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What Forty-Years as a Paralegal Taught Me

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The Difference Between A 'Wish' and A 'Want'

A paralegal career taught me that 'wishing' and 'wanting' are two different things. Wishing is desiring something frequently unattainable. Wanting, while it also implies desire, further implies the actual absence of what is wanted. There were many times I wished my firm would give me a raise. Less often, I wanted a raise bad enough to go and get it!

A paralegal position can be a job or a career, depending on your devotion to it. But it is also dependent on the firm that hires your devotion. Any position that does not trend UPWARD in terms of mobility or salary is really just temporary housing. Unfortunately, paralegal positions can fall into this scenario.

During my 40-years in the field, I encountered many unique responses to requests for more pay. Among the negative responses are:

  • "You are already making too much money." —Not according to industry averages.
  • "You still work here, don't you? That's your appraisal and your pay raise." —Guess, I'll never make partner.
  • "You can't leave. We couldn't do without you." —They did it without me.
  • "You will be the highest paid paralegal in the State." —Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Among the positive responses:

  • "Let me get with firm administration and see what I can do first." —I stayed.
  • "I'll have to get that approved before the State Legislature but give me 30-60 days." —I took the job.
  • "I can't give you another raise, but I can get you a stipend for projects you work on." —I continued both my job and the extra projects for 2-3 years.
  • "If you stay, we will make you department head and/or put you on the firm letterhead." —I left.

It's true — money is time and time is money! This means you are worth something BUT you have to give first to receive later. I was called the firm's "best paralegal" a couple of times in my career. It wasn't because I was some genius-level paralegal that should've been an attorney. It was because: 1) I demonstrated commitment with punctuality and attendance, 2) I was a hard-working and focused professional who strived to stay out of office drama, AND 3) I ensured that a quality end-product got off of the law-factory floor in a timely manner.

The Difference Between A 'Title' and A 'Profession'

When I first began work, I was called a Legislative Assistant. In my second job, I was called a Legal Assistant. In one of my jobs, I was given the choice to be called a Paralegal or Legal Assistant as titles emerged in the field despite having completed a program dubbed "'Paralegal' Studies."

As an advocate for my chosen career, I had another choice to make — whether to become "certified." My firm may or may not have paid the professional exam fees should I choose to invest the time to study and pass the exam, but that was immaterial. I decided against certification and here's why:

During the late 90's and early 2000's, many discussions took place among paralegal organizations, lawyers, the American Bar Association, State Bar associations, and state agencies electing to lend state-level authority to the paralegal profession. As a consequence, much changed in the field with regard to titles, certifications, licensure, and salaried versus non-salaried status under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Despite those changes, a debate on whether to regulate or not regulate the paralegal profession continues to this day.

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) are two primary organizations advocating for the profession. Among the facts a paralegal needs to consider are the following:

  • NALA has had two terms to identify the same profession. It filed for a certification mark “CP” with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in 2004. Those already admitted to the program (by exam) were awarded with a “Certified Paralegal” certificate. However, other paralegals continue to use the original certification acronym, “CLA,” which stands for "Certified Legal Assistant." In order to tout either designation, a paralegal must pre-qualify with a combination of experience and education before then sitting for and passing a 3-hour NALA exam.
  • NFPA attempts to cut down confusion by noting the completion of a paralegal program does not qualify one to call themselves "certified." NFPA notes there is no U.S. authority to oversee the profession, adding that licensure is how any governmental authority would gain that oversight. Moreover, in 2012, Washington State instituted a Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) program (which other states are now considering). NFPA offers its own paralegal certification exam called the Paralegal Core Competency Exam (PCCE). Once the PCCE exam is passed, continuing education requirements must be met just like NALA's CP certification requires.

The pivot point for me: there were/are a lot of possibilities with few final opinions to show for it regardless of one's education and experience. At the outset of the debate, there were a large number of career professionals who believed that "certification" fosters more respect for the profession. Some of these same professionals asserted that paralegals were 'salaried' or 'exempt' employees vs. non-salaried and therefore ineligible for overtime. The belief was that the 'exempt' status would bring higher wages while opponents feared longer hours for less pay. In 2004, the Dept. of Labor settled the debate and made a FINAL ruling that a paralegal is non-exempt unless paralegal duties clearly encompass managerial or largely administrative duties (which very few do). I have been considered "exempt" at least twice in my career despite the lack of an acronym celebrating passage of a certification exam. Did I need to be "certified" to obtain pay raises? Absolutely not!

The profession as a whole is still settling into place in many ways. States still find themselves exploring options. For instance,

  • In 2008, the Florida Bar Association recognized a "Registered Paralegal (FRP)" as a profession. It refers to one who has met the education, training, certification and work experience required for voluntary registration set forth by the Florida Bar.
  • notes that credentialing at the national or state level remains voluntary. California, Arizona and Washington are the only states where paralegals can choose to offer their services independently, but they are required to be 'registered', 'certified', or licensed' beforehand.

