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Academia vs. Reality

What they didn’t teach you in paralegal school.

By Debra Levy

January/February 2001 Table of Contents


Some paralegals argue the world of academia never truly prepared them for the working world. Still others say many educational institutions have made tremendous strides in preparing students for the employment arena.

Although the debate continues, paralegal educators and graduates agree that while, as in other professions, much can be taught in the way of theory and practice, one fact remains: Some things can’t be taught in school.

Learning the Basics

Kathryn Myers, coordinator of paralegal studies at Saint Mary of the Woods College in Terre Haute, Ind., said educators try hard to close the gap between what a paralegal curriculum can and can’t cover in preparing students for the real world. “There will always be some degree of reality they will have to deal with just because of the different personalities of employers,” she explained.

To give students as big a dose of reality as possible from the start, the Saint Mary of the Woods program requires students to take an introduction to the profession course, which introduces them to the legal world atmosphere and to the different types of people that inhabit it by inviting guest speakers to talk to them about what is going on in the field. To up that dose of reality, Myers encourages students to participate in both internships and the school’s mentoring program, which allows students to actually work in legal environments. Because students can spend up to five semesters in the mentoring program, and one semester in an internship, she said, a student can participate in as many as six different venues.

“Practical experience is crucial,” emphasized Myers, who was a paralegal for seven-and-a-half years and holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

Saint Mary of the Woods’ paralegal program faculty consists of four attorneys and two paralegals, whose personal experiences, Myers said, come in handy in the classroom.

One of Myers’ former students, Cathy Canny, a legal assistant at Dann Pecar Newman & Kleiman in Indianapolis, agreed. “The paralegals who taught classes shared their real-world experiences and gave us a good idea of what we could expect once we got there,” she said. “The entire program prepared us well for what lay ahead.”

Sherry Schrilla, a 1998 graduate of the paralegal certificate program at New York’s Syracuse University, said she received a great legal education ranging from the basics of how the court system works to the complexities of tort and criminal law. She learned about litigation, real estate, family law and estate law. But Schrilla, a litigation paralegal at the Syracuse firm of Costello Cooney & Fearon, was never taught how to file a pleading with the court during her time in the classroom. For her, it wasn’t a problem because both before and during her education, she worked as a legal secretary performing paralegal work. Many of her classmates who lacked legal knowledge prior to completing the Syracuse University program, were clueless about the mechanics of the legal practice.

“We were taught the essentials,” she said of the 10-month evening program, “but we weren’t taught the practical aspects of the job.” In speaking with her former classmates, she learned that on-the-job training included learning such details as the number of copies of a pleading to file and the amount of a filing fee. “It’s just like any other profession. There are just some things that you learn on the job,” she said.

Kathleen McRae, PLS, RP, who graduated in 1999 from Kapi’olani Community College’s paralegal program in Hawaii, experienced a school-to-work transition much like Schrilla’s. She, too, worked as a legal secretary before deciding to pursue a formal paralegal education. And like Schrilla, she found her academic experience to be a great foundation for her paralegal practice. But, she said, without any work experience, someone fresh out of school really isn’t equipped to be a paralegal. “You only get down to the nitty-gritty of ‘This is how it has to be done’ or ‘This is how the court requires this pleading to be’ when you walk into that office,” she said.

Finding a Balance

One aspect of the job Schrilla was not prepared for was the presumption of attorneys that paralegals can read their minds. “They have a lot of work and they think they have told you everything when they haven’t,” she said. Although with some lawyers, it’s possible to develop a sixth sense after working with them awhile, there are some instances in which you can’t anticipate their every thought.

“If a lawyer is thinking about a certain defense and doesn’t tell you about it, it’s impossible for you to anticipate what should be happening down the road,” she said. Her solution? “Ask a lot of questions. Use e-mail a lot — you get a quick answer and it’s in writing, so there’s no misunderstanding.”

Even though she had worked as a legal secretary, Schrilla was not accustomed to the considerable egos of some attorneys. Getting used to what she jokingly refers to as the “God complex” took some time. At first, she said she took personally the tendency of some lawyers to condescend and to make unreasonable demands. With time, she learned to stand up for herself, something she said is a skill no one else could have taught her.

McRae has worked for the same attorney — solo practitioner Charles H. Brower — since beginning her legal career when she moved to Hawaii 10 years ago. Her prior work experience, both inside and outside the legal field, helped to prepare her for the interpersonal aspects of the practice. If Kapi’olani had offered a course covering issues such as working with other support staff or dealing with lawyer egos, she would not have taken it.

