Archive for August, 2010

When A Plaque isn’t Just a Plaque

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

I’m a big fan of national, regional, and organizational awards, but often the sweetes honors come from those with whom and for whom we work. Here’s an example:

Caryn S. White recently was presented a plaque in recognition of her 20 years of dedicated service to the Spencer Law Firm, according to a SWF press release.

White serves as office manager at the firm. She obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in management and human resource management from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and was granted a paralegal certificate from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Of course, I’m assuming that this recognition is not just a way to make up for having failed to treat Caryn with respect on a daily basis. Given the fact that she’s been there 20 years. For a short period of time I worked in a firm where the office manger was given a party and very nice “bonus” to recognize her 25 years of service and then forced into “retirement” about a  year later. Given my experience at the firm, I suspect that the latter treatment was much more representative of her treatment over the course of her career than the party and bonus!

Having no information to the contrary I’ll stick with my assumption that this is a well-deserved formal recognition of Caryn’s contribution to the firm that is in addition to the  regular respect and appreciation  to which she is likely entitled. Congratulation, Caryn!

By the way, paralegals are not granted certificates from good educational programs. The certificates are earned by the paralegals.

Paralegal Tells Tales Out of School

Monday, August 30th, 2010

According to UPI.com:

A former paralegal for a New York lawyer says his star client, heiress to a copper fortune, once gave his granddaughter a $10,000 dollhouse.

Cynthia Garcia told the New York Post that Huguette Clark was so generous to Wallace Bock her gifts became a joke at his law firm. She is also said to have donated $1.5 million to build a bomb shelter in the Israeli community where one of his daughters lives.

Staffers once created a phony will making him Clark’s major beneficiary and gave it to him at a holiday party.

Clark is now 104. She now lives at Beth Israel Medical Center and has not seen in her 42-room apartment in Manhattan or her houses in California and New Canaan, Conn., for decades.

The Manhattan District Attorney is investigating whether Bock and accountant Irving Kamsler have cheated the heiress.

Garcia told the Post that Bock recently telephoned her after several years without communication and asked her not to talk about his relationship with Clark.

“What they’re doing to her is horrible,” Garcia said.

Clark’s father, William Clark, was a onetime school teacher who made a fortune in copper. He represented Montana in the U.S. Senate for a single term and died in 1925.

Now if any of these allegations are true, I have absolutely no sympathy for the attorney and hope he is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law as well as disciplined by the proper bar authorities.  I do, however, have a problem with a paralegal, ex- or not, discussing this information with a newspaper.

I do not oppose, in fact I encourage, whistle-blowing for this type of activity. But whistle-blowing consists of reporting misfeasance or malfeasance to the proper authorities. Giving this kind of information to a newspaper is not just unprofessional vis-a-vis the attorney, but a violation of the  client’s right to confidentiality. Assuming the statements are true, can the paralegal truly believe that Bock or her family would want this story plastered in the Post? Even if she does truly believe it, she does not have the right to make that decision. That is what confidentiality is about.

The possibility that it may all come out as a result of an indictment or trial is of no weight. If that should happen, the disclosure will be the result of a court proceeding, not a unilateral decision on the part of a person who once took on the weighty role of a member of a legal team committed to the confidentiality of client information. The rules of ethics allows the former, not the latter. Whistle-blowing to the authorities at the risk of losing one’s job is an act of integrity. Telling tales to the press when there is no risk to you, is most definitely not an act of integrity or professionalism.

Professionalism and Court Clerks

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Way back in September of 2009, Melissa at Paralegalese made the case that clerks were :”Good People to Know,” a point that I fequently make during workshops and seminars. As Melissa says, “On a daily basis, these ladies are life savers…That is why it is so important to get to know these people. If you have one good contact there, he or she will guide you through almost any procedural steps you may have forgotten or possibly never knew. Whether you are new, experienced, you need a good contact at the clerk’s office.”

For this reason if none other, you don’t want to “get on the bad side” of the clerk’s office or any of its members. But more important to the profession is that incivility to anyoneis unprofessional. Clerks especially are essential members of the legal system and entitled to respect.

In addition, because they are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of the court system, they often know more about their particular area of expertise than the attorneys. This point was recently made with more than just a hint of sarcasm by Mississippi’s 12th District Chancellor on his blog. His story involves lawyers, but I am aware of many instances where paralegals have gone in with the same – very unprofessional – attitude and came out with the same egg on their faces. On the assumption that the judge won’t mind, I’m including the whole post here, but you can definitely take the time to review other posts, especially his “Trial by Checklists” posts, on his blog.

