Saturday, September 20, 2008

What's In Your Wallet?

Would you pass up a raise? I'm sure the answer is 'No!' If you aren't taking advantage of benefits offered by your employer, though, you may be passing up a big pay hike.

Why should you be interested in those benefits? Some will result in a tax savings to you. Others will have a positive impact on your future, including your ability to transfer to a different practice area or department (which could result in an increase in salary) and the funds you will have on hand when you retire. Some will improve your quality of life. Here are a few possibilities you'll want to check for:

Health Insurance. This is a number one priority. Be sure to enroll your first day on the job.

401(k) Plan. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, be sure to enroll and make regular contributions, regardless of your employer's contributions. There are tax benefits. For many of us, these funds and our Social Security benefits will be our only retirement income. The Department of Labor requires that if an employer has a 401(k) Plan, it must be offered to you once you qualify for it. Don't let your employer 'forget' to offer it to you.

Section 125 Plan. A Section 125 plan provides tax savings by reducing employee medical premiums from gross salary prior to calculation of federal income and Social Security taxes. This is one I take full advantage of. It's difficult to predict your total expenses for the coming year (and you are stuck with your prediction, even if you didn't calculate having to have a root canal!) but it's still worth doing.

Paid Time Off. Many employers have a 'use it or lose it' policy. Don't give up that time! Even if you don't lose it, do use your vacation and personal days (whatever it's called where you work) because the break will do wonders for your attitude and mental health.

College Tuition. This is another gimme. Don't delay! Never pass up an opportunity to improve your skills and increase your knowledge. If you can get tuition reimbursement, be sure to go for that degree. Having it may mean you'll be able to advance within the firm or the company. It may mean that you can get a better job with a higher salary somewhere else. Without it, you may be stuck where you are forever. And don't tell me it's too late to start your higher education adventure. The years will pass whether you do it or not.

Certifications. Passing a certification examination doesn't always result in a higher salary, but it never hurts to have it. In some cases, you absolutely cannot advance without it. The certification will demonstrate your discipline, your level of knowledge, your professionalism, and your credibility. There are other certifications besides those just for paralegal, such as the CPCU (Certified Property Casualty Underwriter) and CRM (Certified Risk Manager).

Professional Association Memberships. Even if you don't anticipate being an 'active' member (and I do encourage you to take that route), this is a great way to stay on top of what's happening in your profession. You'll have networking opportunities, as well as opportunities for continuing education.

Continuing Education. Again, never pass up a chance to upgrade your skills and expand your knowledge. Perhaps a course isn't exactly in line with what you do, but you never know where your life will take you and what you'll be working on down the road. You may work in bankruptcy right now, but IP may be in your future.

Publications and Books. Will your employer pay for subscriptions to professional journals? How about books for your practice area? Notary Public Commission. This is another 'no brainer.' You probably need this in your present employment and it 'travels' with you if you move on.

Gym Membership. Healthy employees are happier and more productive. You can find time in your day to get in some exercise...especially if your employer is paying for the gym membership.
Equipment. Will your employer pay for your cell phone plan? A BlackBerry? A laptop? Don't pass those up!

Your challenge: Know your benefits package inside and out. Sit down with the person in charge of benefits where you work and make sure you understand everything that's available to you. Find out what steps you have to take for each one, how you enroll, get approval, get reimbursed, etc. If you're taking college courses or attending continuing education programs, be sure to provide a report for your personnel file and keep a copy so that you will have the information for your next salary review. Your benefits can add up to more dollars in your pocket. You don't want to miss out on that!

© 2008 Vicki Voisin, Inc.

Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, e-zine or website? You can, so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, also known as The Paralegal Mentor, publishes the bi-weekly ezine ‘Strategies for Paralegals Seeking Excellence’ where she offers tips for paralegals and others who want to create lasting success in their personal and professional lives. Get tips and information at no cost at

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

RU Vetting?

