Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Freelance Paralegal

Note: Today's Guest Author is Dorothy Secol, CLA. Dorothy has been in the legal profession for more than 35 years and a f'reelance paralegal since 1982. Ms. Secol was a petitioner in the case of In re Opinion 24 of the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, 128 N.J. 114 (1992). The case validated the fact that there is no distinguishable difference between an in-house and f'reelance paralegal working under the direct supervision of an attorney.

The Freelance Paralegal
By Dorothy Secol, CLA

So, you want to freelance! Going into business for yourself; sounds wonderful doesn't it. Well, it is...and it isn't.

What does it take to be an independent or contract paralegal? A lot of tenacity, determination, a thick skin, business knowledge and the means to sustain yourself through the start-up time. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur.

Being a f'reelance paralegal is much more than being a paralegal. It is also being a business owner, and with that comes the responsibility of owning a business, having assets, liabilities, insurance, employees, payroll, etc. etc.

It is also not a field for someone who has just graduated from a paralegal program. Working on your own is for someone who is a seasoned paralegal with a good working knowledge of substantive law, office procedure and law office management. In order to f'reelance, one should have been working in the field for at least 5-7 years. The more responsibility you have carried, the better training you will have to go it alone.

In the beginning, one drawback of f'reelancing will be the isolation you might feel. Especially if you come from a large office. You will be on your own, alone, working in whatever area of substantive law you choose. It will be up to you to keep up with all the changes going on, i.e. rules changes, changes in legislation and changes in case law. You won't have the advantage of that big law library at your fingertips. However, in today's world, with the Internet at hand, you at least have the means to find what you need without the big library.

Another factor to consider is the lack of benefits. You won't have health insurance, vacation time or sick days. You may also work many more hours than you are working in-house. It is not easy to start a business and you must consider all factors when making the decision to f'reelance.

Many f'reelance paralegals start out by working at home, which is great if you are a disciplined person who can shut out all of the distractions of your household. Equipping your home office is as necessary as equipping a rental space. As you grow, you may need to rent office space, buy or lease equipment, hire more independent contractors or secretaries and deal with vendors when you purchase supplies.

Just think what it would take to equip a small law office from scratch. That's what you will be doing, from desks to copy machines to fax machines to telephone systems, paper, pens, computers, paper clips; it goes on and on. You must be ready to finance all of this equipment and have enough funds put away to live on while you are building your business.

When you become an independent contractor, you must keep exact records of your time, in order to bill properly. Without that billing, you won't get paid! So, you must learn to keep meticulous records as to your time and expenses. You will also be responsible for your own tax payments and keep exact records. You will obtain a federal identification number for your business so that you can pay taxes separately if you so choose. As you grow and hire people to work for you, your federal id number will be in place for payroll purposes.

After making the decision to f'reelance, you should consult with an accountant to determine how you want to set up your business, whether you will work as a sole proprietor, incorporate, have an LLC or if you are going into business with someone else, perhaps a partnership or LLP. There are many options you can choose.

There are many pros and cons to consider before making the decision to f'reelance. There are benefits; you are your own boss. You are building a future for yourself, a future in which you have financial security and can be independent. You will grow as an individual, learning to master the business world. Dealing with vendors, suppliers, attorneys, their clients, employees, other independent contractors will broaden your horizons, make your more self-reliant, self-confident and give you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. Some of the cons are listed above.

Another part of your business will be learning how to market yourself. Advertising to attorneys and getting the word out, are very important to your success. There is direct mail advertising, referrals from attorneys you are close to, walking the beat, and calling on attorneys to tell about your services and whatever innovative methods you can come up with. And of course, the all important web site! Learning what will work for you will come with trial and error.

One important aspect to be aware of: when you are f'reelancing and working for attorneys on their files, you have to be perfect. If you are not up to date with the rules and don't know the correct procedures for the pleadings you are drafting, if you make grammatical errors, if you don't proofread your work, you will not last very long. Remember, you need to perform services better than those available to the attorney in their office, otherwise they don't need you.

There are many different roles you will play.Not only will you be working as a paralegal in your chosen area of substantive law, but you will also be running a business, working on making it expand and grow. Eventually you might be an employer, hiring office staff. You will be making decisions on which equipment to buy or lease, which office to rent.

The foregoing is an overview of what is takes to set up shop as a f'reelance paralegal. Running the day-to-day operation, dealing with your attorney-clients and their clients, marketing your business, those are stories for another day.

Dorothy Secol, CLA has worked in the legal profession for over 35 years and has been a f'reelance paralegal since 1982.

Ms. Secol is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and received her CLA status in 1978. In addition, she is a former trustee of the Central Jersey Paralegal Association and a former Vice-President and trustee of Legal Assistants Association of New Jersey, now known as Paralegal Association of New Jersey. She is an associate member of the New Jersey State Bar Association and is a past Co-Chair of that Committee. She is also a member of the Foreclosure Committee. Ms. Secol serves on the Paralegal Advisory Boards of Brookdale Community College and Ocean County College and is a mediator for the Ocean Township, Allenhurst and Deal Municipal Courts appointed by the New Jersey Superior Court.

Ms. Secol is the author of Starting and Managing Your Own Business: A F'reelancing Guide for Paralegals, published by Aspen Publishing Co. and has written articles for the New Jersey Law Journal, and New Jersey Lawyer. In addition, Ms. Secol was a petitioner in the case of In re Opinion 24 of the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, 128 N.J. 114 (1992). The case validated the fact that there is no distinguishable difference between an in-house and f'reelance paralegal working under the direct supervision of an attorney.

Ms. Secol has presented seminars on real estate procedure, probate procedure and law office management as well as how to set up a business as a f'reelance paralegal.

Paralegal Profile: Thirteen Questions for Julie A. Abernathy, PLS, PP

1. Where do you work and what is your job title? I am employed by Haynes and Boone, L.L.P. My title is Legal Secretary.

2. What prompted you to choose a career as a legal professional? I have worked as a legal secretary, legal assistant, and paralegal off and on for 35 years. My current position is Legal Secretary. However, I do perform various paralegal tasks when asked to assist.

3. What is your favorite part of your job? Communicating and serving the clients. It gives me great joy to know that the clients are well-informed as to the progress of their projects and they are kept up-to-date with all events coming and going from our office.
4. What professional associations do you belong to? NALS...the association for legal professionals. I am currently the NALS President
5. How has your membership benefited you? I cannot imagine my career without my membership in NALS.
I have been a member of NALS since my very first job in Waco, Texas back in 1975. NALS has offered to me not only top-notch education through conferences, webinars and online sessions, but has also afforded me to excel in my career by assisting me with becoming certified both as a professional legal secretary and as a professional paralegal.
The networking is "priceless," and it has given my employers over the years an edge in obtaining documents quickly because of my contacts through NALS. NALS has also groomed me into a true professional and dedicated employee to my employers.
6. Do you have any professional certifications? I have both the Certified Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and Certified Professional Paralegal (PP) designations.
7. What has been the highlight of your career? My current status as NALS President. When I first became a member of NALS over 35 years ago, I never had the goal to once serve NALS as its national President. After being elected to the NALS board in 2003, I realized then a new goal was formed, and that was to become NALS President. I have met so many people this past year as NALS President, and those connections and visitations all through the U.S. have given me a lifetime of friendships and memories.
8. What do you see as hot trends in the paralegal industry? The evolution of how the paralegal and attorney will work in a "satellite" or "virtual" working relationship.
9. Have you dipped your toes in the social media waters? I am involved in Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, and Twitter; although I predominantly spend most of my social networking time on Facebook mainly due to Firm practices and policies at my current employer. The networking opportunity afforded by these social networks are vast and our employers and clients are reaping the benefits.
10. If someone contemplating a paralegal career asked you for career advice, what would your answer be? Go to school, gather your skills, and work in all areas of the law, then focus on the field of law that most interests you. Never ever settle for mediocre when it comes to employers. Always strive to work for the best firms and provide the best service you can to your employer and their clients.
11. Is there a quote that inspires you? Breathe in the chance to change and the ability to grow. ~Jennifer Lewis-Hall
12. You've enjoyed a successful paralegal career. To what single event or person do you attribute that success? No single person or event can be placed on my successful career.
I have had numerous mentors throughout the years, and each one was special. For example, when I was studying for my certification exams, I had a particular mentor.
When I was growing in my leadership skills, I had yet a different mentor. The great thing about these mentors is that they are all still mentors in my life and are very near and dear to me.
13. What is the most important step a paralegal can take to keep his or her career interesting? Remain flexible. You must "go with the flow" in order to achieve your ultimate goal or goals. Being structured will not allow you the ability to grow in your career.
Bonus...Just for Fun Fact: I have been a single parent of 2 children since my daughter who is now 34 and my son who is now 30 were 7 and 3 years old. My children and my 3 gorgeous granddaughters (ages 13, 7 and 6) are the "love of my life."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Twas The Week Before Christmas...Five Strategies for a Peaceful Holiday