Twice this summer, the deputy Chancery Clerks in Lauderdale County have been confronted by lawyers wanting to probate original wills and demanding to retain the original. One was from another district with large cities to our west, and the other was, I am sad to report, from closer to home. The clerks, I am glad to report, stood their ground and demanded the original for filing. Both lawyers condescendingly made it clear that our clerks are backward ignoramuses, and one went so far as to say that ours is the only district that makes the ridiculous demand for the original will. Which is where I was called in — apparently it is the Chancellor’s role to determine as between eminent lawyers and lowly clerks just who is the backward ignoramus.

Now, in all my years in the law, I had never heard of a lawyer in Mississippi retaining an original will after its admission to probate. But then again, we are more or less country peasants in this part of the state, and some things do pass us by. As is my anachronistic, unsophisticated practice, I sought for the answer among the gnostic mysteries of the law that remain so seemingly inaccessible to most practicing attorneys: The Mississippi Code.

It only took me a few minutes to leaf directly to Section 91-7-31, MCA, which states:

All original wills, after probate thereof, shall be recorded and remain in the office of the clerk of the court where they were proved, except during the time thay may be removed to any other court under process, from which they shall be duly returned to the proper office. Authenticated copies of such wills may be recorded in any county in this state.

So there you have it. The statute unambiguously requires that the original must be surrendered to the clerk of the court where the will is probated, and the clerk is responsible to record it and keep it.

Even though the truth revealed in the statute would seem to be clear, I realize that I do learn something new each day, and I posited to myself that there might be some angle to this issue that was known only to these superior attorneys that neither I, nor the state legislature, nor nearly 200 years of Mississippi jurisprudence had taken into account. Accordingly, I raised the question at the Chancery Judges’ study meeting last weekend whether any judges were aware of any districts where the statute was not being followed, or of any exception to the rule, and the unanimous response was no.

In our own, primitive way here in the hinterland, we try to follow the law, and when we do so, we will look first to the Mississippi Code and the Chancery Court Rules and not to the lawyer’s interpretation. We know that is a backwards and so 20th-century approach, but that is the old-fashioned way we still do it. We apologize if that offends your more cosmopolitan sensibilities that may not allow you time between workouts at the gym to look up the law. If our humble practice is too “slow lane” for you, perhaps you should pass that estate off to a local lawyer who is more accustomed to our rustic ways.

Practice Tip: (1) Read and know the law. (2) Apply Practice Tip (1) before acting like a jerk toward the Chancery Clerks. Oh, and while you’re at it, refresh yourself on the Mississippi Lawyer’s Creed, especially that part that reads: “To the courts, and other tribunals, and to those who assist them, I offer respect, candor, and courtesy. I will strive to do honor to the search for justice.”

Say what?

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

This has little to do directly with paralegal, other than as an object lesson on sentence structure and clear communications. Here’s the introductory sentence from an ABAJournal.compost:

Ohio tort lawyer Stan Chesley is facing an ethics investigation by the Kentucky Bar Association for his conduct in litigation involving fen-phen and priest abuse.

I admit to being behind in such matters, but I was totally unaware of a connection between fen-phen and priest abuse. In fact I wasn’t aware priest were being abused. You can check out what they really meant here.

It only feels like a war zone

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I understand the tendency of paralegals to describe their workplaces by comparison to war zones, but usually avoid such comparisons out of respect to those who are serving in real war zones (although sometimes the two coincide). When it comes to stress and happiness, a frequent topic here recently, apparently some lessons from the war zone can be applied to the legal field. This post from ABAJournal.com references attorneys but much of it is applicable to paralegals also. Here’s an excerpt:

Happiness researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are working with the U.S. Army to teach soldiers how they can bounce back from the stress of deployment in a war zone. Those lessons also can apply to lawyers, says one of the school’s experts, lawyer Dan Bowling.

Writing for the Careerist blog, Bowling lists 10 happiness tips for lawyers, many of them lessons developed for the military training…

A few of Bowling’s tips:

• People are happiest when their jobs play to their strengths. “If you are a happy-go-lucky extrovert, try to avoid spending 10 years doing discovery requests,” he says.