Most employers are happy to hire paralegals with or without the acronym but the acronym should hold monetary value that it does not. References and work product are the primary concern of every attorney. As the late Leland Smith, Esq. of Wilkins Patterson said, "get to work on time, stay out of the office drama, do your best, and well, the rest is always something we can work on."

The Difference Between 'Respect' and 'Admiration'

Job duties vary from employer-to-employer. At one point, I was a Legal Assistant who supervised several Legal Aides. At another point, I supervised a single Medical Records Assistant. When I was called a "National Paralegal," I supported a Super Lawyer responsible for mass tort cases all over the U.S. I have seen dozens of titles used to describe paralegal work: Floater, Project Manager, Case Paralegal, Senior Paralegal, Administrative Paralegal, Supervising Paralegal, Labor Paralegal, Legal Technician, and more. Once seasoned enough, you can become a Freelance or Contract Paralegal giving you the liberty to set your own salary and hours.

Hard work and achievements in one's early career will pay dividends in the latent career IF one manages not to burn bridges. Have I burned a couple? Unfortunately, yes. But this forced me to learn the difference between 'respect' and 'admiration.' Respect is "a feeling of deep admiration for someone elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements." Admiration refers to "something regarded as impressive or worthy of respect." If you think these two terms sound remarkably the same, think again! For example, you might elicit enormous respect for your work product, but very little respect as a person. Respect may keep you employed, but admiration gets you that pay raise. Admiration grows out of things that aren't in your job description such as,

  • how you handle conflict or adversity
  • whether you have leadership potential
  • how well you get along with co-workers and other attorneys
  • whether you keep knowledge secretive or you are willing to train others
  • how you navigate the burden of raising a family, battling health problems, and maintaining gainful employment

The smaller the law firm, the more likely you must be willing to do a little bit of everything including office management. The larger the firm, the more specialized, detailed, or restrictive you can expect your duties to be. Here are some examples of how I successfully (or unsuccessfully) navigated changing terrain:

  • I went to work once with a butterfly IV in my arm in order to avoid missing a critical deadline. Yep, rolled that drip pole right off of the elevator and into my office. — Respect, 0; Admiration,10+
  • While 9-months pregnant, I had to rush an overnight envelope to the airport to meet an 8:00 pm deadline for a Supreme Court filing. I left the office at 7:45 pm with an impossible task. When I saw a Federal Express truck across a field, I pulled over and starting running towards it in high heel shoes. One of my shoes instantly sunk but I made a successful jaunt. A surprised Fed Ex driver stood facing a barefoot, pregnant woman — how dare he say no? — Respect, 0; Admiration, 10++, AND the firm bought me a new pair of shoes.
  • My daughter's school called to say her peanut butter and jelly sandwich did not meet nutritional requirements. They refused to advance her lunch money. I was forced to leave work, drive 30 minutes to take her lunch, and then return to work. Total time away from work: 1.85 hours. I decided to swing by Pizza Hut and snag a couple of Supreme Pizzas — yep, covers all the food groups and the school couldn't complain! My daughter's class got the first pizza and the office staff shared the second. — Respect, 10+; Admiration, 10+; Food Pyramid, 0
  • Bankruptcy court requires special training. In my spare time, I signed up for and received the training. When the firm had an emergency filing in bankruptcy court, I was prepared to handle it. — Respect, 10; Admiration - eh, maybe!
Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

The Difference Between 'Underutilization' and 'Underappreciation'

My first position was a 12-year corporate job, but my favorite position was a temporary government position. My last position started out being my favorite job in the beginning and my least favorite job in the end. The moral to this mash-up is that being happy in a job depends on both you AND your employer working together to meet mutual needs and goals.

A paralegal may be hired to work for an associate, a partner, another paralegal, or a combination of all three. I have worked for a Top 50 Super Lawyer, a Top 50 Lawyer, and numerous partners throughout my career. I have also worked for and helped train associates often called "baby lawyers." (NOTE: I wound up being referred to as "administrative support" in the Southern Reporter once for a mistake a "baby lawyer" from Harvard made.) I have even done administrative work for firm management. This myriad of exposures taught me the difference between my potential (utilization or underutilization) versus being valued for my potential (appreciation or underappreciation).

Every position brings unique challenges but one thing I've found to be constant: If I settled into one position for too long, I became unchallenged. If I changed positions, I became underappreciated because I was forced to prove myself all over again regardless of experience and background. Paralegals don't get to 'buy in' to a partner role.

Maximizing your potential (utilization) is a personal endeavor. Don't be afraid to ask for additional responsibility, to transition to a new role if firm management needs it, or to seek external opportunities like membership in professional organizations or speaking engagements. Ensuring your value is seen (appreciation) is a joint endeavor. This requires a supportive attorney where you are free to communicate your goals or concerns.

The best way to garner appreciation is to learn negotiation skills. Lawyers can relate to this because they settle cases every day. Here are some examples of successful negotiations that garner appreciation:

  • Bonuses are always tied to billable hours. I negotiated a higher salary in lieu of the annual bonus because the extra punch at Christmas was not as meaningful to me, an empty nester, as it was to parents with dependent children.
  • A disruptive co-worker and I shared an office. If she was on the phone, then I could not be. If I was dictating, then she could not. I asked for a private office like all the other reindeer, but expected denial. So when I asked for a private space, I proffered that the large, unused space at the end of the hallway could be petitioned off and wired for a phone through the wall. It was cheap and the new cubical could be used for the runner who also needed a space once I moved along. Offering a solution to a problem is a perfect way to negotiate and the firm accepted my proposal.

