of law for the nontraditional paralegal.
By Janet Roberts
November/December 2005 Issue
interpretation of a paralegal’s work paints a picture of diligent
professionals working in real estate, corporate law, trial preparation,
divorce work, bankruptcy filings, estates and probate work, and more.
But some paralegals use their legal training and skills in settings they
never dreamed of. Four such paralegals tell exciting tales of blazing
trails in unique areas of law and loving their work.
Advocacy: Sharon G. Robertson, CLAS
Sharon Robertson received her bachelor’s degree in secondary education
in 1976 from the
Tucson, and an associate’s degree as a paralegal technician in 1985. She
worked for eight years as a legal secretary and later as a paralegal for
a five-attorney firm in Morganton, N.C., doing primarily corporate and
real estate work.
Then, she heard
about a paralegal position with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services
Inc. in 1989. “I have not looked back since,” said Robertson, a
Certified Legal Assistant with a civil litigation specialty and a member
of the National Association of Legal Assistants.
NCPLS is a
nonprofit organization that provides legal services to more than 37,000
inmates, male and female, in 78 state prison units located across North
Carolina, as well as 250,000 people
incarcerated in the
98 county jails throughout the state. Robertson has worked for NCPLS’
western office since September 1989, and handles a variety of legal
matters involving prison conditions and criminal convictions. According
to Robertson, it’s NCPLS’ mission to make sure inmates in state prisons
and county jails receive the basic necessities of life and that the
courts accord them the safeguards and guarantees provided by law.
Through her work, she acts on behalf of North Carolina residents to enforce societal standards of morality and
decency to ensure humane and lawful treatment of people in custody of
advocates, such as myself, provide the checks and balances that are
critical to our justice system,” Robertson said. “One need look no
further than the Abu Ghraib prison incident in Iraq to appreciate the
importance of our work.”
One of the first
questions she was asked during her job interview with NCPLS was whether
she could handle talking to a convicted inmate inside a prison or jail
without a guard physically standing in the room — something she never
had to do at her previous job — but she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “I
can still recall the first time I was escorted into the bowels of a
prison unit to interview a client,” Robertson said. “I heard the clang
of the steel doors close behind me as I walked into the prison. I prayed
there would not be any electrical blackout while I was there.”
later, she said she can count on one hand the number of rude comments
or threatening encounters she has experienced and said in almost all
instances the inmates are very polite. She said she treats inmates with
the same respect she would any person and provides them with all the
professional courtesy they deserve, and finds the inmates return the
Robertson’s area of
expertise is in civil rights. She currently is the paralegal for the
Safe & Humane Jails Project, an initiative primarily funded by the North
Carolina State Bar’s Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program. She
mainly focuses on conditions of confinement for pretrial detainees,
which include complaints about inadequate medical services, substandard
or dangerous living conditions, threats to physical health and safety
from other inmates, and abuse by prison officials. She reviews and
responds to correspondence, identifies legal issues, conducts
investigations with clients and witnesses to obtain information and
facts about the situation, researches legal questions, and monitors
conditions through records reviews and inspection tours in county jails.
When needed, she provides litigation support.
Prior to contact
with an inmate, Robertson rarely looks at the person’s criminal record
or what charges he or she is facing. She said she feels such information
might adversely affect her ability to assess the inmate’s credibility
and might cloud her attitude toward the inmate. The criminal record is
available to her after the interview is conducted. She always is careful
never to place herself in any situation that compromises her safety when
interviewing an inmate.
“Every person is
entitled to be treated with a certain degree of respect,” Robertson
said. “Given the huge number of people who are incarcerated in this
country and the trend toward locking up ever-increasing numbers of
people, there is a great need for the type of legal assistance provided
Robertson said she
sees a lot of positives to her line of paralegal work. She works with
clients who desperately need legal assistance and in almost all
circumstances don’t have the financial means to retain a private
attorney. She is able to make a difference in improving the living
conditions in a jail or prison while “stretching and growing” in an area
of law that has many facets and changes.
Robertson said she
likes being able to comfort and support clients or family members by
listening to their concerns and explaining the complicated, rigid prison
structure. The only negatives for her come in meeting inmates who are
smart, intelligent people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or
finding herself unable to correct an injustice or resolve a legitimate
problem for an inmate.
“I enjoy working
for NCPLS because of the challenges, the assistance I provide our
clients, and the respect I am given by my peers and colleagues,”
Robertson said. “Each client inquiry and file presents a new set of
factual issues that challenge my substantive knowledge and reasoning
abilities, and stimulates my growth and professional knowledge.”