Vetting has nothing to do with horses and cows! This is a process of examination and evaluation. Used as a verb, 'to vet' means 'to subject somebody or something to a careful examination or scrutiny, especially when this involves determining suitability for something.' This often translates to performing a background check.

Why would you vet? There are many reasons, but two purposes come to mind immediately: (1) to assist in gathering information on potential and seated jurors, information that could be used to pick jurors, dismiss jurors, and possibly influence jurors during opening and closing arguments; and (2) to verify the background your expert witnesses, as well as those of your opponent. Vetting might also include finding details about your client that will help your case.

A crucial step in preparation for trial is the vetting of an expert's credentials. For instance, a jury verdict in favor of Merck & Co. in a Vioxx trial was thrown out by a New Orleans federal judge when it was discovered that a cardiologist who testified for the defense lied about his credentials. In Toronto, a psychiatrist's license was suspended when it was discovered that he misrepresented his credentials when he served as an expert witness in two trials.

What tools can you use for vetting? There are major research services that will check on someone's background. However, there are many resources available on the Web that can also assist with researching an expert's background...and also the background of a lay witness or a juror, as well as your own client. Assuming surprises at trial aren't something you like to deal with, here are a few resources you can use:

Background Check: When you need to locate background information about a person, go to

Blogs: People create a permanent record (as in 'once in cyberspace, always in cyberspace') when they post entries and participate in discussions in blogs. Go toGoogle Blog Search or Clusty to see if a person maintains a blog. Then check their blog to see what they're saying.
Newsgroups and Discussion Lists: To find postings, use Google Groups where current groups are hosted and there is an archive from 1985 forward.

Podcasts: If you want to know if your expert or juror has said something relevant to your case in a podcast, try Podzinger.

Networking sites: People post their profiles, pictures, and all kinds of miscellaneous information about themselves on social networking sites. There are several out there: LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter are good places to start, but there are others.

Corporate Records: For information about publicly traded corporations, as well as information about individuals such as investments, education and employment history, try The US Securities and Exchange Edgar Data Base. Note that the SEC unveiled a successor to the EDGAR database. It is a new system called IDEA, short for Interactive Data Electronic Applications. IDEA will give investors faster and easier access to key financial information about public companies and mutual funds. Information is freely available to investors to vie them better and more up-to-date financial disclosure in a form they can easily use. For the immediate future, searching should continue within the EDGAR data base. Information will slowly be transitioned to the IDEA system.

Associations and Non-Profits: When you want more information about an association, its tax return may be the key. Not only are returns required for non-profits, but they are also public information. Try

Public Records: There are several sources for public records. Try Search Systems, Virtual Gumshoe, and Public Records Online Directory.

Social Security Numbers. You won't have an easy time finding social security numbers on the Web due to privacy issues. However, you can verify that a number is valid by entering the number at the SSN Validator. You won't get the name of the person holding the number, but you will be able find out if, when and where the number was issued and if a death claim has been filed against the number. It works...I checked my number and I'm still alive!

Is Vetting Ethical? I'll begin by cautioning you to check your state's ethics rules and opinions, as well as the code of conduct, to see what applies to you. Provided you're clear there, all of the foregoing information (and much more) can be gathered legally and ethically. Of course, it's unethical to misrepresent your status or position to obtain information, and the information can't be used to bribe or blackmail. Further, you'll be gathering information that people consider confidential...there's definitely a conflict between your desire for information and a person's desire for privacy. The information you gather should probably be kept hush-hush. It can be used for peremptory strikes without indicating exactly why the potential juror is being dismissed. Information can be referenced subtly in closing arguments. Analogies to information can be used to gain sympathy for your client.

Your challenge: Take the 'no surprise' route in your work. Use the Web to search for useful information regarding potential and seated jurors, expert and lay witnesses, and even your client. If you find pictures of your client on his FaceBook page that would indicate he suffers no ill effects from his accident, you'll want to know that before you go into the court room. If you find your opponent's 'expert' is not qualified to give expert testimony, you'll have an important nugget for your case. If you learn that one of the jurors is a Little League coach, reference to baseball in closing arguments may result in a home run for your case.

