Wednesday, December 30, 2009
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.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
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
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."
- 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.)
Monday, December 14, 2009
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.
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
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.
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: http://www.brockovich.com/
Erin’s Biography: Bio http://www.brockovich.com/bio.htm
Girardi and Keese http://www.girardikeese.com/ (the law firm Erin consults with on the West Coast)
Friday, December 4, 2009
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 prioritize...as 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 www.paralegalmentor.com