‘Twas the week before Christmas when all through our house,
There was clutter and chaos…but, thankfully, no mouse!

The mantle was bare, the wreath still in my car,
Not a cookie was baked, not even a bar.

I’d addressed not a card, not a gift had been wrapped,
The jet lag had got me, I just wanted to nap!

One tree was half decorated, the other not bought,
The stockings still packed and the Village was naught.

Ornaments and tissue paper were strewn all about,
I was tempted to say, ‘We’ll just do without!’

But our children and grandchildren will be here next week,
And I know it’s a peaceful, joyful holiday they seek.

So rally I must, this is really a test,
Can I do it? Can I make this Christmas one of the best?

I’ll put on some music, brew some tea, make a list,
I’ll do what I can, the rest won’t be missed.

That we have our health and our loved ones are near,
Is all that we need for our holiday cheer!

Now, for those five strategies for surviving the next seven days:

Lower expectations. There’s not time to do everything but there’s time to do the important things. Even Martha Stewart would have to make choices with this limited amount of time. The trees will be decorated but the lights and the beads do not have to be perfect; perhaps there will not be so many ornaments as in years past. I’ll bake some cookies, but just enough for us to enjoy.

Plan menus to do double duty. The ham and the turkey will do their work for main meals and then appear again as sandwiches, Turkey Curry, and a couple of luscious soups that’ll grow like Topsy when I add some noodles or beans with vegetables. I’ll also make one trip to the store just to stock up on paper goods, dish soap and laundry soap. This is not the time to run out of those staples.

Do things in chunks of time. Instead of racing from one project to the next, I’ll spend one afternoon decorating the dining room, one decorating the living room. I’ll spend one evening baking cookies, another addressing envelopes and yet another doing the layout for the Christmas letter. In those chunks of time, the biggest projects…those that I deem most important…will be done.

Buy some time. There’s just not time to clean the entire house so I’ll hire someone to do the main areas and leave the rest. Clean beds and clean bathrooms top my list. The rest is just fine.

Take care of myself. The best gift I can give my family is to be relaxed and just enjoy this holiday with them. My mood will set the tone for the entire celebration. I’ll get some rest, a bit of exercise, and give myself permission not to be perfect.

No matter how much or how little I do, December 25th will be here next week. I can choose to be stressed or I can relax and enjoy the season. I choose the latter.

It’s truly the best time of the year. May you all have a blessed holiday with your family and friends!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lori Robinett: Use of the English Language

Note: Today's Guest Author is Lori Robinett, President of the Mid-Missouri Paralegal Association. I subscribe to the association's blog on my Google Reader. Lori's also an aspiring author who blogs as Elle Robb. Check that out at She's even won some awards at the Ozark Creative Writer's Conference.

Use of the English Language
By Lori Robinett

There's currently an ad running on a local radio station that has been done by national celebrities. One of the celebs says the owner of Business A is "prompt and professionable." That drives me crazy every time I hear it (and, yes, I scream at the radio as if he can actually hear me).

Just today, I read a letter written by an attorney to my employer. It says:
"You have expressed medical liens with regard to our clients, [husband] and his wife, [wife: name misspelled], these people have health insurance."
AAARRRGGGHHHH!!! Does no one proofread? Does no one know how the English language works? Is proper grammar a thing of the past?
  • First of all - spell your client's name correctly.

  • Second, this should have been two sentences.

  • Third, what the????? (not to mention the fact that an attorney should know the law that relates to the subject matter.)
The letter appears to have been transcribed by the attorney's secretary. This brings to mind another question: Should you transcribe documents exactly, word for word, with punctuation, as your supervising attorney speaks it?
My opinion? I say no. You are the filter through which the attorney speaks. I have always considered it my job to make my supervising attorney look good. That said, I do point out that I corrected an error, so that he knows the change that was made. Do it nicely and be knowledgeable. Your boss will appreciate it.
'Castle' is one of my favorite shows. The question of "your" versus "you're" was a topic on a recent episode. A murderer wrote a message on the face of his victim, and used the wrong version. It really ate at Castle, and I thought, I'm not the only one that notices that! Ha!
Someone I know frequently uses the word 'irregardless'. That's not a word. It's 'regardless'. My ex-husband used to refer to people with total hearing loss as "death." Yup, you read that correctly!
I'm sure you've talked to people who misuse the language. Stop and think about it for a moment. What is your opinion of that person? Do you think of that as more or less intelligent when you hear a word misused?
I know I pay more attention to the English language than a lot of people do, purely because it's part of who I am: a paralegal who writes in her spare time. In the world of legal documents, every word and every punctuation mark has meaning.
If you need a refresher, check out these sites:

And if you're brave, take Grammar Monster's test here.

You must make sure the words on the page reflect the intended meaning. Preciseness and accuracy are an absolute necessity. And the way you use language is a reflection on you and your employer. Take the time to learn the English language, pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Lori Robinett received her B.S. degree from Central Missouri State University in 1990. She has taken numerous paralegal courses since taking her first job with a law firm in 1994, and has worked her way up from receptionist to legal secretary to legal assistant. After several years of working for private firms, she moved to a position as legal assistant with the Office of General Counsel with the University of Missouri in 2008. She is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and is a member of the Paralegal Committee of the Missouri Bar, is currently serving as President of the Mid-Missouri Paralegal Association, and is editor of The Gavel, a regional paralegal newsletter. She is webmaster for blogs (though not as regularly as she would like).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Paralegal Profile: Thirteen Questions for Sandra Hatch, CP

Sandra D. Hatch, CP of Portland OR has graciously submitted answers to The Paralegal Mentor's Thirteen Questions. She is a tireless promoter of the paralegal profession who heads the Pacific Northwest Paralegal Association (PNPA), an affiliate of NALA. Sandra received the 2009 NALA Affiliated Associations Outstanding Contributions Award for her work with PNPA. Most notable are Sandra's successful efforts to increase the membership of that association. Thanks, Sandra!

1. Where do you work and what is your job title? In July 2009 I celebrated my two year anniversary at Barran Liebman, LLP, a labor and employment law firm where I am a litigation paralegal.

2. What prompted you to choose a paralegal career? I grew up in a small town and worked as a receptionist/typist/file clerk at a local law firm while I was in high school (in the 1970s). I really enjoyed the experience. I knew I didn’t want to go to law school. The paralegal profession was really developing at that time and it seemed like a good career path.

3. What is your favorite part of your job? I love the investigation and piecing together the facts. It’s a combination of being a private investigator to discover the facts and a psychologist to attempt to determine motivation and perception of those facts. I have learned so much that has been beneficial to my personal life as well, such as dealing with insurance issues and conducting medical research.

