Archive for May, 2010

News of Two Everyday Events is Significant

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Two stories about everyday events are in the news, and that is good news for the paralegal profession. One is a report of a paralegal receiving advanced certification and one is about a paralegal being hired. What is significant here is that both appear to be press releases from law firms who recognize the importance of paralegals to their firms, and the value that can be added to the firm when the public knows their paralegals and the qualifications of their paralegals. The mere fact that the firms viewed these events as a PR opportunity is a good sign for the paralegal profession and the prospects for establishing a professional identity. Here are the two stories:

Local paralegal awarded advanced designation
Meredith Lazarski, paralegal with the law firm of Hale & Bolchoz on Hilton Head Island, has been awarded the Advanced Certified Paralegal designation by NALA, the association of legal assistants/paralegals. Lazarski now is authorized to use the “ACP” designation, and might pursue advanced certification in other legal disciplines in the future. Lazarski also is a member and officer of the National Association for Legal Secretaries’ local association, Hilton Head Legal Staff Professionals.

Zarian, Midgley and Johnson, PLLC, has announced that Greg Bradford has joined the firm as the newest member of its paralegal team. Bradford will focus his work on litigation support. He has more than five years experience as a litigation paralegal and is the current vice president of education for the Idaho Association of Paralegals.
Bradford earned his Paralegal Certificate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from California State University, Fresno. He is fluent in Spanish.

Paralegal “Fighting for Access to Justice” Wins a Battle in Montana

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

I do not yet have enough information to pick sides in this controversy, but it is one of interest to the paralegal profession. Jerry O’Neil is an “independent” paralegal in Montana. Unfortunately none of the stories I’ve read so far state what his credentials are for claiming to be a paralegal, much less an “independent” one. As previously discussed in this blog, there technically can be no such thing as an independent paralegal since every generally accepted definition of paralegal in the United States requires that the paralegal be supervised by an attorney. That technicality aside, it would be good to know O’Neil’s qualification to call himself a paralegal, supervised or not supervised.

That is not, however, what brings Mr. O’Neil’s story to this blog today. Rather it is the fact that the Montana Attorney General’s Office has withdrawn a complaint against O’Neil that argued phone book advertising by paralegal Jerry O’Neil of Columbia Falls deceived people about his practice. The ad was in the lawyers section of the Yellow Pages identify him as an independent paralegal providing low cost divorce services. He was charged with deceiving people under the state’s Unfair Trade and Consumer Protection Act. The problem is that the state could not identify anyone who had been deceived. District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena denied a state request for summary judgment in April. The judge gave the state until May 24 to respond to O’Neil’s request to identify someone who claimed to have been deceived by his advertising. The state did not respond and instead an assistant attorney general signed an agreement dismissing the case.

This, it appears, is not O’Neil’s first confrontation with the Montana legal system over his independent paralegal practice. The Billings Gazetteadds this information:

O’Neil has tangled with the state and the commission over his status as an “independent paralegal” for years.

In 2006, the commission pursued litigation that resulted in District Judge Kim Christopher of Polson affirming an injunction that prohibited O’Neil from practicing law or advertising that he is capable of doing so.

O’Neil said that injunction said he can act as a lay representative if authorized by administrative agencies or tribunals, can serve as an arbitrator or mediator, can act as a lobbyist or legislator and can fill in preprinted documents, such as wills. An attorney has to review some documents he prepares.

O’Neil said most of his business involves offering mediation for divorcing parties to help them divide their property and share custody of their children.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled last month that neither the court nor the commission it created had the authority to regulate the unauthorized practice of law, but that the Legislature has charged the executive branch with investigating and prosecuting such cases. That ruling came after the commission filed a petition seeking more than the $1,000 annual budget it had. The commission said the sparse funding meant only one case had been prosecuted since the commission started in 1976 — O’Neil’s.

The state attorney general’s Office for Consumer Protection agreed to take on the duties of the commission.

O’Neil’s spin on all this is not as a matter of protecting the right to practice as an independent paralegal, UPL, or the like. Rather, in his own press release he says it is an access to justice issue:

O’Neil is also asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to increase the allowable scope of para-professionals’ abilities to help the public access their judicial system. Defendants in that case are the Montana State Bar Association and the Montana Supreme Court Commission on Unauthorized Practice, which the Montana Supreme Court recently found to be operating outside of their Constitutional jurisdiction.
O’Neil says, “This win, along with the Montana Supreme Court disbanding their Commission on Unauthorized Practice of Law, will make it easier for people of modest means to receive legal services. I am proud and grateful to have made a contribution to the public’s access to their judicial system.”

