Voices of Experience
Paralegals with 20
plus years of experience share their tips for success in an
By Rachel Campbell
January/February 2004 Issue
“Glorified legal secretary” — it’s a
paralegal’s most hated phrase, and for good reason. Yet, only 20 years
ago, the phrase symbolized the uncertain opinion many had of what was
then an emerging legal sector. Attorneys often didn’t know how to
properly utilize paralegals, and legal assistants themselves were still
learning exactly what their place in the legal arena would be.
In the two decades or more since the
legal assistant community began to form, hard-working paralegals have
fought to eradicate the derogatory moniker of “glorified legal
secretary” by taking charge of their profession. Through networking,
education programs, the fight to establish standards on state and
federal levels, and through the hard work they commit to their jobs
everyday, paralegals have struggled to be recognized as a vital part of
the professional legal team.
The experienced paralegals you will read
about here come from the trenches of this battle for professionalism.
They have seen the scope of their work broaden, along with respect of
the attorneys with whom they have worked. Their ability to reach beyond
mere clerical tasks and provide substantive contributions to the work at
hand has helped, in ways both large and small, to raise the level of
consciousness among attorneys and clients regarding the essence of their
profession. These paralegals, and many like them, lend their voices to
the call for higher standards and higher goals.
Twenty years ago, the road to becoming a legal assistant was
largely undefined. With no real educational requirements and a lack of
certainty about the position, people stumbled into the profession in a
variety of ways.
Bonnie Goodbody has 25 years of
experience and is a paralegal at Troutman Sanders in Richmond, Va. She
left business school uncertain of the direction to take, but said being
a legal secretary simply “made sense.” Once she started as a legal
secretary, Goodbody said she decided to go back to college with the
intention of eventually attending law school. “I was working toward my
degree in English and, at that point, I was already working as a
paralegal,” she said. “I just sort of fell into it and stayed in. It
helped me in getting my degree, and my degree helped me in my
profession. I enjoyed the mental challenge of [being a legal
Linda Omundsen, a paralegal for 27 years
and currently working at Troutman Sanders in Atlanta, also started as a
secretary. “The first day, [the supervising attorney] asked if I wanted
to be a paralegal, and a few years later I was working as one,” she
Others took a more circuitous route.
Valerie Chaffin, paralegal at Hunton and William in Raleigh, N.C., who
has been in the profession for 22 years, was originally an elementary
school teacher until an accident brought her home to care for her father
one summer. “He got well fast and I decided to stay and get my master’s
in education. I went to Fayetteville Technology Community College in
Fayetteville, N.C., to take a business course I needed, but the only
business course available was an introduction to paralegal course. I
took the course and fell in love with the curriculum. I thought it was
just the coolest thing,” she said.
Chaffin planned to continue teaching
while doing paralegal work during the summers, but after an internship
with a local practitioner she was sold on the law and never returned to
A posting for a new paralegal program at
Santa Clara University Law School in Santa Clara, Calif., intrigued Jean
Cushman, a paralegal at Hopkins and Carley in San Jose, Calif., and
veteran of 25 years. “The program was just starting. Santa Clara
University has a great reputation, so I thought I would try it,” she
With so many years of experience among
them, these paralegals have a wealth of knowledge to pass on to
paralegals just entering the profession and those interested in joining
the ranks. All four paralegals agree the profession offers unlimited
opportunities to continue learning and to be part of a continuously
evolving legal community. With the right combination of skills,
including technological know-how and education, a paralegal can reach
maximum levels of achievement and satisfaction. The following tips from
these seasoned paralegals can help lead you in the right direction.
Tip 1: Get an
Today, increased interest in the profession, as well as
competition for jobs is pushing law firms to only consider hiring
paralegals with a college degree or those who have attended a paralegal
program. “The market has driven an education requirement,” Chaffin said.
“Larger firms will not hire a paralegal without a degree. I think we are
at that point where there should be a minimum requirements of a
Omundsen said she thinks education
requirement vary from firm to firm. “[The profession] is going more
toward educational requirements and certification because there are more
paralegals. When I first started, paralegals were not so prevalent.”
At Troutman Sanders, Goodbody said
paralegals are required to have a college degree. “From my own
perspective, larger law firms really do like that college degree. They
want paralegals that do everything but argue in court. They want people
who can sit down with the case — someone who can pick up a case file and
know what to do and then do it,” she said.
Chaffin said she believes her education
instilled a sense of security when she first started as a paralegal.
“When I walked into the law firm, I was a paralegal. I was confident,”
she said. “If paralegals want to do a good job, they should have some
background. I don’t think you can get it all on the job.”
Cushman pointed to four reasons higher
educational standards are becoming more important for entry-level legal
- A growing experienced paralegal
pool is pushing entry-level paralegals to be more qualified.
- The paralegal profession often is
the individual’s second profession, including former teachers who
often have post-graduate credentials. This instantly raises the bar
for entry-level paralegals.
- Increased interest in attaining a
professional designation is indicative of the profession’s push for
higher educational standards.
- As a self-regulated profession,
many states define by statute or through the courts, a minimal
education standard to call oneself a paralegal.
Cushman has been an active supporter of
instituting a statutory education requirement in her home state of
California, where paralegals now must meet specified educational
requirements and participate in continuing education. “I am very proud
of California’s statutory definition of paralegal and the minimum
educational requirements to call oneself a paralegal and to continue to
be a paralegal,” she said.
All four paralegals agreed it’s much
less likely for a person to wander into the field without the proper
education and preparation as often happened 20 years ago. In fact,
entering the field with a bachelor’s degree is almost a necessity.
“I know it’s a requirement where I work
and a requirement for every large firm in the Richmond area,” Goodbody
said. “I look over the want ads every Sunday and I see more and more
firms asking for someone with a bachelor’s degree, not so much in
smaller firms, but definitely in large firms and in the corporate
Tip 2: Stand
Law is constantly changing and with every modification, law
firms must adjust and keep pace. The paralegal profession has grown into
an integral and necessary part of the legal process, but that was not
always the case.
“We [paralegals] were really a novelty
to start out. Something they patted on the head and showed off. We
really weren’t utilized,” said Cushman, who remembers attorneys felt
they needed a paralegal, but didn’t necessarily know why. In fact,
Cushman had to tell her supervising attorneys about her educational
background before they realized her potential in the firm.
Such was the situation for Goodbody when
she started at her current law firm 11 years ago. “When I started here,
I was bates stamping … anyone could do it. Once they found out I had
experience in personal injury, things changed,” she said.
Goodbody said she has noticed attorneys
depend on paralegals more nowadays and often expect legal assistants to
do associate-level work.
Although paralegals have made huge
strides during the past two decades, there is room for more growth,
Chaffin said. “We are still underutilized and underpaid, but they
[attorneys] are coming along,” she said. “I have seen my profession
become a profession. It’s an assistant to another profession, but it’s a
profession in itself.”
So, how do paralegals get noticed in the
office? Never underestimate the value of initiative and hard work.
Goodbody said volunteering for projects and taking the initiative to get
work done on your own will get the attention of lead attorneys.
“I go out and find answers to my
questions,” Omundsen said. “It’s easy to ask the attorney how to do this
or that. If you find the answer yourself, the attorney will appreciate
it. It’s very important you put out an effort before you ask questions.
It’s a reason they will give you additional responsibility and work.”
Possessing a strong presence in the
office also goes a long way. “Visibility is a large part of job
assignments. Attorneys want work done now, and if you are passing by
when there is a project, you will get the nod,” Cushman said. “When
attorneys see high-caliber paralegal work, they will automatically begin
to think of that paralegal when passing out projects. Each project
extremely well done will reap another.”
It’s also important to remember you are
not alone in the office. “Maintain civility in the office. It’s a
landmine for personality conflicts. I think attorneys will find
paralegals valuable by the knowledge and experience they have and how
they get along with others,” Chaffin said.
On the same note, Cushman said, “It’s important to find a group of
attorneys and support staff you are compatible with. It really is a team
effort and you need to be compatible with the individuals you will be
Tip 3: Find a
As law has become more specialized into categories, such as
corporate, real estate and environmental, to name a few, so has the
movement toward hiring paralegals with specialized interests or
Coming into a law firm with a
specialized area of study or experience is valuable, Cushman said. “I
started as a generalist and moved to a private firm where I did real
estate law. Where I am currently employed, I was hired as a real estate
paralegal. Then one day, real estate died in this area. I needed to find
something else to do because I wanted to stay with the firm. I went
around the office and found another area I was familiar with,” she said.
Cushman said she benefited from having a
background in litigation, construction law and corporate law. Because of
this, she was able to transition into a position with the corporate
transactional law department of Hopkins and Carley.
Moving into an area of specialization
sometimes takes a matter of time. “As I gained experience, it allowed me
to grow into a specialized area,” Chaffin said. “It [environmental law]
was such a different area of law, I almost had to start over. I am still
Sometimes finding an area of specialty
is as simple as deciding what you like to do. Omundsen said she works in
trusts and estates at Troutman Sanders because she enjoys working with
people. “I feel like I am contributing to something, like I’m helping
people,” she said.
Similarly, Cushman said she enjoys
working in her field of business transactional law because she is able
to help people fulfill their dreams of forming a business. In
particular, she said she remembers two young men just out of college who
had a business idea and wanted to incorporate. “It was just delightful
to be on the periphery and watch them grow. They had an idea and put
together a plan. I do believe even in this down economy, they are still
doing business,” she said.
Tip 4: Take
Advantage of Technology
An obvious area of change for paralegals came with the
evolving technology used in the field. First, electric typewriters, and
then computers helped speed the process of creating documents, and
helped move cases along in a much more efficient matter.
“When I started, the IBM Selectric III
typewriter was it. It flew and I could do my job quickly. I could
prepare a complaint in one hour,” Chaffin said. “When we finally moved
to a computer, I didn’t like it. I really didn’t get accustomed to it
until I went into a real estate firm and did a closing statement in
minutes, rather than four hours.”
With so many technology changes in such
a short amount of time, paralegals needed to combine training courses
with hands-on experience to tackle new programs. Today, large firms
often have an advantage when it comes to technology and training by
offering in-house training programs.
“I am with a big firm with in-house
software and hardware people,” said Chaffin, who uses Summation, Carpe
Diem, RealLegal E-binder and Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint on the job.
“We are required to take classes on all the software we have. On top of
that, to maintain my CLA certification, I go to tech seminars.”
Goodbody, who primarily uses Westlaw,
LexisNexis and medical research Web sites in her job, said she had some
training courses, but learned a lot on her own. “When you come into a
large firm, they will train you on their system. As far as doing
Internet research, I pretty much trained myself,” she said.
Smaller firms are at a disadvantage, but
Cushman said she found a way to work around it. “I learn on an ‘as
needed’ basis. The problem with that, of course, is when the firm sends
you to a half-day training class, you don’t know the particular software
package at all, so you don’t know the questions you will need to have
answered. In addition, if you don’t use the software again and again
soon after the training, you lose whatever it is you learned,” she said.
“I have learned new systems by trial and error and by tutorials
patiently given by my fantastic assistant, a young woman who has been
brought up with computers and technology. Some of the larger firms have
outstanding training programs, but I work in a mid-size firm that does
Laptops and cell phones also have
enabled paralegals and attorneys to take their office work on the road.
At Hunton and Williams, there are loaner laptops available for the
paralegals to take with them if they need to work from home or go on the
road for a trial. “They have a reasonably reliable offsite system we can
tap into. If I am 1,000 miles away, I can access the office,” Chaffin
The paralegals agreed it’s important to
know and learn the programs your firm uses and the programs you will be
using in your job. Technology use can vary widely, from Internet
research sites to databases to client relationship managers.
Tip 5: Keep
All four paralegals agreed the ever-evolving legal world
keeps their jobs fresh and interesting. Whether it’s learning new things
about the law or about things they can personally accomplish, the
profession is ripe with valuable experiences.
“You never come to a point where you
know everything. You are learning something everyday,” Omundsen
“Be open to learning, especially if you
are fresh out of college,” Goodbody said. “Pay attention to continuing
Cushman suggested one way to continue
learning is to earn the CLA certification. “I find the trend today with
career-minded paralegals is to obtain the CLA designation,” she said.
Other paralegals associations offer
professional designations, as well. For example, National Federation of
Paralegal associations offers the Registered Paralegal designation after
passing its PACE exam.
New cases also bring a flood of new
learning experiences. For Chaffin, two particular cases occurring at the
same time made an impact on her life and career she said she never will
forget. One case was for a paying client, Trinity Foam, and the other
was a pro bono case representing Capital Towers Retirement Community.
The case involving Trinity Foam was an environmental air-quality case in
which the neighbors of the company complained about drinking water and
particles in the air allegedly making them sick. Chaffin’s firm
represented Trinity Foam, which was eventually shut down. The pro bono
case involved 300 retirement community residents who charged that the
landlord was stealing from them.
Both cases occurred throughout the
course of three years and if Chaffin had not worked on both at the same
time, she said she would be in a different place today. “If I had just
the pro bono case, it would have pulled me away from the law firm
because it was so fulfilling. If I had just the other case … I wouldn’t
want to be a paralegal anymore. One helped the other. One paid for one.
The other kept me in it. I was grateful,” she said.
Tip 6: Become
Having seen the profession evolve into what it is today, all
four paralegals have a firm knowledge of what paralegals, new and
seasoned, can do to get the most out of their jobs: Gain a valuable
network of colleagues by joining a paralegal association.
“I would have become so bored if I had
not become involved,” Cushman said. “It helps make your career much more
enjoyable and fulfilling. Basically, you form a network by getting in
with your local association and meeting people in the same specialty
area. If you have a question, you can call a colleague and ask for
Goodbody agreed. “They [paralegal
associations] have lots of opportunities. Be proactive about going out
and learning more,” she said.
“It’s vital. I’m lucky I have a local
one [association] that is fabulous,” Chaffin said. “That is where my
networking occurs. The membership fees are worth every penny. I strongly
recommend it for networking skills and for making friends. Also, the
better jobs are mostly gotten through people you know through these
Of course, not all paralegals can gain
as much through joining an association. “I think, because my area [trust
and estates] is so defined, there aren’t as many paralegals in it,”
Omundsen said. “Associations aren’t as beneficial.”
Tip 7: Stay
These experienced paralegals have several suggestions to help
new paralegals gain fulfillment in the profession and in their
individual professional choices. One way to do this is to research the
various types of firms available before taking a job.
“I would say, go online and do salary
searches and reviews. There is a wide discrepancy between salaries.
Larger firms pay more, but are you going to be happy in a larger firm?
Small firms don’t pay as much or have as many benefits, but it might be
more relaxed. Know which sort of environment you would thrive in. If you
are not the type of person that can work well under pressure, this is
not the profession for you,” Goodbody said.
The type of field a paralegal enters
also indicates whether schedules can be more flexible or whether work
can be done from home. In most cases, the paralegals said, it’s
necessary to be in the office to deal with circumstances that arise on
However, Goodbody said she is able to
work from home using a laptop when necessary.
“I am a single mother with an
11-year-old at home. As long as you can bill clients, you can work from
even a bathroom if you want. At smaller firms, this is probably not the
case,” she said.
Such is the case for Cushman. “My
experience is that attorneys want to see you physically present,
available at any time, and they are not the least amenable to flex time
or job sharing or other work modes utilized in the high-tech industry,”
Overall, benefits have improved during
the past 20 years for the profession. “In the old days the basic benefit
was medical insurance, before the HMOs came along,” Cushman said. “There
was no overtime pay, my office was the size of a closet and I paid my
own parking. Today’s benefits include savings plans, medical, dental and
vision coverage, and perks, which the smart employer will utilize when a
raise or bonus is not possible.”
Although benefits have improved,
paralegals also are at the mercy of the economy and the declining
billable hour, Chaffin said.
“People are hanging on to jobs and
sacrificing things. Before, they [firms] were not paying more but
offering benefits. Now they don’t pay and are cutting benefits. We are
the ones that are cut before the legal secretary and lawyer,” she said.
The unstable economy and uncertainty
about the profession could put a lot of pressure on paralegals. Be aware
of burnout, said Chaffin, who has taught an ethics class for the
paralegal program at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., for 10 years.
One of Chaffin’s former students was jailed for embezzling hundreds of
thousands of dollars from her supervising attorney.
“I worked for 20 years to bring the
profession up and this one person comes along and wipes it away. … Folks
that aren’t trusting of us [paralegals], will hold this up as an
example. If you don’t like what you are doing in this profession, get
out,” Chaffin said. “This profession is a marvelous profession, but
burnout is real, fatigue is real.”
Keys To Success
Nearly 100 years of combined experience can’t be wrong, and
these paralegals have proven dedication and a love of the profession
will bring satisfaction and enjoyment to the job. It takes work to
continue learning, to prove your worth to attorneys and to keep abreast
of changing technology and economy. With the right attitude and
perseverance, the next generation of paralegals will continue the
progress these paralegals have fought so hard to attain.