• Keep your perspective. “The universe doesn’t revolve around you and your worries,” Bowling writes. “If you aren’t in the top half of your class, it’s not the end of the world, although it might seem like it when first-year grades come out. If you don’t make partner, life will go on.”

• Be sociable and thankful. Keep in contact with friends and express gratitude to those who matter.

Here’s a link to the original article on the The Careerist blog.

Cell phone civility

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

A post on ABAJournal.comtoday reports on some very pominent people who have stopped using cell phone, “giving them more power over their time and eliminating distractions that interrupt their work and their relationships.” I like this idea as a matter of time management and have written on the need to institution phone rules, cell or land-line, for both time and client management purposes. Of course, completely doing away with the boss’s ability to contact you as a paralegal is not a good attorney managment technique. The key is to manage the phone (and email) rather than let it manage you.

This post is really about another aspect of the ABAJournal.com report though:

A Los Angeles-area college dean, Jonathan Reed of the University of La Verne, said ditching his cell phone helps him pay attention in meetings and frees him up to talk to strangers. “A cell phone signals that my whole world is me and it excludes everyone else,” he told Bloomberg. He recalls a recent trip where he saw two men in a restaurant sitting with beautiful women, and both were on their cell phones.

“Do they have someone better on the other line?” he wondered.

I have noticed a growing tendency on the part of legal professionals, including attorneys, to leave their cell phones on while meeting with clients.  Aside from being just plain rude and unprofessional, this is disasterous for client management. When the cell phone is left on and caller ID is being checked, the implication is that there is someone out there who is more important to the legal professional than the client who is right in front of them. Clients note the distraction and wonder if they are being billed for the time taken to check the caller ID. In general, they feel disrespected – and rightfully so. It also prevents the legal professional from being able to sell the idea that when they are with another client, they focus only on that client and, therefore, cannot take their call. The client knows this isn’t true, because the legal professional is willing to take other calls while with them. What this tells the client again  is that they are simply not important enough to garner the professional’s attention while the professional is with them or to be a distraction to the professional when the professional is with another client.

Civility does seem to be on the wan. The courts have started to take action against the lack of civility given by one attorney to another in the courtroom and the litigation process in general. Legal teams who want to keep their clients ought to start by being civil to those clients.

Singing for the Unsung

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Little comment on this from MinnLawyer Blog other than to say it’s an idea I like:

Minnesota Lawyer announced the honorees in its third annual Unsung Legal Heroes Awards. The awards are meant to honor support staff employees who have consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty in their work. This year’s honorees were nominated by colleagues, supervisors, and the staff of Minnesota Lawyer. … A lunch will be held at noon September 22 to recognize this year’s honorees. Congratulations to everyone.

The Secrets to a Stress Free Career

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

I am on the OLP Advisory Board so of course I attempt to read everything that come from OLP. However, May was a very busy month and then June was spent in a cabin in Maine where I limited by work mostly to Working with the Elder Client.  So it is somewhat strange (and embarrassing) that it was only be following a link  back to an Australian site that led one viewer to this blog that I found myself reading, “The Secrets to a Stress Free Career – What Your Employer Doesn’t Want You to Know,” by Chere B. Estrin, the Chairperson of the OLP Board of Directors. So after doing my truly great posts on stress, I find Chere writing,

Article after article has been written about stress. It’s the same old, same old: manage your stress, have a plan, stay positive, visualize your last trip to Hawaii in the sun-soaked terrain, exercise daily and get regular hot rock massages. That, or have a glass of good merlot, get in the bathtub with lots of Evelyn & Crabtree and listen to old Doris Day songs. I don’t know where some of these authors get this stuff, except to say that they must live in Dreamland, somewhere east of here. Have they ever worked in a law firm?”

Of course, she’s not the only one noting the particular stress of working in a law office as readers of Paralegal Hell are already aware.  But as usual Chere goes well beyond such observations and provides invaluable insight.

Normally I might just post a link to her article, but I fear that some readers might feel my ability to accurately judge Chere’s insight has been unduly influenced by the wonderful things she said about Working with the Elder Client. So I am going to take a minute or two to cull out some of that insight in hopes that you’ll follow the link and read the whole article. Then you can judge for yourself.

First, Chere dispels some of the foremost myths about stress:

Myth #1: Stress is normal for anyone working in the legal community.
Myth #2: Stress is caused by working too much.
Myth #3: Stress is cured by working fewer hours.
Myth #4: Stress is cured by working more.
Myth #5: Stress is cured by focusing on stress.