The issues of UPL, independent paralegals, access to justice, and licensing/registration are intertwined. It is clear that paralegals (supervised or independent) can do much to solve access to justice issues. The downside is that absent licensing mandates, anyone can call themselves a paralegal. The deception, if there is any, may be in implying that one has skills, experience, or education that one does not have.

Beating an Incarcerated Horse

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Regular readers will have noticed, I hope, that I have not been posting at my regular rate over the last couple of weeks. The reduced postings relate to publishing deadlines and preparations for travel. As I note in The Empowered Paralegalthere are times when we simply need to establish priorities.

In this brief break from attempting to meet other deadlines I came across the reports on Bonnie Sweeten. She was previously sentenced to prison for identity theft and filing a false police report and is just one of several who are part of a trend the paralegal profession does not need. It is no secret that she now faces 23 new charges in alleged $700K law firm thefts. This is not a simple case of a paralegal’s attorney failing to properly supervise the paralegal, as it appears the attorney may have been involved in the illicit activities.

What really caught my attention and brought me back to the blog was an indication that this may be another case of just anyone calling themselves a paralegal. PhillyBurb.com is carrying a report entitled, “A closer look at Bonnie Sweeten’s life” which begins, “1993: Bonnie Anne Rakoczy takes a job as paralegal and office manager with Feasterville law firm of attorney Debbie Carlitz.”

Regular readers will also be mindful that this is the type of report that drives me crazy. While Bonnie is constantly characterized as a “paralegal” in news reports, this story, apparently accurately, simply states that she took a job as a paralegal. As I have noted frequently here these two are not the same. Apparently just about anyone can call themselves a paralegal and become a paralegal“take a job as a paralegal. That does not make them a paralegal despite John Stossel.

I realize the profession continues to be hampered in establishing an identity by the lack of uniform certification, registration, or licensing requirements, an obstacle that could (and I hope will be) removed through cooperative efforts by all interested groups. In the meantime, it continues to be aggravating that anyone-regardless of training, education, or experience can taint the profession simply by “taking” a job as a paralegal.

Another Facebook Faux Pas

Monday, May 17th, 2010

A fairly frequent topic here is the danger posed by social media and the use of the internet in general. Obviously I’m a big fan of the internet – tough to blog without some good feeling about the internet. But any legal professional needs be mindful of the dangers of the internet. In essence, a professional must be professional on the internet because the line separating professional and personal lives hardly exists there. Lynne Devenney of Practical Paralegalismprovides today’s lesson in this regard. As always, Lynne adds to the lesson with words of wisdom. I have a lot of writing to do tonight, so I’ll not say more.

Click here to get the lowdown from Lynne: How to Get Fired on Facebook 101.

Paralegal Happy

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

From time to time I’ve posted on Paralegal Unhappy – paralegals who are unhappy with their careers. Many times, this is a result of where they are employed and the lack of understanding and respect those paralegals receive from the attorneys with whom they work.  Sometimes it is a result of the paralegal’s inability or unwillingness to empower themselves or to plan for happiness.

On this nice Sunday afternoon I have the good fortune to be able to post on a Paralegal Happy – Wendy Matteau, a paralegal in Casper, Wyoming. According to the Billings Gazette, Wendy has the good fortune to both receive understanding and respect from the attorneys with whom she works and to have the ability and willingness to empower herself. Here’s some of the Gazette’s story:

CASPER — She was only 9 years old, but Wendy Matteau knew she wanted to go into the legal field…

Matteau graduated from Kelly Walsh High School in 1986 and went to college. She left in 1988 to give birth to her son, Zach. She found a good-paying job in the medical billing field.

Even while raising her son, Matteau took an occasional class to get more direction on what she wanted to do. She received her associate degree in general studies from Casper College in 2003. She needed something to boost her resume, and the general-studies program was the quickest way to do it.

In 2005, after 17 years in the medical field, Matteau decided to change careers to what she wanted to do — be a paralegal. …

She started working as a paralegal with Clapp, Ingram & Olheiser, a job she loves. The firm offered to pay for her paralegal coursework, and she started the program at Casper College in spring 2008.

“It helps them and it helps us,” attorney Todd Ingram said. “She’s wonderful.”

Matteau’s coworkers also helped with homework and were understanding of her class schedule. Still, she put in extra time on the weekends and before and after work when classes happened during the work day.

“These guys have helped me fulfill a dream,” Matteau said.

Friends and coworkers ask her if she’ll get her bachelor’s degree next. Maybe after she studies for and takes the certified legal assistant exam next year, she said.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Matteau said. “I smile every day going to work, seriously, and it’s not an easy job.”