“I’m 53 years old. I’ve been working a long time, and have stayed a long time in each job I’ve had. I know how to get along with people. But someone who has never been in the workforce would probably benefit from such a course,” she said.

Timing is Everything

Shrilla was also unprepared for the constant need to prioritize multiple assignments and juggle her ever-changing workload. She said she would have benefited significantly from a time management course or seminar that offered tips on how to deal with the demands and deadlines of the job, especially when she works with more than one attorney.

While Schrilla said she recognizes that “some people are just born with the ability to manage everything under the sun with ease,” she doesn’t consider herself one of them. So she taught herself to be flexible, to put in the extra hours necessary to complete her work and to keep a positive attitude. She gives each of the attorneys who give her assignments a list of her current projects so everyone is on the same page when it comes to balancing her workload. “They’re usually good about not giving me assignments for a while until I get caught up,” she said.

At Saint Mary of the Woods, the practical aspects of the legal world are discussed in both the introductory course and a practicum that students take in their last semester.

“We cover time management — a person’s responsibilities to family, friends and employer,” Myers said. Students are required to take a psychology course and a sociology course and can enroll in a “life learning” course through the liberal arts school’s general studies program. There, she said, they gain additional knowledge about how to manage time and stress and how to work in groups.

Similar instruction is provided in the paralegal studies program at Suffolk University in Boston in a seminar that accompanies the internship program. Program Director Lynne Dahlborg said she frames the issue to encourage her students to consider the type of jobs they will seek upon graduation.

“Are they willing to put in long hours? If not, or if they have family responsibilities that limit their freedom to put in endless hours, working in a government office may be the best place. Lower pay, but good benefits and regular hours,” she said.

Another problem faced by many paralegals — and a problem about which they are not taught in school — is the lack of secretarial or clerical support. Until recently, Schrilla shared a secretary with four other paralegals. But when the firm lost several secretaries, hers was reassigned to some attorneys.

“My billable hours have gone way down because I have had to take over writing enclosure letters, photocopying, scheduling depositions and filing,” Schrilla said, “My efficiency would go through the roof if I had a secretary again.” Regardless, learning to work with a secretary — or without one — isn’t something that can be taught. “You just learn it as you go,” she said.

Bruce Hamm, Syracuse University’s director of professional legal education programs, explained that, while his program offers an optional internship to acquire on-the-job skills, there is no focus on secretarial or clerical tasks. “We assume that students will pick up those skills outside our program,” he said. Suffolk University’s Dahlborg emphasizes to students late in their studies that they must decide how much, if any, secretarial or clerical work they are willing to do. “I tell them that outside downtown [Boston], in smaller firms, they are likely to experience more pressure to combine the [paralegal and clerical] jobs, and that their pay will likely be lower,” she explained.

And, across the continent at Yavapai Community College in Prescott, Ariz., Paralegal Program Coordinator Susan Howery said she advises students that they may have a combination of duties, particularly in rural areas such as Yavapai County, where they may be called upon to do clerical or secretarial tasks along with substantive legal work.

“As a result, I counsel students into keyboarding courses and other secretarial courses, which may help them. But they are not required courses and students may decide not to add them to their already rigorous schedules,” she said. The program does require all students to take a business communications course to help them develop both verbal and written office skills.

Sharing What You Learned

Schrilla shares her experiences with future colleagues and former professors. To paralegal students, her real-world advice is basic but crucial: “Take advantage of opportunities to go to the courthouse and talk to the clerks. Find out how the system works by being in it,” she said. “During your legal research course, go to the law library and do extra research on your own. Watch a trial. If you already work in a law firm, ask to sit in on a deposition. If you don’t, be a ghost — be a shadow. Follow a working paralegal around for a while and watch what she does and how she does it.”

When she compares notes with Hamm, her former instructor at Syracuse University, Schrilla said she suggests that his program offer continuing education to paralegals to “take them to the next level of the profession.” She has also discussed the time management issue with Hamm. “He takes these suggestions very seriously,” she said. “He’s working on developing a program to incorporate those types of issues.” Indeed, Hamm said the program has recently added a law office technology course that explores such things as time and billing, file management and law office management.

McRae’s advice to newly educated paralegals is to continue studying. “The education doesn’t stop when you walk out the [school] door. Take CLE courses. Don’t give up the learning process,” she said.

And to those contemplating a paralegal career, she said, “If you find you don’t have a great interest in the field after two to three courses, if you can’t relate to the war stories told by your professors, change your career. You really have to love it.”

