Friday, June 24, 2011

It's the Client's Property: 7 Important Points to Remember

The American Bar Association's Model Rule 1.15 addresses the attorney's ethical obligation to keep a client's property safe. That obligation includes:  
  • Keeping the property or funds separate from the lawyer's property and in a safe place, such as a separate bank account, a safe deposit box, or a fireproof safe 
  • Keeping accurate and complete records of the client's funds and property (rules regarding the records to be kept vary from state to state)
  • Promptly notifying the client when property or funds are received
  • Promptly delivering the property to the client when entitled
  • Providing a full accounting of the property upon the client's request
The client's property (cash or otherwise) is not to be commingled with the law firm's general operating account(s). Violation of this rule, even if there is no harm to the client, may result in the attorney being disciplined. There may be other ramifications such as criminal charges and civil litigation. 

Paralegals who tamper with clients' funds cannot be disciplined but may face criminal charges and may be sued in civil court. Don't forget the part about losing your job and your certification(s).

This is a serious issue. Here are seven important points you must remember when handling the client's money or other property:

1. 'Fees paid in advance' are not to be confused with 'retainer fees.' Advanced fees are usually requested to ensure the attorney's fees and costs will be paid. These fees are never deposited in the firm's general account. Instead, they are deposited in the client trust account and may be withdrawn only as fees are earned or expenses are paid. The fees are considered 'earned' when they are billed. Any unearned advanced fees are to be refunded to the client.

2. A 'retainer fee' is a flat amount that is paid for a specific period of time, such as monthly. Retainer fees are paid to guarantee that the attorney will be available for whatever work has to be done during the specified period of time. The retainer fee belongs to the attorney whether or not the attorney does work that would earn payment of the fee. These fees are not returned to the client, regardless of the amount of work done on the client's behalf.

3. Any funds received by the attorney but still belonging to the client are deposited in the law firm's trust account. The trust account is a separate account from the attorney's general operating account. It is maintained in the state where the attorney's office is located. The two accounts are never commingled, even if there is no harm to the client. For instance, it is unethical to borrow funds from the trust account to buy new office furniture or cover payroll, even if the money can be returned to the trust account before it is missed.

4. The client trust account may also be called the IOLTA Account. This is the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Account program. The supreme courts or legislatures of all 50 states have established these programs so that the interest on the attorney's trust account is forwarded to the State Bar to provide legal services for low-income citizens.

5. States are divided on the issue of paying unearned fees by credit card. The ABA approves the use of credit cards for payment of earned fees. Those fees may be deposited directly into the firm's operating account. It has been suggested that payments for unearned fees (remember that these funds still belong to the client and must be treated as such) may not be made to a credit card account that is used for the firm's general operating funds. (See Arizona Ethics Opinion 08-01 and Michigan RI-344 for examples). It would probably be best if attorneys have two credit card merchant for earned legal fees and costs and a second for advance fees and expenses.

6. Some states allow nonlawyers to sign trust account checks.
The rule varies from state to state. Whatever the rule, the attorney remains responsible for any mistakes or theft of funds from the account. It is important that the attorney reviews all trust account transactions each month. The attorney is ultimately accountable for the safekeeping of the client's funds. Nonlawyers can be prosecuted for mishandling the funds.

7. According to ABA Model Rule 1.5, the attorney must keep records of trust account funds and other property for five years after representation of the client ends.
This time period varies from state to state.

Your challenge: Review the Model Rules and Ethics Opinions in your state so that you understand the rules that apply to your firm's handling of client funds and property. While the attorney will be disciplined if errors are made, you, too, could be subject to criminal or civil penalties. Your firm should have a system in place to ensure that its clients' funds and property are handled properly and ethically.
© 2011 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 setting 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 Paralegal Strategies, a weekly enewsletter for paralegals and co-hosts The Paralegal Voice, a monthly podcast produced by Legal Talk Network.

More information is available at where subscribers receive Vicki's 151 Tips for Your Career Success.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paralegal Profile: Zachary W. Brewer, CP

Zachary W. Brewer, CP answers my Thirteen Questions today. He is a paralegal with Richards & Connor, PLLP in Tulsa, OK where he specializes in medical malpractice and insurance defense. 

Zach has an interesting educational background with an AA in History from Tulsa Community College (TCC) and a BA in History from the University of Tulsa. He received his teaching certification in secondary education from Northeastern State University and he graduated from the paralegal studies program at TCC. He also earned his Certified Paralegal credential from NALA. Thanks, Zach!
1.    What prompted you to choose a paralegal career?  I have always been fascinated with the law and our system of justice. I even contemplated law school as an undergrad.

2.    What is your favorite part of your job?  Research and investigative work; trying to find the "smoking gun" so to speak.

3.    What professional associations do you belong to?  NALA and TAPA (Tulsa Area Paralegal Association)

4.    How has your membership benefited you?   It has been great way to network with other paralegals, exchange ideas, get support and of course, CLEs.

5.    What has been the highlight of your career?  Drafting a Motion to Dismiss and having it granted! (Of course, the Plaintiff made it really easy.) I would be remiss in not mentioning my boss, Elizabeth Hart, who helped polish it for me.

6.    What do you see as hot trends in the paralegal industry?  Anything technology-wise is going to be huge in the coming years. The iPad and other new technology have made gathering and using information much easier and "eye-popping". Many times, attorneys do not have the time, or the interest, in learning these new techniques, and rely on their staff to be up to date.