4. What professional associations do you belong to? I currently belong to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the Pacific Northwest Paralegal Association (PNPA), Oregon Women Lawyers, and Women in eDiscovery.

5. How has your membership benefited you? Whenever I lecture to paralegals or paralegal students, I encourage them to join a professional association and stress the importance of continuing education and networking. I have been blessed to find excellent role models and mentors and have gotten to know peers and legal vendors who have helped me professionally and personally throughout the years.

6. Do you have any professional certifications? I have been a NALA Certified Paralegal since January 1991.

7. What has been the highlight of your career? There are so many highlights that it’s hard to choose.

In the 1980s and 1990s the litigator I worked for “loaned” me to the American Association of Trial Lawyers and the Western Trial Lawyers Association to assist with the annual seminars, so I got to travel, attend educational events, meet movers and shakers in the industry, and learn event planning skills that I still use today.

The most recent highlight occurred this summer at the NALA Convention in San Diego when I received one of the 2009 Affiliates Awards and the 2009 Affiliated Associations Outstanding Contribution Award for my work with the Pacific Northwest Paralegal Association.

8. What do you see as hot trends in the paralegal industry? Mastering electronic discovery and computer forensics skills and virtual paralegalism.

9. Have you dipped your toes in the social media waters? Yes, but just barely. I am mindful of personal information being posted out there in the ether, and I don’t have a lot of time to dabble.

10. If someone contemplating a paralegal career asked you for career advice, what would your answer be? I am often asked this question and I advise people to:
  • research and evaluate paralegal degree programs carefully and understand the difference between degrees, certificates of completion, and being a certified paralegal;
  • to talk to several paralegals who work in the area of interest to learn what the job is really about;
  • to hone organizational, speaking, and writing skills;
  • to be prepared (especially in this economy) to start with an entry level position;
  • to learn how to handle difficult personalities (especially in litigation); and
  • to be prepared to work hard.
11. Is there a quote that inspires you? Yes, I’ve had personal experience with “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and have found it to be very true.

12. You've enjoyed a successful paralegal career. To what single event or person do you attribute that success? To my mother, from whom I inherited the strength of will, the desire to learn, and the social and professional skills that have contributed to my success and longevity in the field.

13. What is the most important step a paralegal can take to keep his or her career interesting? Remember that we should never stop learning and one should keep challenging oneself. We’ve seen so much specialization develop in the practice of law, there are a lot of practice areas to explore, so it’s fun to shake things up every once in a while and try something new.

Bonus…Just for Fun Fact: I have a unique sense of humor, I’m told, because I like The Far Side, Happy Bunny, Monty Python, and Eddie Izzard.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Erin Brockovich Joins The Paralegal Voice

By Vicki Voisin, ACP and Lynne DeVenny, NCCP

Is there any paralegal that isn't fascinated and inspired by Erin Brockovich's story, made famous by the movie of the same name?

Erin Brockovich was nominated for five Academy Awards, and Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Erin's perseverance and courage in her pursuit of the now famous environmental class action against Pacific Gas and Electric. That case resulted in a landmark settlement (and perhaps the biggest paralegal bonus ever).

We were understandably excited when Erin Brockovich - perhaps the most famous and visible paralegal on the planet - accepted Legal Talk Network's invitation to be our guest on a recent episode of The Paralegal Voice.

In Erin’s own words, the movie’s depiction of her is "spot on". We agree that Julia Roberts captured her indomitable spirit of activism: her passion and enthusiasm for all things environmental rang loud and clear as she answered our questions and discussed her current environmental causes.

Even after the case against PG&E was settled and she achieved international fame from the movie, Erin didn’t rest on her laurels. Instead, she became a consultant on other environmental law cases, as well as a global speaker, appearing in television series and news programs. She remains a tireless crusader for the environment.

It's clear from the podcast that Erin recognizes the value, as well as the unique abilities, of paralegals. She urges paralegals to dig into files and ask a question when something doesn’t look right. She says never be afraid to use your "paralegal sixth sense".

We're grateful to Erin, not only for graciously sharing her time with us, but also for her continued work to make a better world for all of us.

The following are links to web sites of interest regarding Erin’s work that were mentioned during the interview:

Brockovich Research and Consulting, including her blog:

Erin’s Biography: Bio

Girardi and Keese (the law firm Erin consults with on the West Coast)
Weitz & Luxenberg (the law firm Erin consults with on the East Coast)
Shine Lawyers (the law firm Erin consults with in Australia)
Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA): Provides the EPA with authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures. Certain substances are generally excluded from TSCA, including, among others, food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides.
The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act: Would help protect the health of the American children by placing the burden of proof on the chemical industry, requiring manufacturers to first prove a chemical is actually safe before it's allowed into a consumer product. Currently, all of these chemicals are allowed into the marketplace until they are proven dangerous. (
Million Baby Crawl: Babies everywhere are crawling to Washington and saying “no” to toxic chemicals found in household products.
Law Buzz Famous Trials: Provides insight into the movie Erin Brockovich.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is 'One File At A Time' Realistic?

Ideally, you work on one matter at a time with only materials relating to that one matter on your desk. The key here is 'ideally.'

This principle might work in a perfect world, but the legal environment is far from perfect. A paralegal’s real world includes deadlines, chaos, interruptions, emergencies (actual and imagined), last minute projects, trials and, worst of all, other people’s disorganization.

Piles, often not of our doing, become part of the landscape of our desks. We start one project, another is dumped on us, then another, and eventually we're working in layers. It’s amazing that paralegals remain productive at all. If it weren’t for our innate abilities to organize and well as juggle...productivity would be nonexistent.

What can you do to deal with this madness? Here are tips that will help you remain organized through the chaos and come very close to having only one file on your desk at a time:

1. Place files in an incline file sorter. Instead of piling files on top of each other so that you can barely tell one from the other, stand them in an incline file sorter on or near your desk. With this simple organizational tool, you’ll be able to locate files in a snap. This is particularly helpful for files you’ll be working on in the next day or so.

2. Take only what you need to get the job done. Encourage fellow workers (as in the attorney(s) you work with) to give you only as much of the file as is necessary to complete an assignment. For instance, you don’t need the client’s entire red rope file to schedule three IME’s in that Work Comp case. If you have a deposition to summarize, you’ll probably only need the transcript.

3. Try to control when you’re given work. Receiving work all day long as the spirit moves your boss is inefficient. Instead, try to schedule regular meetings with your boss, such as first thing in the morning and/or immediately after lunch. At those meetings, you should receive work assignments, discuss any assignments you are working on, etc.

4. Create temporary files. If an assignment is accompanied only by a loose letter or document, make a temporary file for it. Use a Sharpie to write enough information on the label or on the front so that the item can be easily identified and won’t be lost in the next wave of files that appear on your desk. Put this temporary file in the incline file sorter until you’re ready to work on it.

5. Become an instant decision maker. When an assignment, a document or a file comes into your office, decide immediately how to deal with it. Never place it in the ‘put it here for now’ pile. That pile will just continue to grow.

If whatever you’ve been given to do won’t take long, take care of it right then and there. You’ve already been interrupted so you might as well complete the task before you go back to your work.

If you don’t need to do it immediately, put it away, or place it in the incline file sorter.

Do you have a stack of professional journals, magazines and newspapers on your desk that you intend to read ‘some day’? Unfortunately, the stack keeps growing and ‘some day’ never comes. Again, review those materials as soon as they come into your office. If there’s an article you want to keep, tear it out and file it. If there’s nothing of interest, throw the material away or recycle it. Remember that most of this information is available on the Internet should you need it so there’s probably no need to keep articles.

