Archive for March, 2010

Attorneys and Files

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

For an interesting and amusing take on file location management and dealing with your attorney’s foibles, check out “Why Am I the One Who Has to Find the File??” By Grace Thoreau in this month’s OLP Newsletter.

Grace has done a good job recognizing the attorney’s foible and coming up with a plan to address it. Her plan utilizes her ability to interpret “code” used by both her attorney and the attorney’s secretary. I advocate more open communication between attorneys and paralegals. To the extent each member of the legal team can recognize their weaknesses (in this case one of the attorney’s weaknesses is forgetfulness), plans can be implemented that address the weakness and prevent problems, so I’d prefer that the cleverness be put into that aspect of the problem rather than dealing with the problems that do arise.

I am aware that not all attorneys (or paralegals) are open to recognizing and addressing their weaknesses. However, we can take a proactive rather than reactive approach. In this case, that approach may be to develop a plan for tracking files once they go into any office, then go the the attorney with a “look what I have done for the office” attitude, rather than focus on the attorney himself. Of course, no one approach will work for all attorneys. It may even be that Grace’s approach is the only one that will work with the attorney.

Many attorneys think their paralegals need training when it is actually they that need the training. That is why I like to approach the problem, e.g., files get lost and the paralegal has to spend time looking for it, rather than the personalities. There are many such problems that paralegals and attorneys will mention to a third party, especially if given an opportunity to do so in an anonomous or confidential way. Often both recognize the problem and secretly blame the other for it, rather than taking a team approach to solving the problem.

By the way, I (and I think many attorneys) have a forgetfulness problem. It was often necessary to implement methods to prevent that problem from causing real problems. For example, my paralegals were instructed to never give me an original document of any importance – affidavits, deeds, etc. All originals were to be copied for me (assuming I had some need for them), and the original kept and indexed separately.

Paralegals in Uganda

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

New Vision Online gives us this short look at Ugandan efforts to train paralegals to improve community understanding of the legal system. The course is only six weeks, but must be fairly intensive as only 50 of 168 completed, passed the exam, and were awarded ceritificates. Also, this is an all volunteer effort!

Theodra Bitature, Justice Stella Arach, the head of the Commercial Court in Kampala, and Gipson James, the country director for Plan International, chat after the launch of the paralegal certification for community volunteers at the Golf Course Hotel last week. A total of 168 volunteers underwent six weeks of paralegal training, conducted by the Law Development Centre and sponsored by Plan International-Uganda. Over 50 volunteers passed and were awarded certificates. They will educate communities on how legal systems work

Legal Inspiration

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

The focus of this post is a lawyer rather than a paralegal, but it relates to a discuss now in progress on the Paralegal Today listserv. The New York Timestoday features Shirley Adelson Siegel, a 91-year-old woman doing pro bono work through a foreclousure prevention project. Here’s some of what the Timeshas to say about her:

Ms. Siegel had never let on to her client just how experienced she actually is. The only woman in her class at Yale Law School, Ms. Siegel did years of committee work in public housing and civil rights before becoming, in 1959, the head of the civil rights bureau of the New York State Law Department (“Woman Lawyer Becomes First Head of New State Civil Rights Unit,” read the headline in The New York Times). Under Mayor John V. Lindsay, she was general counsel of the Housing and Development Administration, and in 1979, Attorney General Robert Abrams appointed her the state’s solicitor general.

For the past two decades, Ms. Siegel hadn’t practiced much law, focusing instead on teaching and traveling. She picked it up again in earnest in 2008, through a foreclosure project at the City Bar Justice Center. The news of so many losing their homes was pressing enough that Ms. Siegel found a compelling reason to return to the cause that first captured her intellect as an undergraduate at Barnard in the late 1930s. “My interest was always to work to help people get decent housing they could afford,” Ms. Siegel said. “That’s what inspired the New Deal programs for public housing. And I guess I never got over it, that’s all.”

Over the course of her long career, Ms. Siegel broke who knows how many firsts for women in New York. Her days of being among the first are over; now she is one of the last, the last of that early generation of housing activists to still be fighting the good fight. Or perhaps that’s all wrong; perhaps Ms. Siegel is once again leading a charge, paving the way for a generation that will continue to work productively into their 80s and 90s, a cohort that futurists and gerontologists have been anticipating for years.

At a minimum, Ms. Siegel is an inspiration of the Lance Armstrong variety, a dazzling model of exceptionalism: She can still pluck dates, titles and the names of obscure committees from her memory as if she had an internal fail-safe Google function.

So how does this relate to the Paralegal Today listserv? One discussion there involves middle-aged and later persons entering the paralegal field. Here are just two of the (also inspirational) replies to the original post:

Hi Kathleen,
I’m also 58 and I became a certificated paralegal in December. Rather than look for a job with no legal experience, I’m gaining experience as a pro bono intern. I worked at the LA City Attorney’s office and did a legal research project for a local atty. Today I meet with another atty that will feed me evening projects, then I go into his office on Saturdays. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to gain the needed experience.