Paralegal: Robert H. Graham
When Robert Graham was a paralegal student at William Rainey Harper
College in Palatine, Ill., heading for his first internship with a legal
services agency, he never imagined he would join the Long Term Care
Ombudsman Program full time. Graham already had degrees in mathematical
science and philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that
he received in 1979, and had been working as a bank teller while going
to school at night for his certificate in paralegal studies, which he
received in 2000.
The Long Term Care
Ombudsman Program later merged with the Legal Assistance Foundation of
Metropolitan Chicago, where Graham now works. Because his internship
covered Social Security and public aid law, it was a natural transition
from there to advocating for residents of skilled and intermediate
nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and some sheltered care.
He primarily handles long-term care issues and is required to be
knowledgeable in the areas of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“I like the fact
that I am not behind a desk all day,” Graham said. “As John LeCarre
said, ‘A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.’ Since
I am in the field so much, I really am challenged to be creative and
think on my feet.”
During visits to
nursing home facilities, he meets with the president of the resident
council to get an idea of any general issues. He then randomly
interviews residents and families that might be visiting loved ones.
Graham teaches them how to advocate for themselves to correct problems
and sometimes, with the resident’s consent, formulates a plan to
advocate for them. He also responds to complaints to the intake
department at his office, whether from families, residents or the
facility. Funded by the state, Graham’s program advocates for residents
at least 60 years old in skilled nursing facilities, intermediate care
facilities, sheltered care facilities, assisted living facilities,
supportive living facilities, and intermediate care facilities for the
developmentally disabled. Graham said there are some challenges in his
job. “It takes a high energy level to work with residents who often take
a long time to explain their complaint or to understand what I am
advising as a solution,” he said.
residents at Medicaid appeal hearings and soon will be trained to
represent residents on appeals of Medicare Durable Equipment decisions.
His legal research covers a broad array of issues involving the Nursing
Home Care Act, the Department of Public Health rules and regulations,
and Medicare and Medicaid questions. He and the attorney for the
ombudsman project jointly prepare for involuntary discharge hearings and
represent Medicaid appeals that involve denial of eligibility, improper
calculation of spend-down and improper calculation of spousal
The nursing home
facility staff members frequently rely on a resident’s agent or
representative in making decisions about a resident’s care, according to
Graham, rather than taking direction from the resident. He said
residents don’t understand and assert their rights because they fear
recrimination from the facility’s staff. “Certainly the most pressing
needs are the residents’ rights to be treated with dignity and respect,”
There are several
pending proposals before the U.S. Congress concerning Medicaid that
would make eligibility much more stringent. One such proposal, Medicare
Part D, will have a significant impact on Graham’s work as most nursing
home residents are dually eligible under Medicare and Medicaid, with
Medicaid currently paying for all the medications nursing home residents
need. In January 2006, these individuals will be required to select
among Medicare Part D plans, none of which cover the medications they
need such as barbiturates or benzodiazepines — two pain-relieving
medications used in nursing homes.
Graham’s field work
kicks in when a facility wants to evict a nursing home resident. First,
the facility must serve a 30-day Notice of Involuntary Discharge on the
resident, as well as on the Illinois Department of Public Health and the
Regional Ombudsman. Graham’s supervisor, Robyn O’Neill, is the regional
ombudsman. She is a licensed attorney and registered nurse. When O’Neill
is served with a 30-day notice, Graham visits the resident to determine
if he or she has the capacity to understand the issue, then advises the
resident of his or her rights.
For the first 10
days after the 30-day notice period, the resident might request a
hearing to determine if the facility has the grounds for eviction.
Graham visits the resident early enough in that 10-day time frame to
make sure he or she can, in fact, request an appeal. If O’Neill
determines that the facility’s grounds to evict have no merit or the
30-day notice is deficient, she can offer to represent the resident at
the hearing before an administrative law judge from the Illinois
Department of Public Health.
Graham assists in
preparing for that hearing by checking to see if a Medicaid application
has been submitted, and if so, whether Medicaid has not offered a final
determination of eligibility, which would result in dismissal of the
30-day notice. If the grounds for eviction are nonpayment, Graham works
with the nursing home bookkeeper to determine the exact amount
outstanding. Graham often is second chair to O’Neill in the hearings.
They work to make sure the resident’s rights are protected, and the
family is willing to agree to a payment plan if one is offered by the
facility or they make sure the resident is transferred to a safe and
appropriate location if the facility wins the eviction.
said his job is rewarding: “I experience great satisfaction from being
the voice of elderly residents and helping them to find the courage to
use their own voice.”
Janet Roberts is a freelance writer and manager of communications
for The Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case Western
Reserve University in Cleveland.