6. Prioritize all day long. As work comes in, make a decision about when you will act on it. Don’t just put it in a pile to think about later. If you allow the chaos to accumulate, it will quickly overwhelm you. The disorder may stop you from getting your work done because it’s such a mess you don’t know where to start. The perfectionist in you will just give up. It’s easier to make a phone call or check your email than to figure what’s in that swelling stack of papers and files.

7. Ask for clear deadlines. Your work will probably fall into one of three categories: do it right now, do it in the next few days and do it sometime in the future.

==> Do it right now. Close up what you are working on, place the material in the incline file sorter, and begin the new work. This interruption is not the most efficient but it’s the way the real world operates.

==>Do it in the next few days. Note the deadline in your planner or on your calendar and place the file in the incline file.

==>Do it sometime in the future. If something isn’t due for a couple of weeks, you’re probably safe to put it away in the file drawer. However, be sure to make a note on your calendar when the work has to be done and when you should begin working on it.

8. Never trust your memory! Take copious notes when someone gives you an assignment but do not use sticky notes! Sticky notes just multiply and either get lost or you become so accustomed to them that you don’t even see them.

Instead, use a shorthand notebook for your notes. Begin a fresh page every day, placing the date at the top. On the left side of the line, write the name of the client, client number, or whatever information you need to identify the work you’ll be doing. On the right side of the page, make your notes.

Again, be sure to ask for clear deadlines. If you do receive an assignment with a deadline of two or more weeks away, you’ll probably want to put the file away so that it’s not taking up space on your desk for days on end. Be sure to enter a reminder on your calendar for the date you need to begin working on the project.

Never put a file out of sight in a drawer without a reminder to yourself to do that work. The adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ applies when you’re very busy.

9. Get those files back to their ‘owners’! As soon as you finish a project, move those files off your desk. Don’t let them languish there for one minute more than you need them. If they can be closed, all the better.

10. Establish routines. The importance of establishing routines for beginning and ending your work day can’t be overstated.

At the beginning of your day, review your list of work to do, retrieve the file you will work on first and get going. As other files come to you throughout the day, either put them in your file cabinet or in the incline file sorter. Remember that your floor and client chair do not qualify as file cabinets.

At the end of the work day, consider what has to be done during the next one and make a quick list. No. 1 on the list should be the most pressing work, the work with a deadline. Prioritize your work this way.

Then close up the work you’re doing and either (a) leave the file on your desk or (b) put it in the incline file. You might flag it with a bright sticky note (a sticky note is a good thing when you’re using it this way).

Your desk will be cleared and you will not be welcomed by chaos and overwhelm when you begin the next day.

Your challenge: Consider the ten tips above and decide which you can incorporate into your daily routine. While you may never quite accomplish having only one thing on your desk at a time, you can minimize the chaos, disorder and confusion by taking even one or two of these steps. Whatever you choose to do, you’re bound to improve your workspace and increase your productivity.

©2009 Vicki Voisin, Inc. Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or Web site? You can, so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, "The Paralegal Mentor", delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by achieving goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a weekly ezine titled Paralegal Strategies. More information is available at

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Patti Clapper ACP NCCP: My Top Ten Internet Resources

Thanks to Patricia Clapper, ACP NCCP, for submitting this guest article that was originally published in the 11.25.09 issue of Paralegal Strategies.

In my almost 15 years of working as a paralegal, I’ve learned a lot! When I first started “paralegaling”, we had no Internet or email. It makes me feel pretty old to say that, but I know many of you reading this can relate.

When the Internet finally hit, there were many times I would take work home with me because I had Internet at home (although it was dial up) and not at the office. I finally talked my attorneys into getting with the times and getting Internet and email at the office. When I think back, I don’t know how I existed before the Internet and email!

There’s so much information out there - if you know where to look. Below I have listed a few sites I’ve run across that can be helpful to legal professionals. (medical cost treatment estimator) of Lamb Law Offices, a summary of medical record copy statutes from all 50 States) (print any calendar from 1901-2100) to locate what county a city is in, covers all 50 states) (custody status for criminal offenders in state, county or city custody) to county real estate records for all 50 states) cost person finder/asset search, run by Lexis, only available to attorneys, police, insurance investigators, etc.) English law dictionary) to vital records offices in all 50 states) – low cost access to filings in all Federal cases)

I have a blog where I post sites I use in my job - Many of these sites came from fellow legal professionals who have shared them with me. If you know of any useful sites, I would love to hear from you so that I can then share with others.

Patricia F. Clapper, ACP, NCCP has been a paralegal with the general practice firm of Levine & Stewart in Chapel Hill, NC for almost 15 years. Her areas of practice include civil litigation, domestic law, criminal law, estate planning and contracts. Ms. Clapper earned her Associate Degree in Paralegal Technology from Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, NC. She is on the advisory board for the paralegal curriculum at Central Carolina Community College and currently serves as President of the North Carolina Paralegal Association. Ms. Clapper is also a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants and the Advocates for Justice - Paralegal Division

Friday, November 27, 2009

Paralegal Profile: Thirteen Questions for Melissa Klimpel ACP

Melissa Klimpel ACP is one of the rising stars of the paralegal career field, something she simply can't help because, after all, she is from the great state of North Dakota where paralegal leaders seem to sprout naturally. They are good, solid, honest, hard-working people who do what they say they will do and keep their word....all of which are must-have leadership traits.

Here are Melissa's answers to The Paralegal Mentor's Thirteen Questions:

1. Where do you work and what is your job title? I am a paralegal at the law office of Smith Bakke Porsborg and Schweigert in Bismarck and have been employed with them for 14 years.

2. What prompted you to choose a paralegal career? My career actually found me. When I was in high school, I was assigned a school co-op job at a law firm in my hometown by one of my instructors. I have been working in a law firm ever since.

3. What is your favorite part of your job? I truly enjoy everything about my job from the discovery process to preparing medical record summaries.

4. What professional associations do you belong to? The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the Western Dakota Association of Legal Assistants (WDALA). I currently serve on the Continuing Education Committee of NALA and I am the President of WDALA.

5. How has your membership benefited you? NALA and WDALA have both made a huge impact on my life. I have benefited a great deal from these associations by getting involved. The networking has also been great. My involvement in both organizations has helped me improve my public speaking skills to the point where I can now speak in front of a group (large or small) without being nervous. I have really grown a lot as a person by getting involved with both WDALA and NALA.

6. Do you have any professional certifications? Yes. I received my Certified Legal Assistant designation in 2004 and my Advanced Certified Paralegal designation in 2006.

7. What has been the highlight of your career? Definitely passing my CLA exam. It was a wonderful feeling when I found out I passed the exam that I had worked so hard at studying for.
8. What do you see as hot trends in the paralegal industry? Technology. I think it will be interesting to see where technology takes us in the future.

9. Have you dipped your toes in the social media waters? I have been using Facebook for a few months. However, our three girls (ages 10 months to 9 years old) keep me very busy outside of work so my time on Facebook has been very limited

10. If someone contemplating a paralegal career asked you for career advice, what would your answer be? I would try to give them a sense of what I have found enjoyable about the work throughout my career and encourage them to look for opportunities to work in a law firm to see if the field interested them. As I mentioned before, I had an opportunity to work as an intern at a law office and found that I really enjoyed it!

11. Is there a quote that inspires you? Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. ~Unknown

12. You've enjoyed a successful paralegal career. To what single event or person do you attribute that success? There are several people/events that I attribute my success to.

First of all, if it hadn’t been for my high school teacher assigning me a co-op job in a law firm, I know I wouldn’t be where I am at today.

Second, my involvement with NALA and WDALA has also had a huge impact on my paralegal career. It is amazing how much I have grown as a person by getting involved with these two wonderful organizations.