Then Chere gets to the truth about stress:

Work does not give you stress. Feeling bad about work gives you stress. This means that changing your work hours, responsibilities, priorities or work environment is meaningless, unless it also changes the way you feel at work. Those stress management courses will not do the trick either, unless they can achieve just that.

Fortunately, she ultimately seems to agree with me (which does have something to do with why I think her insight is invaluable):

Most common sources of stress for legal professionals undefined deadlines, lack of control over time, difficult clients, escalating intensity, no margin for error – are outside of a paralegal’s personal control.  What truly determines how much stress these circumstances cause paralegals is the degree to which these “givens” are perceived or interpreted as threatening. Any perceived threat – real or not – triggers our body’s “fight-or-flight response.” Over time, it is possible to modify how your body reacts by paying attention to how you perceive situations as threatening. Ask yourself whether an issue really justifies your current reaction to it – or, whether or not it will matter at all a month later. Practiced regularly, you can keep matters in perspective so that stress is relative to the importance of the situation.

In the end the one thing anyone can control is how they manage the things they can’t control! Anyway, take a few minutes and read the whole article here.

Attorney Supervision of Freelance Paralegals

Monday, August 16th, 2010

I have advocated here for the proposition that attorneys have an obligation to paralegals, as well as the public, to provide adequate supervision to the paralegals with whom they work. And I have often commented that cases involving paralegal embezzlement raise real questions regarding whether the attorneys supervising the embezzling paralegal have provided adequate supervision. The issue is, however, not clear cut as there are few clear standards as to what constitutes adequate supervision. The issue is even more complex when the attorney contracts with a freelance or virtual paralegal for services.

This story excerpted from the Law Times involves a Canadian attorney and paralegal, but it illustrates the point:

A lawyer who worked with former paralegal Shellee Spinks, who stole $2.6 million from clients, denies he could have done anything to stop her.

Spinks used an old trust account belonging to Hamilton, Ont., lawyer Michael Puskas’ law firm to deposit funds for mortgage transactions and then transferred the money to a personal account at the same bank to feed her gambling habit.

Sentencing the former paralegal to four years in jail on Aug 5, Ontario Superior Court Justice Barry Matheson was left to wonder how she got away with it for so long.

“How it went undetected is a mystery to me. Did the lawyers not check on their paralegal?” asked Matheson. “Did the law society not check on the trust accounts of the firm? Many questions remain unanswered.”

The court heard Spinks worked for Puskas between 2002 and 2008, when she was arrested. But Puskas tells Law Times his relationship with Spinks, who operated an office in the same building as him, was always at arm’s-length.

He says he contracted her to assist him on real estate files, but she was never his employee.
“These were all files of which I wasn’t aware. If someone is suggesting I should have been breaking into her office and reviewing her filing cabinet, that’s putting a heavy onus on me,” says Puskas.

He says he asked Spinks to close down the trust account in September 2006 because he was transitioning from sole practice to a partnership and no longer needed the old trust account.

“She told me she had closed it. She had me sign a cheque to transfer the remaining funds out of it into the new account. Unfortunately I relied upon her advice that she had indeed shut it down,” says Puskas.

The attorney is correct that “If someone is suggesting I should have been breaking into her office and reviewing her filing cabinet, that’s putting a heavy onus on [the atorney],” but it hardly seems anyone is suggesting that. Surely there are steps lesser steps that the attorney can put into place. I seldom agreed with Ronald Reagan, but as I argued in a previous post there is significant merit to his signature line: “Trust, but verify.” While the attorney need not be responsible for the paralegal’s other clients and other accounts, it is possible and necessary to verify what is being done for his clients and with his accounts.

What do all you freelance and virtual paralegals think about this?

Who is making your choices?

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Recent discussion regarding a proactive approach to being a paralegal with minimum stress led me to think of Ivan Ilyich, a Tolstoy character who was dying. The passage brought to mind is:

‘But what was this? What for? It cannot be! It cannot be that life has been so senseless, so loathsome? And if it really was so loathsome and senseless, then why dies, and die in agony? There’s something wrong.’

‘Can it be I have not lived as one ought?’ suddenly came into his head. ‘But how not so, when I’ve done everyting as it should be done?’ he said, and at once dismissed this only solution of alll the enigma of life and death as something utterly out of the question.’