Schrilla said she has found that the biggest surprise to many new graduates is the heavy workload that often comes with a paralegal career. “It just bowls them over,” she said. “They think a paralegal job is from 9 to 5. It doesn’t happen that way. You get the work done first, then you get to go home.” Although graduates may have heard it in school or from practicing paralegals, she said it doesn’t really hit them until they are actually working themselves.

Canny visits regularly with entry-level paralegals in her various roles in local paralegal and bar organizations. Her advice to them on how to advance in the profession is simple and straightforward: Get involved in local and national paralegal associations because they are the best resource for networking with and getting guidance from experienced paralegals; get involved in the local bar association to network with attorneys; and subscribe to professional publications.

On the job, she tells new professionals to be team players by learning to work well with everyone and getting to know them, from the courier to the attorney to the cleaning crew. Become familiar with resources within the firm and on the Internet — becoming the repository for that information will greatly increase your value to your employer. Constantly seek opportunities to learn through CLE and other programs. And last, but certainly not least, perform every assignment in a thorough and professional manner because your employer will not give you bigger ones if the smaller ones are not done to the best of your ability.

True Perception

Schrilla said she has detected no difference between what she was taught her role as a paralegal would be and what it really has been in the workplace. Syracuse University prepared her to be a key player.

“I was taught that I would be a professional, that I would have significant responsibility, that I would prepare documents and that I would work with clients,” she said. And, now that as a practicing paralegal, she said the perception of the general public is also what she was told it would be. “People see that it’s a big job. I hear all the time, ‘It’s the paralegals who do all the work,’” she said.

Canny said her biggest postgraduation surprise — and one for which she was not fully prepared — was how much a paralegal’s job varies from firm to firm and position to position. “What we were taught in school was the basic role of a paralegal is not always the same as it is in the real world,” she said. As for how the public perceives paralegals, Canny has the sense that people are mostly unsure about what a legal assistant does, rather than having an erroneous view of a paralegal’s job. She related a story about a high school student who shadowed her for a day and, at the end, expressed surprise that Canny didn’t spend all her time locked in the library doing research.

“People are just not sure about what a paralegal’s duties are,” she explained. “But then, some attorneys aren’t, either.”

Closing the Gap

Hamm said he agrees with Canny’s view that the reality gap has more to do with the variety of job situations a graduate may encounter.

“For instance, in a large office, paralegals may specialize more, while in a small office, they may be expected to be a ‘jack of all trades.’ Offices that are more computer literate will value a different set of skills,” he said. Some paralegals choose to work in less-traditional legal environments, such as corporate settings, legal aid offices and related occupations, such as real estate, insurance, and abstracting.

“I think it is virtually impossible to anticipate all of the various needs that different employers may have, and thus a gap is bound to exist,” he said. He said Syracuse University is planning to implement a four-year degree program in addition to its certificate program because, he said, “We believe the needs of employers to have graduates ‘job ready’ is critical to their success. But there is no substitute for experience and actual learning on the job.”

Howery concurred.

“We cannot teach to all styles and methods and we certainly cannot teach all of the substantive law or procedure students will need when they begin working. What we do provide is the framework for working in any law office, and we provide the tools for students to find answers and a level of comfort concerning legal concepts and drafting documents and forms,” she explained.

It’s a combination of that education along with practical legal training experiences that Brent Mills, an Oklahoma-based attorney and partner with Phillips McFall McCaffrey McVay & Murrah, said he looks for when his firm trains new legal assistants.

Mills explained although he typically hires for a particular area of law, he recognizes the likelihood that newly educated paralegals with little or no experience probably took a broad range of courses and therefore may not have a specialized expertise. Additionally, he said he recognizes each firm has its own way of doing things — necessitating some degree of training for any paralegal regardless of previous experience.

“There is a tremendous gap between [being schooled] in any profession and what the real world is like. You must bridge that gap through affiliation with other competent professionals who can train you,” Mills said.

Dahlborg said the best legal assistant educators and programs are working hard to bridge the inevitable reality gap. She explained that most paralegal programs are more oriented to practical application of classroom instruction than traditional liberal arts programs.

“We are asking our students to learn theory and to apply that theory,” she said. “What can’t be taught is a consistent way to help students see the connection between the classroom and work world. But good educators are always trying, and good students do ‘get it,’ at least some of the time.”



Debra Levy is an Oklahoma writer and former paralegal. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism and is a frequent contributor to Legal Assistant Today.



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