Finally, my husband and children. I receive a tremendous amount of support from my family from encouragement, to taking care of things when I am busy with work, NALA, and/or WDALA, to cheering me on.

13. What is the most important step a paralegal can take to keep his or her career interesting? Always keep looking for ways to improve your skills and get involved in professional associations.

Bonus 'Just for Fun' Fact: I am new to running but recently completed my first race (about 4 miles) in a marathon relay that I ran with my husband and some friends. I am planning on running another race on Thanksgiving Day.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Doing the 'Fee Limbo'? Paralegals Can Help Attorneys Lower the Bar!

In response to today’s rocky economy, law firms are desperately seeking ways to bring in new business. One solution they’ve created is to offer a ‘loss leader' and it seems that price wars have broken out among large law firms.

Legal business consultant Jim Hassett writes at Legal Business Development Blog that he learned of the price wars when he threw in a “loss leader” question in an alternative-fee survey of AmLaw 100 firms. He included the following question on just 15 surveys, and all 15 firms responded that they had seen the price wars, he writes on his blog.

“There is a lot of price pressure these days, and some say it is leading firms to bid on projects as loss leaders in a way that is not sustainable. Have you seen any examples of this?”

How are firms establishing these ‘loss leaders’? Apparently by offering “drastically” lower hourly rates and other fee-cutting proposals.
“Some firms will do all of the discovery in a case for free, and then take the case on a fee basis from there, or will charge half of their hourly rate for the first phase of the case,” the firm manager reported. “We’ve also heard about some firms that have actually said that they will do [motions] for free, or they will do the motion work at 30 percent, or some other drastically discounted rate like that, because they’re really hungry to get work.”

In other words, these firms are playing ‘Fee Limbo’: lowering their fees to the point where the bargains are not sustainable...and may even hurt their business in the end because consumers will become accustomed to the new fee structure and may not tolerate future increases. Clients, too, are feeling the financial crunch.

How can firms win the ‘Fee Limbo’ without totally destroying their bottom line? How can they do this without offering their services at hourly rates that shout, “We’re not worth what you’ve been paying us!”?

There is a simple solution: Maximize the appropriate utilization of properly trained paralegals and include in their marketing materials that paralegals are utilized as a cost-saving benefit for the client. Give these points some thought:
  • Since the hourly rates of paralegals are always much less than that of the attorneys and most associates, all of the work they do is a cost savings to the client. In fact, this is the primary reason for utilizing paralegals in the first place.

  • According to the 2008 Salary Survey by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), paralegal hourly billing rates average $97 per hour, depending on the expertise of the paralegal and the geographic area of employment. This is significantly lower than the attorney’s hourly rate.
  • The paralegal’s hourly billing rate is usually much higher his or her hourly rate of pay, often at least three times as much.

  • So long as they work under the direct supervision of an attorney and the attorney assumes the responsibility for the final work product (after thorough review, of course), paralegals can do anything an attorney can do except:

*Form the client relationship

*Set fees

*Exercise legal judgment

*Appear in Court

Here are six ways (and there are many more) that attorneys can tap into the strengths of paralegals that will result in reduced costs to clients:

1. Paralegals can handle much of discovery, including the drafting of interrogatories and summarizing of depositions and medical reports;

2. Paralegals can draft a majority of the required pleadings and correspondence;

3. Paralegals can conduct witness interviews and assist with preparation of witnesses for trial;

4. Paralegals can locate expert witnesses and provide them with the materials they need to assess the case;

5. Paralegals can assist with preparation of trial notebooks and jury selection;

6. Paralegals can handle much of the communications with clients and others related to the case, including both telephone and e-mail communications.

The list goes on and on...and extends beyond litigation to all areas of the law.

If law firms properly utilize paralegals, taking full advantage of their training and their strengths, they will be able to offer quality services to their clients at reduced costs to the client without drastically reducing their own hourly rates to attract those clients.


© 2009 Vicki Voisin, Inc.

Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or Web site? You can, so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, "The Paralegal Mentor", delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by achieving goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a weekly ezine titled Paralegal Strategies and co-hosts The Paralegal Voice on Legal Talk Network. More information is available at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ethics Tip: Hey! Those are MY Billable Hours!

I receive lots of mail from paralegals. One recent message really deserves some attention. 'Anonymous' writes:

Dear Vicki:

I am a Paralegal Strategies subscriber, as well as a paralegal in XXX, USA. I wonder if you would offer some advice on a problem I have at the small firm where I work.

My boss, the owner of firm, has developed a habit of having me draft letters or short pleadings and then bill it to the attorney's time, at the attorney's rate, which is, of course, significantly higher than the paralegal rate.

The other day I was also forwarded an email from another paralegal where the boss asked her to do several things on a case and then bill it to the boss's time.

Obviously, Vicki, this is ripping off the client, unethical, and I feel it exploits the use of paralegals. I have thought about making an anonymous complaint to the state bar.

Just wondering if you have any advice for a paralegal out here in the trenches.


Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for subscribing to Paralegal Strategies and for taking the time to send your question. This is not the first time I've heard of this practice and I share your concerns.

First, I must say that my goal is to provide paralegals with information that will help them to better perform their work and to increase their career satisfaction. It is NOT my goal to interpret Model Rules as they apply to attorneys or to tell attorneys how to practice law or manage their law businesses.

That said, the circumstances you describe are disturbing because they are dishonest and unfair to the client. They also diminish the professional status of the paralegal. It is a practice that is probably more prevalent than we know. It is a practice that should be exposed but I believe that would best be done by clients and by Judges.

There are, however, some important points that every paralegal (and every attorney) should be aware of and pay attention to. Are you ready? It's long!

The purposes for hiring paralegals. Paralegals are hired for several reasons:

  • free up attorney time for other substantive work;

  • provide legal assistance to more clients than he or she could do without a paralegal;

  • increase firm profits; and

  • provide quality legal services to the public at a fair rate.

Paralegals and supervising attorneys must be aware of the specific rules, decisions and statutes applicable to fees and to paralegal utilization within his or her jurisdiction.It goes without saying that if an attorney is going to charge for paralegal time, the paralegal must meet the standards set by the definitions adopted by the American Bar Association, various states, and all paralegal professional associations.

What does the ABA say about fees? There are two specific ABA Model Rules that apply to fees and to paralegals:

Rule 1.5: Fees

a) A lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses. The factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of a fee include the following:

1) The time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal services properly;

2) the likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;

3) the fees customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;

4) the amount involved and the results obtained;

5) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances;

6) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;

7) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and

8) whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

Rule 5.4 Professional Independence of a Lawyer

Prohibits the sharing of legal fees and states that a lawyer shall not form a partnership with a nonlawyer if any of the activities of the partnership consist of the practice of law.

The ABA also has Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services.

Guideline 8: A lawyer may include a charge for the work performed by a paralegal in setting a charge and/or billing for legal services.

Comment to Guideline 8

In Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274 (1989), the United States Supreme Court held that in setting a reasonable attorney’s fee under 28 U.S.C. § 1988, a legal fee may include a charge for paralegal services at “market rates” rather than “actual cost” to the attorneys. In its opinion, the Court stated that, in setting recoverable attorney fees, it starts from “the self-evident proposition that the ‘reasonable attorney’s fee’ provided for by statute should compensate the work of paralegals, as well as that of attorneys.” Id. at 286. This statement should resolve any question concerning the propriety of setting a charge for legal services based on work performed by a paralegal. See also, Alaska Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 79; Florida Statutes Title VI, Civil Practice & Procedure, 57.104; North Carolina Guideline 8; Comment to NALA Guideline 5; Michigan Guideline 6. In addition to approving paralegal time as a compensable fee element, the Supreme Court effectively encouraged the use of paralegals for the cost-effective delivery of services. It is important to note, however, that Missouri v. Jenkins does not abrogate the attorney’s responsibili­ties under Model Rule 1.5 to set a reasonable fee for legal services, and it follows that those considerations apply to a fee that includes a fee for paralegal services. See also, South Carolina Ethics Advisory Opinion 96-13 (a lawyer may use and bill for the services of an independent paralegal so long as the lawyer supervises the work of the paralegal and, in billing the paralegal’s time, the lawyer discloses to the client the basis of the fee and expenses).

