Coincidences abound in the blogosphere. (What a word!) As I posted regarding unhappy paralegals and the prospect of improving their plight through proper utilization, a discussion entitled “Paralegal Utilization” began on the Paralegal Today discussion board. One post particularly caught my attention and I asked the auther, Sharon Lunsford, to provide a Guest Blog Post on her experiences for The Empowered Paralegal. She agreed and this is it. You may find it helpful to share some of it with your attorney:
Sharon Lunsford has spent her in-house paralegal career working for international retail corporations with a mix of corporate and franchise locations. Having also dealt with corporate maintenance, trademarks, real estate and other corporate matters, she currently specializes in franchising. Sharon holds a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in comparative politics.
In my 21-year paralegal career, I have always worked in-house. This is my fourth corporation so far. They have all been national retail businesses; at least two of them were Fortune 500 companies. I hope the following gives you a good idea of the typical corporate law department environment as I have experienced it.
In every position I have spent most of my time on substantive legal work, except that in one job the paralegal part was half the job and running certain aspects of the department’s operation was the other half. Although I have sometimes had to do all my own copying, filing etc., I have not been asked to split my time between secretarial and paralegal assignments for an attorney.
I have been treated as a professional at three of the four positions, including the job with one of the smaller companies where I was actually a member of the “company management team” and attended periodic meetings of that group. My job at the other company (one of the smaller departments) was an odd situation as far as secretarial support, and the less said about that the better. At the same job, although the only relevant qualification for the job was that I had to be familiar with a computer keyboard and have reasonable word processing skills, they insisted on giving me a typing test the day I got there, after I was hired and had already left the other job. (I don’t even deal with agencies that require typing tests of paralegals, so you can imagine how I felt about that little surprise. Come to find out, their idea of treating a paralegal as a professional was not to complain if we took time off for a medical appointment.) I had some good people around, including the other paralegal and some of the businesspeople I worked with, but the company as a whole was not a pleasant work environment at that time in its history. I did, however, gain considerable experience in franchisee default issues and unusual state examiner issues, and the timing of my bankruptcy-related layoff put me in the right place for my next job.
At one job I went from a desk in the “bullpen” (room with 5 desks) to a cubicle to a glass office along the outside of the building. (Some years after I left, that office or the one next to it was shattered by a tornado after normal working hours.) In one I had a cube first in line from the corporate floor elevators. People kept thinking I was the receptionist. In another I had an office (no windows) the whole time, with lots of cabinet, shelf and worktable space. At the other I started with half of a large double cube area with extra shelving and then moved to an inner office.
In each of the four positions I have had some level of secretarial support. This has included, in order of support level, not chronological order:
1. someone to bring my mail to me unopened and do nothing else for me (and act as hybrid secretary/paralegal and support the general counsel);
2. someone to open my mail, date-stamp it and hand it to me; type up documents that involved filling in very simple forms; make copies (large batches only); answer my phone if needed and send out mail and express items (and support the general counsel and one other paralegal);
3. someone to open my mail, date-stamp it and bring it to me; make copies; send faxes & bring me faxes; use a signature machine to apply management signatures to contracts as authorized; copy or scan contracts and contract amendments and send copies of the signed documents to franchisees; file correspondence and contract documents and index contract files; occasionally pull files; occasionally set up meetings and send out invitations on the email system; scan large batches of documents (e.g. contract files) for me to send to outside counsel as needed; take default/termination notices and other non-routine documents to executives for signature; occasionally assist in generating contract documents and inventory files for storage (and support one to three attorneys and one or two other paralegals); and
4. someone to check the tickler list every morning, pull the files diaried for that day and bring them to me; open my mail, date-stamp it and bring it to me; answer my phone when needed; make copies; send faxes & bring me faxes; send mail and express items; file; occasionally set up meetings or appointments; inventory files for storage and occasionally draft letters (and support the lead deputy general counsel). I could have asked her to bring coffee and it would have been considered part of the job. (Yes, our secretary was well paid.)