Congratulations to Wendy and to Clapp, Ingram & Olheiser – each in their own way role models for legal professionals.

Six Word Challenge – The Paralegal Mix

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

ABAJournal.com posts this challenge for lawyers:

A recent call in the blogosphere for readers to provide six-word descriptions of tax practice has made us wonder: How can law practice, in general, be described in six words?

A few possibilities come to mind: Pass bar. Get job. Make partner. Or perhaps, in these tough economic times, Pass bar. Hang shingle. Get clients.

Readers, surely you can think of other six-word descriptions that are edgier, wittier or simply a more accurate snapshot of law practice. Tell us your six-word descriptions of law practice in the comments section at the bottom of this post, and await possible accolades (or jeers) from your colleagues.

To paraphrase the challenge for this blog: Reader, surely you can think of six-word descriptions of the paralegal profession.  Your suggestions are welcome in comments or in email at theempoweredparalegal@live.com.

Ohio Paralegal Day

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Monday, May 17th,  is Paralegal Day in Ohio by proclamation of the governor. It is being celebrated by paralegal associations and educational institutions across the state (“Ohio “Paralegal Day’ 2010″ in just about any general search engine is likely to hit a location near you if you are in Ohio).  One such celebration in Columbus is an all-day joint venture of the Paralegal Association of Central Ohio and the Columbus Bar Association featuring, ” speakers on legal topics, writing skills, resumes and interview techniques and webinars on software programs …[and]… the annual Paralegal Day Luncheon with a hot buffet … featuring Honorable Kimberly S. Cocroft, Franklin County Common Pleas Court, as the keynote speaker.” 

While reviewing the notice of this event I noticed this on the Columbus Bar Association’s site: 

Paralegals are invited to become joint members of the Columbus Bar and the Paralegal Association of Central Ohio (PACO). As associate members of the Bar, paralegals can benefit from the educational and networking opportunities offered by participation in Columbus Bar meetings, events, and programs.

I am aware of and have posted about other states with proclaimed paralegal days, and one other bar association that provides for paralegal membership. I’m sure my list of states with proclaimed days is incomplete and I hope there are  more bar associations that include paralegals in their membership. If you are aware of a state with proclaimed paralegal days or other bar associations with paralegal members, please let me know. Both are signficant steps forward in the quest for appropriate recognition of paralegals as a profession.

LAPA Pro Bono Fair

Thursday, May 13th, 2010
The Los Angeles Paralegal Association (“LAPA”)’s website states it “is dedicated to developing, strengthening, and advancing the paralegal profession. LAPA provides networking opportunities, continuing legal educational programs, and pro bono activities for paralegals and members of the legal community throughout the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.” I like this opening because it acknowledges the link between networking, CLE, pro bono work and the advancement of the paralegal profession – a topic of several posts on this blog.

Some professional associations just talk the talk, but LAPA also walks the walk. It not only has a webpaage at its site dedicated to pro bono activities, it has announced it’s annual pro bono fair. This is an excellent idea for paralegal professional associations, although it likely works better in larger metropolitan areas. Here some info from the announcement and the link to the LAPA site where the announcement appears:

LAPA’s Pro Bono Section presents its annual

Pro Bono Fair

June 19, 2010

National University
5245 Pacific Concourse Drive, Suite 301
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(near LAX)

Admission: $5.00 and a new unwrapped toy to be donated

Must pre-register for event. For additional information, contact probono@lapa.org.

9:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon

Insights. These major organizations are going to be providing useful information about the services they deliver to their clients

Connections. Take advantage of the great opportunity to meet and learn about volunteer positions or paralegal internships in one location.

Opportunities. Find your match here and learn how you can meet your volunteer goals.

Alliance for Children’s Rights

Bet Tzedek Legal Services

California Women’s Law Center

Disability Rights Legal Center

Inner City Law Center

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles

Learning Rights Law Center

Public Counsel Law Center

and others…..

Online Ethics – Updated

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

We’ve spoken here previously about some of the perils of internet use in the law office. Today I am passing on a story from ABAJournal.com entitled, “Ethics Officials Seeing More Cases from Lawyers’ Online Foibles.” It is about lawyers, but is just as applicable to paralegals:

Lawyers who are more circumspect in person are making online mistakes that are landing them in trouble with ethics officials.

James Grogan, chief counsel of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, recalls an early case that got the attention of bar counsel in more than one state, the National Law Journal reports. Steven Belcher, a temporary lawyer at a St. Louis law firm who was licensed in three states, was helping defend a wrongful death case when he decided to e-mail a picture of the deceased to a friend, the story says. The body of the overweight man was pictured lying naked on an emergency room table. Belcher added his own commentary.