But however much he pondered, he could not find an answer. And whenever the idea struck him, as it often did, that it all came of his never having lived as he ought,m the thought of all the correctness of his life and dismissed this strange idea.

Certainly, as explained by Chere Estrin, it is important that you be in charge of your career, but also of your life. The enigma, of course, lies in the difficulty of making the “right” choices. One can indeed plan for happiness. But “what is happiness” is not the entire question. Rather the question is “What is happiness for me?” Ivan based his choices on what “ought” to be done and struggled with himself as to whether he has lived as he ought to have lived.

Making such decisions seems to be a theme on the internet recently. In a discussion on the Paralegal Today discussion forum regarding which specialty to choose, Kelly Corbin, a paralegal in Texas, gave this advice:

Tamika,

Follow your heart. Do what you love and the money will follow. I believe it is especially important when you are starting out in your career that you pick an area that you are passionate about. The legal field can be a very stressful and demanding place. You may be expected to work overtime, etc. and you want to make sure that you like what you are doing or you will quickly burn out. If you are passionate about what you are doing, you will work harder than if you just take a position in a specific area because the starting salary is higher. When you are passionate and working hard, that dedication will pay off in the future. You can study other areas of law to see if there is something else out there that will give you the monetary satisfaction that you desire, but no paycheck can substitute for the feeling of a day’s work well done and a client helped by the services that you perform (whether plaintiff, defendant, human or corporation).

I have worked for pennies, dedicated my life, given up personal plans, missed anniversary dinners and on and on, but at the end of the day (or several years as it were), I built a resume and a reputation that allowed me to go exactly where I wanted and be paid more than adequately for my work. My attorneys know that I am dedicated to the cause. They know that if I won the lottery tomorrow, not only would I not quit my job, I would actually do it for free!

You don’t get there overnight. You must prove yourself in this field. So, my advice is follow your heart. If this all sounds corny or cliche, then follow the paycheck. But believe it or not, the old adage is true . . . . .Money can’t buy happiness! And in my experience, if you follow the money and not your heart, you’ll just be spending that extra cash on therapy, stress management or doctor visits for your depression/exhaustion!

Those are my thoughts.

Kelly echoes Joseph Campbell, a life-long student and teacher of the human spirit and mythology who said, “I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

But even this is not always easy. As Vicki Voisin, The Paralegal Mentor points out in her newest newsletter, the grass can sometimes be deceptively greener on the other side of the hill. See her article “A Paralegal’s Struggle: Does a New Job Equal a New and Better Life? or Is the Grass Really Greener on the Other Side of the Fence?” And also follow the journey of Melissa at Paralegalese as she moves from a one attorney firm in a small town to a major firm in Memphis.

But following your bliss is indeed a good road to follow. Check out this from ABA Journal.comem>:

At one time, Nat Hussey spent part of his time in a courtroom, but now he works in a boat off the coast of Maine trapping lobsters the old-fashioned way, rowing to his traps and pulling them in by hand.

An Associated Press profile of Hussey says he started lobstering this summer as part of a “zero-carbon lobster harvesting project.”

“Other lobstermen roar about,” the AP story says, “pulling traps with power winches, their engines growling and radios blaring rock ‘n’ roll and country music. Hussey works in solitude, waves lapping gently against his boat, a bell buoy clanging gently in the background.”

On his blog, Outpost Matinicus, Hussey describes himself as a “musician, lawyer, dad, fisherman, meanderer.” AP says he was formerly a trial lawyer, and then held down an office job with the Maine Department of Corrections. He still does a little legal work, along with carpentry and odd jobs, to bring in some extra cash.

In a blog post Thursday, Hussey notes a neighbor has already left for a permanent home. “Here the sweet weather, warm water, garden growth all stretch out far past Labor Day,” he writes. “Yet so many departures and a lot less traffic change the atmosphere prematurely away from the summer parade.

“This is secret summer.”

And this post from another Paralegal Today discussion forum:

 a post on the Paralegal Today listserv thread discussing raises:

I recv’d an 18% raise last year but ended up quitting earlier this summer because it was dirty $$. Lots of questionable illegal and unethical things going on in that office. I just took on a new job at considerably less per hour, but good, solid attorneys whom I can trust. The new job is worth every penny.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this E. B. White quote from today’s post on Mississippi 12 Chancery Court judge’s blog:

“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”  —  E. B. White