© 2008 Vicki Voisin, Inc.

Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, e-zine or website? You can, so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, also known as The Paralegal Mentor, publishes the bi-weekly ezine ‘Strategies for Paralegals Seeking Excellence’ where she offers tips for paralegals and others who want to create lasting success in their personal and professional lives. Get tips and information at no cost at

The Case of the Mysterious Mentor

Have you ever thought about your impact on other people? How you influence their lives and their success? How you may not even be aware of doing something very simple that will help another person set their goals? How you may be a mentor and not even know it? Perhaps you'll better understand if I tell you a story that I call 'The Case of the Mysterious Mentor.'

In the year 1996 our son, Vince, was studying finance at Michigan State University. He would often bring friends home for a weekend in Charlevoix ... invariably they were named Mike or Tim. One weekend his guest was Mike Wardian, a tall, lanky, polite young man from Virginia who played Lacrosse for MSU.

Vince and Mike were having breakfast on Saturday morning as I was getting ready to go out for a training run with my friends. Mike remarked that “That looks like fun. Can you give me some information?” Even though he played Lacrosse, he had never done any serious running.

Did my doubt show? Did I roll my eyes? Did Mike know that deep inside I was thinking, “What a waste of time...this kid will never run!” Hopefully not! Despite my doubts, I made copies of training schedules and articles about running for Mike and answered all of his questions.

Off I went to Boston and what would be the last marathon of my running career. Off Mike went to begin his running career...he laced up his shoes and never looked back.

Mike was determined. He spent countless hours training and he never said ‘I can’t.’ He ran faster and faster and further and further. Before I knew it, he was running across the Sahara Desert! He qualified for his own Boston Marathon experience and started running ultra marathons. Then, bursting with pride, I found myself in Birmingham AL in 2004 (just eight years after I made those copies!) to cheer for Mike as he participated in the Men’s Olympic Trials.

You may have heard about Mike. In November 2007 he led the Men’s Olympic Trials in New York City for an incredible six miles! He pushed his son, Pierce, in a stroller for the entire Frederick (Maryland) Marathon, finishing in 2 hours 42 minutes and earning a place in the Guinness World Book of Records. More recently he’s won the 2008 50k and 100 K (roughly 32 and 62 miles!) National Championships and he’s now sponsored by PowerBar, and others. Mike is, quite literally, a running machine.

Would Mike have done all that if he had not been in Charlevoix that fateful day in 1996? Who knows? Perhaps...but perhaps not. Fate may have taken him in some other direction. You just have to believe, though, that everything happens for a reason.

Now, please remember that I’m the first to admit Mike’s success is all his own doing. He’s put in the hours on the road and made the sacrifices athletes make to be successful. He’s earned every medal and trophy he’s received. Even in his glory, though, he never ceases to thank me for planting the seed...for inspiring him...for being a mentor. The odd thing is that I did this unwittingly. I simply set an example. And I have continued to cheer for him and congratulate him as the years have passed ... because the sign of a true and good mentor is that you feel nothing but joy for the person you have inspired.

Your challenge: Remember that you never know when you'll influence and inspire someone to reach for the stars. You never know when you'll be the person others look up to and want to pattern their lives after. You never know who’s watching, learning and taking their inspiration from you. What do your actions say? How do you treat others? You may talk the talk, but you must also walk the walk. Choose your words carefully. Be lavish with your praise. Be cautious with your criticism. Be someone others know, like and trust. Share yourself, your knowledge and your talents. AND if someone has been your Mysterious Mentor, let them know that they've had a positive influence on your life.

© 2008 Vicki Voisin, Inc.

Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, e-zine or website? You can, so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, also known as The Paralegal Mentor, publishes the bi-weekly ezine ‘Strategies for Paralegals Seeking Excellence’ where she offers tips for paralegals and others who want to create lasting success in their personal and professional lives. Get tips and information at no cost at