The result was a 60-day suspension, the story says. “It got our eyebrows up,” Grogan told the publication. “We thought, ‘Wow, are we going to see more of these?’ Well, I think it’s clear we are starting to see more.”

The story notes an increase in interest in the issue. Bar associations and bar counsel hold seminars on online ethical mistakes, and the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 will consider whether existing ethics rules adequately address online transgressions.

“It’s not as if lawyers never misbehaved before,” the story says. “But now they’re making the same old mistakes—soliciting for sex, slamming judges, talking trash about clients —online, leaving a digital trail for bar counsel to follow.”

Susan Gainen’s Lawyerist.com post, “6 Rules for Protecting Confidential Information” (brought to my attention by Lynne Devenney at Practical Paralegalism) is well worth the read in this regard. Her first two rules are:

1. Your conversations. Never talk about clients or client business outside of the office. The guy at the table next to you knows EXACTLY who you are talking about because his client is on the other side of the deal.

2. Your tweets or blog posts. Tweeting or blogging about your work are very smart business development tools, but they are also fraught with peril. Robert Ambrogi lists 16 good reasons to Tweet, but notes: “Before you post to Twitter, consider the consequences. A casual tool such as this makes it easy to unwittingly create an attorney-client relationship or overstep an ethical rule. Even with only 140 characters, you can easily get yourself in hot water.”

The point is that “online” is “outside the office” even if you are sitting in the office when you blog, tweet, email, or otherwise reveal information. Unless your system is secure, even internal communications may be exposed to the “outside.”

Update:

Just an additional thought from Steve Lohr’s story in the New York Times on the Library of Congress archiving Twitter messages:

Knowing that the Library of Congress will be preserving Twitter messages for posterity could subtly alter the habits of some users, said Paul Saffo, a visiting scholar at Stanford who specializes in technology’s effect on society.

“After all,” Mr. Saffo said, “your indiscretions will be able to be seen by generations and generations of graduate students.”

People thinking before they post on Twitter: now that would be historic indeed.

AC-CENT-TCHU-ATE THE POSITIVE

Monday, May 10th, 2010

The Paralegal Today listserv has an interesting thread under the title, “To be or not to be . . . . .a Paralegal (in title)‏” covering a topic often considered on this blog – can just anyone call themselves a paralegal?  My next post is likely to delve into some of the comments that directly related to the thread title. However, this post picks up on the turn the thread has taken to the topic of how paralegals are treated within the law office. This issue – basically one of respect – has often been discussed here also.  Some of the stories are quite discouraging.  One comment this morning though responded in terms of an empowered paralegal. Here it is in full:

Steve – Over the years, I have experienced similar treatment.  The first 4.5 years of my career was in a lawfirm that regularly abused the staff.  The place was a revolving door.  All I can say is, continue to work hard and build your skills and you will find something better.  Just keep yourself open to new opportunities and don’t let the negativity permeate your soul.  There are some really bad attorneys (and other professionals) out there who can only feel good about themselves when they are making someone else feel poorly.  To feel power, they must remind the staff that there is a pecking order and the staff is beneath them.  I have to believe that those people will get theirs in the end.  You must rise above it and let the experience strengthen you and empower you.  It has been many years since I have allowed myself to be treated this way by an employer.  When I summoned the courage to leave my abusers, I decided then and there that I would never allot that treatment again.  I remind myself of that experience daily to appreciate the life I have created for myself now.  While there are many bad attorneys out there, there are also many great attorneys and firms.  You have to be open to allowing the positivity in your life.  Sometimes when you are in such a negative environment daily, it’s difficult to separate yourself from it and remain positive.  Positivity begets positivity.  Don’t let them tear you down.  Continue to search for the perfect place.  It IS out there, but it typically won’t come looking for you, so you must look for it.  I am confident that you WILL find a better place.  Just hang in there until you find it.

Kelly K. Corbin, TBLS, ACP
Board Certified Paralegal – Personal Injury Trial Law
  Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Advanced Certified Paralegal
  National Association of Legal Assistants-Paralegals 
“Accentuate the Postitive” often sounds trite – in the “let the smile be your umbrella” vien. It can be if it is spoken without the real understanding of empowerment expressed by Kelly when she says she , “appreciate[s] the life I have created for myself now.”  (Emphasis added.) As noted many times before, empowerment comes from within to those who are willing to take charge of their own empowerment, not from without. As pointed out by Chere Estrin,  this is especially true when applied to ones career.
Enough of the homily. Here it is from Bing and Bette: