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Voices of Experience

Paralegals with 20 plus years of experience share their tips for success in an ever-changing profession.
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.

In the Beginning
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 assistant].”

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 said.

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 teaching children.

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 said.

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 Education
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 bachelor’s degree.”

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 assistants:

  • 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 sector.”

Tip 2: Stand Out
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 working with.”

Tip 3: Find a Specialty
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 education.

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 learning.”

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 not.”

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 said.

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 Learning
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 explained.

“Be open to learning, especially if you are fresh out of college,” Goodbody said. “Pay attention to continuing education classes.”

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 Involved
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 help.”

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 networks.”

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 Satisfied
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 the spot.

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,” she said.

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.

Rachel Campbell is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, and is a former associate editor of LAT and Law Office Computing. Campbell graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in print journalism.

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