Title and Pay Grade:
In-house paralegals may be hourly non-exempt or salaried exempt employees. At one of the smaller corporations we had two levels – Corporate Paralegal (me) and (if I remember correctly) Senior Paralegal; at the other, there were also two levels – the hybrid secretary/paralegal (I don’t remember her exact title) and me, a Senior Paralegal. At one of the larger corporations we had two levels; one for paralegals trained on the job, titled Administrative Assistant–Legal Department and one for paralegals holding paralegal certificates from accredited colleges (not necessarily ABA-approved, because they weren’t aware of that process), titled Paralegal. Both were referred to verbally, and introduced to outside counsel, as paralegals. At the other there are three levels – Paralegal, Senior Paralegal and Senior Corporate Paralegal or Manager depending on the standard titles in place when the paralegal moved into that position.
Examples of Substantive Legal Responsibilities:
During part of my time working with franchise matters I have managed an annual interdepartmental franchise disclosure update process similar to the manner in which an in-house securities paralegal might manage a 10-K update process. Franchise contracts I have worked with have ranged from short fill-in-the-blank documents prepared by the franchise department to fairly complex documents prepared (usually by me) in the law department. At one company I have managed a franchise contract database and have been the “go-to” person for what’s in a franchisee’s contract (business and legal provisions) for a certain location. Franchise documents I have drafted at the different companies include franchise agreement amendments, release documents, default and termination notices, franchise inventory buyout agreements and international master franchise agreements. Another part of the job has been negotiating disclosure document issues with state franchise examiners. In addition, I have drafted transfer documents and managed franchise transfer closings either in person or by phone, email and fax.
When I handled trademarks for one company I drafted all documents to be filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (applications, notices of opposition etc.) and worked directly with international outside counsel on international filings. When I handled trademarks for another company I just told our U.S. or Canadian law firm what we needed and they handled everything; the U.S. firm dealt with international matters through their international law firm connections. I much preferred being able to draft documents myself but different companies handle things different ways. At both companies I reviewed the U.S. Trademark Gazette for possibly infringing marks. When I handled real estate matters I drafted subleases, prepared or corrected Estoppel certificates and negotiated legal points with landlord’s counsel. At one company I tracked the details of several levels of subsidiaries, drafted written consents in lieu of board meetings and handled state corporate maintenance filings and state merger and acquisition filings.
Examples (just the highlights) of the utilization of in-house paralegals in various areas of law include trademark paralegals who write the company brand use guidelines, transactional paralegals who assist in negotiating mergers and acquisitions and draft some or all of the needed documents; labor and employment paralegals who represent companies at mediation proceedings and draft responses to agency inquiries and litigation paralegals who gather information and respond to subpoenas, draft answers to interrogatories and draft responses to requests for production. (Sometimes this responsibility is shared; at one company I drafted the answers and responses for franchise litigation.)
An in-house paralegal position can be as specialized or as varied as you want. In one position I handled all general corporate, franchise, and (for a while) trademark matters – basically anything that was not litigation (except some franchise litigation) or agency claims. At another I handled franchise and trademarks. At another I handled domestic and international franchise, real estate and odd state filings formerly handled by the tax department. Currently I handle franchise matters only.
An in-house paralegal may be in a position to learn certain aspects of law department management. There is a small chance of jumping over to the business side, for those interested in that route. Among my four paralegal jobs, for instance, I have handled most facets of running a law department (network administration and documentation, budget process management, clerical staff training and/or supervision etc.). Law department administration is one of the alternative careers possible to someone with that type of experience. Another, in my case, would be contract administration. A real estate paralegal could move to a lease administrator position in a company real estate department, and I know one who did exactly that. Much larger companies of course may have paralegal managers; I have not worked with that additional management layer but it offers another type of opportunity for an experienced in-house paralegal
Continuing Legal Education:
I believe each of my employers has paid for at least one paralegal association membership. One even paid for ABA associate membership for several years. And one employer has paid the travel and registration costs for me to go to national legal conferences in my area of law.
I can’t discuss in-house positions in detail without adding this warning. I have interviewed for two different jobs where the paralegal was the only person in the law department and the decisionmaker/gateway for documents to be reviewed by outside counsel. I was very leery of those positions; in one case the company was just coming out of Chapter 11 and in the other the people conducting the interview were consultants with an accounting firm (???!!) and not lawyers. Fortunately I was not called back for a second interview for either position. I know someone who is constantly being put into an awkward spot because she is asked to handle certain contract and compliance matters without appropriate experience or training or the assistance of outside counsel. I would avoid that environment like the plague unless you are a highly experienced paralegal who knows where the line is and has the clout to require the use of outside counsel as needed.
If you’re not asleep yet (!), I hope this has been helpful.
Thank you, Sharon!
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