Michael

Tamika,
I just turned 58 and I am in my fourth year in the Legal Studies and will be pursuing next year Law School. You are never to old to learn…as the saying goes…you can teach an old dog new tricks!! Best of Luck.Kathy
While there is no doubt age discrimination still exists (I believe I ran into some when I decided to change careers), the legal profession, I believe, is better than most in judging you by the contribution you can make rather than your age than most professions. In many respects, older members of the profession, even newly minted ones, have a better handle on many aspects of professionalism than the younger members.

By the way, for a story on members of the bar “changing focus” at age 65, see this ABAJournal.com entry.

Another “paralegal”

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Recently ran across an op-ed in a Philadelphia paper talking about government power. Looks like great fun for those who like to do analytical and critical thinking exercises as several of the contentions were clearly contenders for more analysis than the author had given them. However, my primary concern is that the author is described as “a retired International Business manager, and a Villanova Engineering graduate. Mr. ____ currently provides paralegal help to political candidates.”

Those of you who read my posts regularly have probably already figured out where I am going with this: What about being a manager and engineer qualifies someone to provide “paralegal” services? What are those services? If they are legitimate paralegal services, are they done under the supervision of an attorney or is this a risk for UPL? If they are not legitimate paralegal services, then why are they described as such?

It is difficult, if not impossible, for the paralegal profession to establish an identity for itself as a profession if that identity is being hijacked by persons with no appropriate education, experience, or training. Perhaps, this gentleman has one or more of these, but there is no indication he has and it is, as discussed in previous posts, not at all unusual for just anyone to call themselves a paralegal.

“There is space for all in a struggle for a better world”

Monday, March 29th, 2010

The quote is from “A renowned law academic, Prof Chris Maina Peter,” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Thursday shortly after “he received this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honour offered by the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS) to a member who has shown outstanding dedication in promoting the rule of law and improving access to justice” according to a report in The Citizen. Here’s more of the report:

“It is gratifying to note that TLS is coordinating civil societies in urging the government to introduce paralegals in legal aid after realisation that there is no competition between advocates and paralegals.

There is space for all in a struggle for a better world and ensuring that there is a timely justice for all,“ said Prof Maina. He urged TLS to continue promoting the system and take it to new heights so as to make the lawyer’s body “a site of justice where the poor and marginalised members of our society run to for refuge in search for justice.“

The issue of paralegals first emerged in Tanzania in 1983s at a TLS meeting when a paper arguing for the introduction of a new cadre of law assistance which in other countrie was referred to as “barefoot lawyers.“

The idea received stiff resistance and has since then been neglected by authorities as an alternative in promoting timely justice.

However, the promotion of paralegals has gained unprecedented support by TLS which has in recent year undertaken to coordinate civil societies in urging the government to introduce the system.

As stated previously, the paralegal concept means something different in many countries than it does here. However, one constant factor in the conception is the thought that paralegals can help improve access to justice. One can only hope there will be greater recognition of this role everywhere, including the United States.

The Importance of Writing Right

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

I have often posted here on the importance of writing skills to the professional paralegal. Thus I am pleased to see this announcement and urge you all to check the newest edition of The Paralegal Voice:

The ability to write well is critical for successful paralegals. On this edition of The Paralegal Voice, co-hosts Lynne DeVenny and Vicki Voisin welcome Sally Kane, Esq., Editor-In-Chief of Paralegal Today, to talk about the importance of a paralegal’s writing skills. They will discuss why it’s important for paralegals to write and publish, how to get published, common writing problems and how paralegals can improve their writing skills.

Speaking of publishing, this is a good opportunity to remind you all of the Call for Papers for the upcoming professionalism anthology. The call requests that a notice of intent be submitted in February but such a notice is helpful not required. We are still interested in hearing from paralegal educators, practitioners, and students that would like to participate in this project.

One word changes paralegal to felon.

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

The word is “fraudulent” as in “Dubin served as the settlement agent for the vast majority of the fraudulent loans obtained in the course of the scheme. In that capacity, she organized closings, prepared documents, and disbursed the fraudulently obtained proceeds to various defendants.” PRNewswire.comreports on the paralegal’s sentencing: three years in prison, three years of supervised release, 3 years forfeiture of $7 million and payment of approximately $11.6 million in restitution.