It is important to note that a number of court decisions have addressed or otherwise set forth the criteria to be used in evaluating whether paralegal services should be compensated. Some requirements include that the services performed must be legal in nature rather than clerical, the fee statement must specify in detail the qualifications of the person performing the service to demonstrate that the paralegal is qualified by education, training or work to perform the assigned work, and evidence that the work performed by the paralegal would have had to be performed by the attorney at a higher rate. Because considerations and criteria vary from one jurisdiction to another, it is important for the practitioner to determine the criteria required by the jurisdiction in which the practitioner intends to file a fee application seeking compensation for paralegal services.

Don't forget the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court has been asked on two occasions to decide whether paralegal time may be reimbursed at market rates under fee shifting statutes. Twice the Court has provided an unequivocal “yes.” In doing so, the Court has recognized that paralegal time should be billed the same as other professional staff.

Missouri v Jenkins, 1989: The Court addressed the recoverability of paralegal fees under §1988 of the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Awards Act of 1976. The Court recognized that everyone (attorneys, paralegal employees and clients) benefits from the proper utilization of paralegals. In its opinion, the Court stated:

By encouraging the use of lower cost paralegals rather than attorneys wherever possible, permitting market-rate billing of paralegal hours “encourages cost-effective delivery of legal services and, by reducing the spiraling cost of civil rights litigation, furthers the policies underlying civil rights statutes.”

Richlin v Chertoff, 2008: The question before the court was similar to Missouri v Jenkins except that the court was asked to review if paralegal fees could be reimbursed at market rates under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The court again stated that paralegal fees may be awarded at market rates.

What are 'market rates'? The market rate is the typical charge for a person of comparable education and experience performing a certain level of task in a specific area of law and geographic locale. For this reason, the billable hour rate for a paralegal in Cedar Rapids IA may not be as high as in Los Angeles CA. The billable hour rate for a paralegal working in real estate may not be as high as the rate charged for a paralegal working in intellectual property.

The client: Clients have historically been concerned about the delivery of cost-effective legal services. Today's economic circumstances have increased their concerns. Attorneys can counter their concerns and meet their needs by providing a high caliber work product at a lower cost through the use of paralegals. Again, those paralegals MUST be qualified through education, work and/or experience to perform substantive tasks that, in the absence of the paralegal, would be performed by the attorney.

Fee Petitions: This is where the issue of fees gets particularly sticky for attorneys. They must not commit a fraud upon the court. Therefore, when they submit fee petitions where they have absorbed paralegal time as their own, they are not being truthful. Instead, the fee petition should set forth the time spent by the paralegal and also the time spent by the attorney. These are separate.

The fee petition must itemize the date the work was performed, the identity of the person doing the work, detail of the task performed, and the time spent. The amount charged must reflect reasonable local market standards. It is also helpful to provide the court with information regarding the credentials of each billing professional. The lack of this data may result in the denial of fees.

The court should closely scrutinize these petitions. The opposing party should also. If there is no paralegal time on the petition, and the Judge or the opposing party is aware that the firm utilizes paralegals, questions should be asked.

Courts have denied attorney fees because the work should have been done by paralegals. In the matter of Metro Data Systems, Inc. v Duranao Systems, Inc., 597 F.Supp 244 (D.Ariz.1984) the Court refused to authorize compensation for lawyers performing services that could have been performed by a paralegal. As was so aptly put in the decision rendered in Urisic v Bethlehem Mines, 710 F2d 670 (3rd Cir.1983), the Judge said:

"Michelangelo should not charge Sistine Chapel rates

for painting a farmer's barn."

Usually paralegals do not set their billing rates. The matter of setting billable rates for every member of the firm, including paralegals, is usually left to the firm’s administrators and/or attorneys. In fact, because paralegals are prohibited from setting the client's fees, they probably should not make any decisions regarding charges to the client. The majority of paralegals are responsible for keeping track of their time, as well as meeting billable hour goals which are, again, determined by the firm’s administrator’s and/or attorneys.

Ethical obligations. The tasks and services that are performed by the paralegal and for which compensation may be sought must be substantive and NOT clerical in nature and, also, consist of tasks and services that would otherwise be performed by an attorney.

The paralegal should ensure truth in billing by describing the task accomplished accurately and honestly, including the records of actual time spent on the task.At this point, truth in billing becomes the attorney’s ethical obligation because the attorney has the direct relationship with the client. The attorney has the ultimate authority concerning methods, amounts and descriptions used when clients are billed. This may vary from practice to practice. Still, truth in billing is every attorney’s obligation.

What can paralegals do?

1) Be sure the attorney you work for fully understands the criteria a paralegal must meet in order for the paralegal’s time to be billed to the client, including the fact that the paralegal’s work must be substantive in nature;

2) Be sure the attorney you work for understands that paralegal fees can be recovered but they must be presented in a properly drafted fee petition.

3) Be sure you are your time recording practices. Record only the time you work and never for work that is clerical in nature.

4) Be sure to maintain a high degree of personal and professional integrity.

5) Watch those fee petitions submitted by opposing parties. Should they include paralegal time? Do they? Your firm may be able to object to the fees on this issue.

In conclusion: Beyond maintaining your own high ethical standards as you enter your time for work done for clients and making the attorney aware of ethical obligations regarding paralegal fees, there is really little the paralegal can do.

If your situation is intolerable, you should look for other employment but that may not be a viable option. Sometimes you just have to remember which side of your paycheck you're signing.

It is my hope, though, that the practice of attorney's billing paralegal time at their own rates will be squelched by attorneys themselves realizing that this is a dishonest practice, by savvy clients who ask why they are not being charged for paralegal time, and by judges who are aware that paralegal time should appear on fee petitions separately from the attorney's time.

©2009 Vicki Voisin, Inc. Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or Web site? You can, so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, "The Paralegal Mentor", delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by achieving goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a bi-weekly ezine titled Paralegal Strategies. More information is available at

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Paralegal Voice: Getting Back on the Right Track

By Vicki Voisin and Lynne DeVenny

Following a recent episode of The Paralegal Voice on Legal Talk Network, Lynne DeVenny and I were very pleased to hear from one of our listeners, Andrea, who had a question about getting into the paralegal profession after graduating several years ago, and then experiencing difficulty landing a job post graduation.
"I earned my A.A. Degree in Paralegal Studies in 2002 from an ABA approved school. Unfortunately, I ran into several road blocks since I had no experience in the field. The legal field is what I see myself doing as a career. I do have experience in the Criminal Justice field. For the past four years I have been a volunteer officer. How do I get back on the right track? Do I need to go through NALA to obtain a certification that will update my educational background? I appreciate any advice you can give."
Lynne and I were happy to provide Andrea with this advice:

Andrea, thanks for listening to The Paralegal Voice and for sending a question about your paralegal career.

We are not sure if you are currently working in a law office or not. If not, we recommend that you obtain an entry-level job in a law firm so that you can acquire on the job experience. Consider legal secretarial, administrative assistant and/or receptionist positions.

If you can't find a job immediately, look for a volunteer or internship position with a small law firm or a legal non-profit organization. Work on obtaining practical skills and getting current references.

We also recommend that you further your education by working toward a bachelor's degree. You might also consider taking computer classes if you do not have the technology skills that employers are seeking. If you do have a strong set of computer skills, including advanced knowledge of Microsoft Office, emphasize them on a well-done one-page resume.