The Difference Between Sexual Harassment and Sex Discrimination

Sexual harassment didn't die with the the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My first boss chased me around the desk which was unfortunate for the 1980's. The "Me Too Movement" had not been born and the courts had only begun to hear sexual harassment cases. The behavior ultimately led to me leaving — no claim filed. Any claim would have likely settled out of court after a grueling diminution of my character and sex life in front of a jury of my peers. Moreover, nothing could have made me feel valuable to a company which more than likely, would have stood behind his behavior.

Title VII is about more than sexual predators. It is also about fairness and equality. The 80's and 90's were milestones for sexual equality: Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female on the U.S. Supreme Court (1981). A decade later, Janet Reno became the first female to achieve rank as U.S. attorney general (1993). Despite 2-3 landmark sex harassment cases during the 90's, the Supreme Court was still tweaking sex discrimination laws as late as 2005 when it ruled that punishing someone for reporting sexual harassment or discrimination was illegal (Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education).

I was encaged by the legal profession during the transformation from the oft unmanaged discriminatory practices of the 70's to the well-written, zero tolerance policies requiring an employee-acknowledgement form in the 90's. I experienced the realization that women who wanted to move up had a heightened threat to their moral integrity. On the other hand, I experienced lawyers who were the first to embrace the very discrimination policies they were hired to write. Over the course of four decades, lawyers that once used pay as a gauntlet to sexually harass or to expect more from paralegals in terms of performance began to diminish. Lawyers who had harassed their support staff shifted fraternizations to non-employee personnel like court reporters but nonetheless, continued inappropriate behaviors. During the transition, salaries gradually increased as harassment and discrimination gradually decreased. Above the white noise of change, one thing remained the same: paralegals will always have stories to tell and for that reason, they should never ostracize one another.

Law firms are inherently stressful environments with strict deadlines and demanding clients. Paralegals are a bridge between attorneys and secretarial staff. As such, they run the risk of getting blamed for mishaps by both sides. Oftentimes, the paralegal or office manager who was hired to serve as a mediator between support staff and attorneys, actually becomes endeared to firm management because that's who signs the pay check. This may sound like a dog-eat-dog environment, but it is actually just a save-yourself environment where the right navigation tools are critical to a successful journey.

Learning MS-DOS in the late 80's was a good way to ensure I could accomplish tasks en masse but when I bypassed the network dashboard of a large defense firm in 1991 to access the root drive, it landed me in the Technology Manager's office for a stern reprimand.

"How did you know HOW to do that?," the Tech Manager asked.

My silent answer — Maybe I was hired for the wrong position; my audible answer — "I thought everyone knew."

Then my question to the Tech Manager was, "How did you KNOWWWW I did that?"

The Tech Manager replied, "Well, that's the difference between technology trends and true technology."

Fast forward 20 years: I joined a small firm where all case documents were stored on the root as a matter of course. Did they understood true technology as well?

Most law firms know that document management systems complicate workflow and require training but remove a tendency for documents and files to disappear, whether inadvertently or otherwise. There is a big difference between a document management system (network defender) and a case management system (document management). The terms are misleading. Document management systems organize and manage content with or without the use of integrated modules that support workflow and collaboration. They serve as the network gateway. Case management systems store legal documents, case and contact information, as well as billing and expenses, in one place. It is accessible to all who have a login. Case management could be considered a technology trend and document management as true technology or vice versa, but both have considerable significance.

Understanding firm technology is a critical component of any paralegal's job. This ranges from the firm's email software to audio-video equipment used in meetings and the courtroom. It means being able to fully use .pdf editors or navigate an external repository. Still, it means so much more! When faced with an en masse task, choosing an application to use to accomplish a goal successfully, efficiently, and without thwarting access to others is where you will score big career points.

My last but not least technology story involves a firm competition to save money. In a ceremonial introduction, the managing partner offered a $500 cash prize to the staff support person who identified the single, most cost-saving idea to the firm within a 30-day deadline. I had my answer written down before I left the room and gently tucked it in the suggestion box (Idea: stop attaching large documents to emails and link to them in a stored location instead). Much to my surprise, I won! The day my $500 cash prize was announced I was not present because I had just served out my two week notice. Why? I quit in order to avoid being repetitively bullied by a Wiccan who liked to cast spells on co-workers.

NOTE: The first anti-bullying legislation was passed in 1999 in Georgia. Now there is only one state without anti-bullying statutes (Montana). A majority of states have passed anti-bullying legislation, mainly in response to Colorado's Columbine Massacre and the suicide of Rebecca Sedgewick, a 12-year old in Florida. There are no federal protections from bullying to this day and the definition remains very subjective. Many employers implement voluntary anti-bullying policies but are often under no legislative requirement to do so.

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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.