martinez at ctadam1@ocnjcc.org. Seminole County volunteers meet Tuesdays at the Juvenile Justice Center in Sanford. Contact Alison Mikel at 407-665-5364 or amikel@seminolecountyfl.gov.

Congratulations to both Annette and CFPA.  Annette is, by virtue of the award, an uncommon person. CFPA’a involvement in volunteer programs is, fortunately, not uncommon for paralegal professional associations. This program appears to be a particular good opportunity to volunteer and network – a win/win situation for sure. I’m particularly partial to programs that focus on teenagers. I’d be interested in more details on this program as there is no indication in the story as to what the program does (although some intelligent guesses can be made) or what the teen volunteers are volunteering to do.

Paralegals In Film

Monday, January 25th, 2010

For a while now I’ve been considering developing a course that focuses on professionalism, ethics, and the like by examining the depiction of paralegals/legal assistants in film. (I know it’s not really film anymore, but sounds better than “digital media.”) Inspired by an excellent post by Melissa H. at Paralegalese regarding Deep End, I’ve begun work on the course. As I noted in my comment to Melissa’s post, it is likely to go from

Perry Mason’s Della Streetthrough Erin Brockovich – maybe Danny Devito in “Rainman” – to recent entries like “Deep End.” The television shows are difficult because it means I may have to watch them. So let me know whether the class should jump into the “Deep End.” Suggestions of other films and shows would also be welcome.

Melissa was nice enough to email me some suggestions. Please let me know your thoughts either in a comment here or via email to theempoweredparalegal@live.com.

I’m already familiar with the paralegal porn star story. His films don’t count because in them a paralegal portrays someone in film rather than someone portraying a paralegal in film. A subtle distinction, I’m sure, but an important one for this project.

Paralegal Supervisor Certification?

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Lynne DeVenny at Practical Paralegalism has a full report on a story that also caught my eye regarding an investigation into credentials held by a woman for the job of “Paralegal Supervisor” for a Louisiana Parish (equivalent of a county in most other jurisdictions). The parish is unable to find any records relating to the employment of the woman, an ex-spouse of a former parish president, although she supposedly performed the job and was paid for that performance for 18 years – $64,000 in at least the last of those 18 years.

The story itself is another interesting example of (alleged) corruption in American politicians, I suppose. However, my interest focuses on the statement, “However, the parish was unable to provide proof she has the required certification to hold that position.” My question is what would be the “required certification” to hold the position given the lack of any uniformity within the paralegal profession regarding certification requirements for paralegals, much less a “paralegal supervisor.”

The investigation story is not clear on this point. A Fox8live.com news story states:

Last month, FOX 8 asked the parish for Parker-Broussard’s resume and paralegal certification information.
According to a job description, the certification is a parish requirement for all paralegals.

But the parish doesn’t have one on file for Parker-Broussard. We didn’t get a resume either and the Human Resources department claims it has no personnel records relating to her 18 years of employment.

This is an apparent reference to Louisiana’s voluntary paralegal certification program  reported by Legal Assistant Today website “, The Louisiana State Paralegal Association established a voluntary certification exam in 1996 to set professional standards and promote recognition of the profession.”  According to one source,

To be eligible for these state certifications, the paralegal typically must first get a national credential. The Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal program established by the National  Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) are well recognized national professional certification programs.

However, at the Louisiana State Paralegal Association website all I found was this:

Louisiana Certified Paralegal Exam

SPRING Examination Date: April 2-3, 2010
(Application Deadline: February 17, 2009)

For information related to administrative matters relative to applications or continuing legal education, contact:
National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc.
Administrator, Louisiana Certified Paralegal Examination
1516 South Boston, Suite 200
Tulsa, OK 74119
Phone: (918) 587-6828
FAX: (918) 582-6772

You may also contact Gail Seale, CLA, LCP for additional information related to the LCP Exam at: Gail Seale, CLA, LCP (with an email address)

Followed by a list of fourteen paralegals who received the LCP certification between 1996 and 2005.

There is probably more to this than I am seeing here with a brief Saturday morning tour of the internet, but it appears a government organization established criteria for hiring a paralegal supervisor that required a certification from a voluntary program run by a state membership organization administered by a national membership organization – a certification held by fewer that 14 persons – and yet could not determine whether the person holding the job held the required certification!

Frankly, it seems there must be a better way to handle this whole matter of paralegal qualifications!