You should be sure to join a professional paralegal association to take advantage of networking opportunities and continuing legal education classes. If you are a student, those classes are usually offered at a substantial discount.

We urge you to consider professional certification (you mentioned NALA's CLA/CP program) some time in the future when you feel comfortable taking the examination. This credential certainly won't hurt and will offer you the credibility you are seeking. However, locating a law-related job and obtaining legal experience should be your first priority.

Andrea, be sure to let us know if you have any other questions. We wish you much success as you pursue your paralegal career.

Do you have questions for Lynne and me? Send them to And be sure to stay tuned for our December podcast featuring the world's most famous paralegal and environmental activist, Erin Brockovich!

Friday, November 13, 2009

How Can Paralegals Set Boundaries?

Note: Today's Guest Author is Bobbie Rathjens whom I fondly refer to as 'My Web Designer' and also call 'Friend.' Bobbie listened when I told her of my dream to launch The Paralegal Mentor and understood exactly what I wanted to do. Not only did she design my Web site, but she has been an enormous support to me, answering all my 'technologically challenged' questions, teaching me when I wanted to take over some of the Web site updating myself, and quieting the panic when there are issues with the newsletter or uploading my teleclass information.

While she's not a paralegal, Bobbie faces the same challenges. She's a busy wife and mom of three young children who is constantly juggling all of her responsibilities. Thanks, Bobbie!

Setting Boundaries
By Bobbie Rathjens

Are you a multi-tasking, phone call answering, people pleaser that always has a deadline to meet “now”? If so, you're a lot like me. The glaring difference between us may be our professions, but I'm sure there's little difference on how best to handle these types of situations - and prevention of future anxiety attacks.
Our website design business serves over 250 clients and fields continuous inquiries for new service. All of that work and responsibility falls on the shoulders of yours truly. Some work days used to be so hectic, by the end of the day I could only say I'd returned calls and put out fires but hadn't actually completed a project that needed to get done.
Setting boundaries that my clients and I can live with started out as a work in progress, but quickly turned into a methodology that has worked magically. By following these simple guidelines, I have saved myself from professional meltdown and added some control into my business life.
Projects & Time Estimates. If you don't know how long the project will take, don't give a time estimate. If the client or boss needs an estimated time for project completion, over estimate to be safe.
If the boss says he needs the work in one hour and you can't do it in one hour, be honest and tell him it's not possible - then and tell him when you'll have it done. If you are able to finish the project sooner than estimated, you look like a hero and your client (or boss) loves you for it.

Peak Productivity Time. Do you do your best work first thing in the morning or some other time of the day? Which activity requires your peak productivity time? Is it working on the computer or meeting with clients?
You'll need to determine the task that requires your highest energy and schedule it for your peak productivity time. In my case, I'm at my best from 9-12 and need my highest energy for web design, so I only do web design during those hours and schedule client meetings for later in the day.

Phone Management. If you find yourself fielding phone calls at your desk all day long (particularly during your peak productivity time), let the phone go to voice mail. Set up a window to return phone calls – say between 2-3 pm – and stick to it. After a few days of doing this, you will no longer feel guilty letting the calls go to the machine because you will be so productive, it will amaze your co-workers.

Don't be Such a Push Over. After spending my youth learning to be polite, respectful (and how to be a downright push over), I've learned how to stand up for myself. This isn't to be the big bad meanie, or to get back at that occasional client that I secretly loathe, but rather to make my work day productive and keep all of my clients satisfied.
Whatever the dilemma, you can be polite without being a push over. Stand your ground while being tactful and professional. Your client (or boss) will respect you more for it in the end.
Try these simple tips for setting boundaries. I guarantee you will feel better...and more in control of your work...if you do.

Bobbie Rathjens is the Lead Designer at JBR Graphics and is responsible for front-end design and web development for all client projects. When she's not working, you might find her watching one of those old Elvis movies - as she's a consummate fan.

JBR Graphics is a two person web design studio consisting of the husband and wife team of John and Bobbie Rathjens. They specialize in unique website design and professional web development and are committed to creating beautiful and highly functional websites, following the exact specifications of their clients. JBR Graphics strives to provide a level of services not possible from larger companies.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Paralegal Profile: Thirteen Questions for Kathy Sieckman, PP PLS CLA

Kathy Sieckman, PP PLS CLA, is a frequent participant in Paralegal Mentor programs and Mastermind Calls. Her viewpoints on paralgal issues are always refreshing and she is definitely a promoter of legal professionals.

1. Where do you work and what is your job title? I work for DLA Piper LLP (US) in their Phoenix, Arizona office. My title is Legal Secretary.

2. What prompted you to choose a legal professional career? When I was in high school, a good family friend of my future husband’s family was working for the Arizona Attorney General’s office. She always dressed nicely and my mother-in-law always commented about how much money she made there. So honestly it was the promise of money that first drew me to a legal career.

3. What is your favorite part of your job? The diversity. I never know day to day what tasks I will be assigned, but I know they will be varied and will be different every day. I also love proofreading. It is a strength of mine and gives me a chance to learn about other cases being handled in our office that I’m not directly involved in and to learn about all kinds of legal issues.

4. What professional associations do you belong to? I belong to NALS . . . the association for legal professionals, which includes membership in NALS of Arizona and NALS of Phoenix.

5. How has your membership benefited you? Taking NALS’ certification exams gave me the courage and the belief that I could learn anything which helped me when I needed to switch my specialty from probate (where I had spent 15 years) to litigation.

The contacts I have made and the seminars I have attended helped make that transition possible. In addition, it gives me a network across the country of friends who can answer questions, suggest court reporters and messengers, and book conference rooms.

6. Do you have any professional certifications? Yes, I have my NALS PLS . . . the advanced certification for legal professionals which I received in 1994, my NALS Professional Paralegal certification which I received in 2004, and my NALA CLA certification which I received in 2007.

7. What has been the highlight of your career? Certainly obtaining my legal assisting degree and my certifications have been a highlight, but making the transition to litigation and being able to go to trials around the country have certainly been a highlight of my career as well.

8. What do you see as hot trends in the paralegal industry? All things electronic – from document production to trial presentation, I think technology will continue to develop and it will become more important for legal professionals to be well versed in using all of the software applications available to handle huge quantities of documents at a reasonable cost to the client.

9. Have you dipped your toes in the social media waters? Oh yes. I have a Facebook account and have recently started to use Twitter, although I have a long way to go to figure out all the nuances of tweeting!

10. If someone contemplating a legal professional career asked you for career advice, what would your answer be? The legal professional career is extremely rewarding and full of challenges. It is not for those who are looking for “just a job.” A good legal professional is constantly learning and growing. The career is what you make it – you cannot demand respect, you earn it – but once you do, it is very fulfilling.

11. Is there a quote that inspires you? “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” ~ Neale Donald Walsch

12. You've enjoyed a successful legal professional career. To what single event or person do you attribute that success? There is not one single event or person who has had a hand in my successes. There are many events and many, many people who have touched my life in very significant ways.

Certainly the attorney I have worked with for over 14 years, who believed in me more than I believed in myself and was patient while she taught me about litigation, has been a very integral part of my success, as have the many people who have had faith in me and helped me grow through my 23-year membership in NALS.

13. What is the most important step a legal professional can take to keep his or her career interesting? Learn – constantly. Read everything you can. There are excellent resources on the Internet, training through professional associations, live and web-based seminars, podcasts, etc. The opportunities are endless and if you do not continue to learn, you will be left behind.