Unlike other instances of paralegals involved in crime, this is not a case of a rogue paralegal harming clients and their employers through lack of attorney supervision. Dubin appears to have been just on member of a large conspiracy of the type that always amazes me. According to the report, “Of the 27 defendants charged in this case (United States v. Aleksander Lipkin, et al.), 25 pleaded guilty; one of the defendants, attorney Alexander Kaplan, 35, of Brooklyn, New York, was found guilty following a jury trial and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 6, 2010. ”

The amazement does not come from the number of defendants. It comes from the sheer display of greed on the part of the participants. These are all lawyers and others who are highly educated and likely to make significant amounts of money – more than most people will ever see – if they employ their skills and talents in an honest way. Instead they choose to feed their own greed without a thought for the hundreds of distressed homeowners who lost the titles to their homes and faced eviction. And apparently thought they would never get caught! They were not suffering from alcoholism or depression, and this was not a one-time slip. They were simply dishonest and greedy on a huge scale. And now they are convicted felons.

No profession is free from such “bad apples.” This scheme involved lawyers, a paralegal, loan processors, mortgage brokers, real estate appraisers, and loan account executives. Other schemes have involve doctors, accountants, chiropractors, etc. That, however, does not make other members of the profession feel any better about the stain on the profession or the harm done to the people the profession hopes to serve.

“Trust, but verify” – The attorney/paralegal relationship

Friday, March 26th, 2010

My old stomping grounds provides another story of a paralegal embezzling from the law office in which she worked. This time it’s only $80,000 – small change compared to some. These stories are always disheartening, even outside of the legal profession, but are especially so when they involve the attorney/paralegal relationship. On the one hand it is good that attorneys are recognizing the abilities and independence of the paralegal professionals who work with them. (In this post I won’t go off on a tangent about whether or not this individual paralegal was actually qualified to bear the “paralegal” title.)  However, the attorney/client relationship ought not to be one of two individuals working separately for a common purpose.

Attorneys and paralegal, at least under our system, are a legal team, each with their own role. The role of the attorney continues to be that of supervisor. That role requires that the attorney verify the work done by the attorney, including the work they do with client and office accounts. Thus, it is always a mystery to me how paralegals can embezzle so much without getting caught. (This is in no way a criticism of this particular attorney. I do not know him or any of the circumstances other than what is in the story.)

I attribute much of this to the continued confusion on the part of the bar regarding the proper role for paralegals as part of the legal team and the attorney’s responsibility to supervise the paralegal. I’ve previously posted that I view the duty to supervise as one that is owed to the paralegal as well as the public. It would be helpful for both the paralegal and the attorney professions for the attorneys to have an increased understanding. Thus, I encourage both bar and paralegal associations to include these topics in CLE presentations designed for attorneys. There is, after all, no rule saying that paralegal associations cannot educate attorneys. Paralegals do it in law offices hundreds of times every day. I am quite sure that I and many of may colleagues at AAfPE would be willing to assist in this effort.

Paralegal Aids Seniors

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

The Enid News and Eagle(Oklahoma) reports on yet another instance of paralegals providing increased access to justice in the United States. This paralegal, like the others, works under the supervision of an attorney, but is clearly given a fair amount of responsibility and independence. She cannot provide advice, but she, like all professional paralegals, can provide valuable information geared to the client’s specific needs. Here is part of the report:

ENID — Judy Clay, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma senior citizen’s paralegal, will be in Enid to meet with Garfield County seniors who need information on a legal matter or have questions… The session is free. No appointment is necessary.

Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm providing civil legal services to low-income people and senior citizens. Legal Aid serves 77 counties, accepting cases in the areas of domestic abuse, housing and consumer law and government benefits.

It got done when the paralegals got involved

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

The actual quote is “It got done when the lawyers got involved,” but the story from The New York Times explains, “Within days, a paralegal had secured an inspection that finally forced the landlord to make repairs, and also got the rent reduced temporarily while Ms. Cade searched for less expensive housing.”

The gist of the report is that pediatric clinics are now working with legal aid offices to assist patients whose medical conditions need more than medicine to improve. “Doctors and social workers have long said that medical care alone is not enough to address the health woes of the poor, which are often related to diet, living conditions and stress.” Here’s how it went in the cases the Times uses to illustrate the phenomenon:

It was not the normal stuff of a pediatric exam. As a doctor checked the growth of Davon Cade’s 2-month-old son, he also probed about conditions at home, and what he heard raised red flags.

Ciera Jones and her son, Jamari, 4, in a meeting with the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital this week. Ms. Jones said she was looking for a day-care facility for her son, who has asthma.
Ms. Cade’s apartment had leaky windows and plumbing and was infested with roaches and mold, but the city, she said, had not responded to her complaints. On top of that, the landlord was evicting her for falling behind on the rent.

Help came through an unexpected route. The doctor referred Ms. Cade to the legal aid office right inside the pediatric clinic at Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati.

This case, which obviously involves paralegals supervised by clinic attorneys, is another illustration of how the paralegal profession can improve access to justice for those who cannot afford an attorney. I am not quite there yet, but it may ultimately be part of a justification of a licensing program such as that in Ontario, Canada, and programs in many other countries, that allow paralegals to provide limited legal services without attorney supervision.