Posts Tagged ‘film’

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.

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

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

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.