Bonus…Just for Fun Fact: I went parasailing and zip lining this past September. Both were something I never anticipated doing in my lifetime and both were a lot of fun. Now that I’ve been a little adventurous, I would do both (and more!) again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Paralegals Can Assist With Jury Selection

By Vicki Voisin and Lynne DeVenny

Dr. David Ball, a nationally recognized trial consultant, was the guest expert on a recent episode of The Paralegal Voice, the podcast we co-host on Legal Talk Network.

Discussion during the podcast focused on the paralegal’s role in jury selection.It is Dr. Ball’s opinion that attorneys under-utilize their paralegals during the jury selection process. He explained why he believes well-trained paralegals are essential to the trial team and how they provide much needed perspective and insight while seating a jury.

Providing assistance during a trial is one of the most exciting jobs a paralegal can have, and helping select a jury is a key element in that process. Here are some of the ways that paralegals can be an invaluable part of the trial team, especially when evaluating jurors:

  • Coordinate focus groups prior to trial. Some firms pay vendors to coordinate focus groups. However, an organized paralegal can help the firm economize, especially in smaller cases, by recruiting focus group participants and organizing in-house focus group sessions.
  • Obtain the list of potential jurors and any biographical data from the court, as soon as it becomes available. Use all available public data, such as civil, criminal, property and voter registration records to research jurors. Also, use the Internet and in particular, social networking sites to supplement information, including personal blogs, MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
  • Review juror questionnaires. If juror questionnaires are provided, index and organize your firm’s copies, and help your supervising attorney summarize the data and locate them quickly during the trial.

  • Take extremely detailed notes. Dr. Ball says that the paralegal should be taking all of the notes so that the attorney doesn’t have to, and can focus on his main role – getting jurors to talk.
  • Maintain the jury seating chart and individual juror forms. Dr. Ball recommends using 2” x 3” yellow Post-It Notes which are not only easy to cover with a new Post-It as jurors are removed from a seat, but also to save for future reference, particularly in the event of a challenge.
  • Pay close attention as the attorney questions each juror, not only to the juror’s answers, but how each juror reacts to another juror’s responses.

  • Closely observe the jurors whenever you have the opportunity, in the hall outside of the courtroom, as they are coming and going in the courtroom and even at lunch if the opportunity arises. In particular, try to identify the leaders – and the followers.
  • Observe the jurors during the trial – without being obvious or appearing to stare. Notice who looks interested, who looks at exhibits, who looks bored – and who might be asleep.

  • Keep track of the number of juror challenges your attorney has used, including the type of challenge that was used. For an overview of jury challenges, including the Batson challenge that Dr. Ball discusses in the podcast, see this ABA Journal article.
  • Observe the attorneys for the opposing parties. When they take notes, be sure to make your own notes about what is going on at that particular point in the trial.
  • Know your jurisdiction’s laws regarding jury challenges, so that you will recognize potential causes to dismiss a juror and can take more detailed notes if potential cause arises while a juror is talking.

The paralegal is the trial team’s extra pair of eyes and ears when it comes to observing the jury, and according to Dr. Ball, even observing opposing counsel’s actions. You may be your litigation team’s personal Sherlock Holmes, the one who doesn’t miss the minute details that can make a world of difference at trial.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dear Vicki...

I receive mail daily from paralegals with a multitude of questions. With their permission, I feature them here so that we can all work to formulate solutions for the good of the paralegal profession. The following message comes from Barbara Parkes of Princeton NJ.

Dear Vicki,

I enjoy receiving your newsletters and find they are some of the most interesting and informative paralegal networking resources I've seen.
I wanted to comment on today's newsletter -- specifically, the section in which you repeat the ABA's definition of a legal assistant/paralegal. (Note: Barbara is referring to the November 5, 2009 issue of Paralegal Strategies and the feature article titled 'Paralegal Resource: The American Bar Association'; to view this article, follow this link)

Many secretaries are now referring to themselves as legal assistants, and that this is not only confusing to clients but damaging to the paralegal profession. It seems to me that most attorneys do not have a problem with this, and I wish somehow this distinction would be made more clear.

"Secretary" is now a title that many do not care to have and they prefer to be referred to as an "assistant," as it is with "waiter/waitress" and the more accepted title of "server." However, this is confusing since, as you point out in your newsletter, the title of legal assistant and paralegal is synonymous.

If secretaries are going to start referring to themselves as assistants, because they work for law firms, it is natural for one to assume they are a "legal" assistant. However, secretarial duties are very different from paralegal duties, and those who are titled as paralegals are usually more educated in the legal field having a degree, a certificate or certification.

I wish the ABA's House of Delegates and the entire paralegal profession would make a distinction between these two terms rather than refer to them as synonymous, and start referring to paralegals as paralegals and secretaries as legal assistants. This would satisfy the secretaries, make things much less confusing for everyone, and maintain the respect for the paralegal profession that it deserves.

I would be interested in comments from other paralegals on this topic. Thank you.

Barbara A. Parkes, Paralegal
Princeton NJ

My response:

Dear Barbara...

Thank you for writing and also for your kind words about Paralegal Strategies.

You are referring to my recent article 'Paralegal Resource: The American Bar Association' that is available for review by following this link.

In that article I referred to the definition of a paralegal as adopted by the ABA (this is also the same definition adopted by the NALA):

The ABA's policy making body is the House of Delegates. In 1997, the House of Delegates adopted the current definition of "legal assistant/paralegal." The definition reads as follows:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

According to the ABA's Web site, "The current definition of "legal assistant/paralegal" replaces the definition adopted by the ABA Board of Governors in 1986. It adds the term "paralegal" since the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" are, in practice, used interchangeably. The term that is preferred generally depends on what part of the country one is from. The current definition streamlines the 1986 definition and more accurately reflects how legal assistants are presently being utilized in the delivery of legal services."

Your complaint is not uncommon, Barbara. You are correct that many attorneys are annointing their legal secretaries with the title 'legal assistant' though they do not meet the definition of a 'legal assistant or paralegal' as adopted by the ABA.

This not only confuses and misleads the general public. It is also unfair to the consumer when attorneys charge their clients for work done by this employee who is not trained to do substantive legal work.

In NALA's 2008 Utilization/Compensation Survey, 18% of respondents reported using the title 'Legal Assistant' while 75% use the title 'Paralegal.' This percentage has changed rapidly over the years. Ten years ago, the percentage would have been about 50-50 and depended largely on geography. For instance, in Michigan the term 'legal assistant' was most prevalent while in other states, it was 'paralegal.' There was a day when I said I would NEVER use the term paralegal. Well...that's a good lesson in 'never say never' because it's my preferred title today.

I do believe the change you propose is slowly taking place, Barbara. This is evidenced by the tremendous increase in numbers using the title 'Paralegal.' I believe, too, that the ABA's House of Delegates will eventually change the definition. However, 18% preferring the title 'legal assistant' is still significant and those members of the profession deserve recognition and representation.

There is something every paralegal can do, though, and that is to make attorneys aware that in order to use the title 'legal assistant or paralegal' the employee must meet the standards set by the ABA. In order to charge clients for the employee's time, the employee must meet the standards of the definition. This is reinforced by two significant Supreme Court cases: Missouri v Jenkins and Richlin v Chertoff. To read more about those cases and their significance to the paralegal profession, follow this link.

For the ABA's definition to change, paralegals and paralegal associations will most likely have to petition the ABA's Standing Committee on Paralegals with a request for this change. Again, our backs cannot be turned on the practicing legal assistants who meet the ABA's definition and wish (or their employer wishes) not to adopt the term paralegal.

That said, I must must MUST stress the importance of legal secretaries. They are the backbone of the law firm and attorneys absolutely cannot function without them. They, along with legal assistants and paralegals and all remaining staff, form an important team. Perhaps attorneys should take steps to show their appreciation for the legal secretaries' hard work.

Readers...please weigh in on Barbara's comments. Your opinions, as well as your suggested solutions, are welcome.