7.    If someone contemplating a paralegal career asked you for career advice, what would your answer be?  Read! Be a voracious reader and consume everything you can. The law is expansive, and paralegal programs can only teach so much (otherwise you would be in law school). Be willing to learn and work hard. The more you know, the more marketable you will be. … Also, join at least two professional associations. The contacts will be invaluable.

8.    Is there a quote that inspires you?  An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. (Because, hey, we all make errors.)

9.     You've enjoyed a successful paralegal career.  To what single event or person do you attribute that success?  I would have to give credit to Elizabeth Hart, my supervising attorney. My office did not have paralegals, and they were not sure they needed one.  Elizabeth saw the value of having a paralegal, and what one could do to increase productivity and profitability. She basically got the position created for me. Otherwise, I might still be looking for a job!

10.    What is the most important step a paralegal can take to keep his or her career interesting?  Always be willing to take on new tasks. Even better, ask for different tasks from attorneys in the office. Do not allow yourself to become "pigeon-holed" into one role.
11. Who would play you in a movie of your life? Jason Alexander (a.k.a. George Costanza)

12. From American history, who is your hero? George Washington. The sexy pick? No. However, without his leadership, there is NO United States, period.

13. What three items would you want if you were stranded on a desert island?
Food, water and a boat.

Bonus Question: What is the riskiest thing you ever did? Quit my teaching job to go to paralegal classes with a wife and child at home. 

Are you Wired and Addicted to Work?

Australians are increasingly working longer hours with technology  blurring the boundaries between work and home life.

This is not unusual, whether in Australia or the United States.

For instance, Australian Paralegal Jakeb Brown may leave the office at 6:30p.m., but he still works for an hour on his commute home.
''This is actually an early finish for me today,'' the 22-year-old said. ''I do work on the commute, but I think it is an efficient use of time. There's not much else to do on the trip.''
How do you know if you are among the growing number of "techno-enabled" workaholics? If you answer "Yes" to the following questions, you probably are:
  • Does the number of colleagues on Facebook outnumber your friends?
  • Is a smartphone the last thing you consult before bed?
  • Do you bring your laptop on vacation?
Research commissioned by NorthgateArinso, an HR software company, surveyed 500 white-collar workers and found that a third worked while commuting to and from work, and two-thirds continued to work while on vacation.

David Page, Managing Director of the company's Australasian operations, said even assuming a modest 30 minutes equated to about five hours' extra work a week. Workers might be using smartphones, Skype, instant messaging and iPads to stay hooked in, but these devices could become security blankets to make workers believe they're indispensable and an important part of the group.

When workers were asked if they felt technology helped them achieve a better work-life balance, more than 70 percent agreed. Yet more than half admitted technology was intruding into personal time.

Mr. Page did not believe job insecurity was driving the workaholism. But Barbara Pocock, Director of the University of South Australia's Centre for Work + Life disagreed.
''Research shows that three-quarters of people who are putting in long work hours don't want to be doing them,'' Professor Barbara Pocock said. ''Job insecurity is part of this, although there is an addictive element to the long hours.''
Another issue that neither Mr. Page nor Professor Pocock mentioned is the 24/7 availability that technology imposes on employees. Are employers paying the employees for the time worked outside the office? I'm unsure how overtime works in Australia but in the US the Department of Labor has classified paralegals in a category that is entitled to overtime pay.

As you spend more and more of your "leisure" time connected to your work through technology, be sure that you are fairly compensated for your time and that you are taking enough time for yourself so that you don't suffer from burnout.

Also, if the work you are doing is billable, be sure you have a system in place to capture all your time.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why an Attorney Should Hire a Paralegal

Why should attorneys hire paralegals? Florida Paralegal Linda McGrath Cruz, ACP, FRP  has posted her reasons on the LinkedIn group forum for Know: The Magazine for Paralegals:

• Frees up attorney time to handle more complex cases and serve more clients.
• Allows the attorney to accept a large volume of cases thereby increasing revenue.

• Paralegals can perform quality legal services to the client at a lower cost to the client.

• Allows the attorney to market his or her legal services as being progressive and efficient.

• The paralegal is generally available to meet with the clients when the attorney is unavailable or when the attorney’s presence is not necessary.

• Allows more time for the attorney to meet mandatory continuing education requirements and to keep abreast of new or repealed laws and reported cases.

• Allows the attorney to accept pro bono cases or represent clients or to represent clients in noteworthy cases.

Then North Carolina Paralegal Elizabeth Stallings added this:

"Paralegals frequently play a large role in ensuring that deadlines are met on a timely basis.
Clients sometimes feel more comfortable communicating with paralegals because paralegals can cut through legal jargon and express ideas in a way that those unfamiliar with the law can understand."

Both Elizabeth and Linda make good points for the hiring of paralegals. What would you add?

Monday, June 20, 2011

How to Have the "Pricing Talk" .. it's not so difficult!

How do I make them understand what
I'm really worth?
  • Do you have an established virtual paralegal business?
  • Are you just starting your business?
  • Do you think you may want to work as a virtual paralegal sometime in the future?
Whatever your stage, you'll want to be sure to attend Virtual Paralegals: Find and Claim Your Value - How to Charge What You're Really Worth -- with Confidence Wednesday, June 22nd at 1pm Eastern time.

What's the NUMBER ONE question everyone asks when they think about working virtually? You guessed it: what do I charge?
First, remember that you are no longer an employee. You have a full-fledged business that comes with expenses, such as insurance, equipment and supplies. You have to do all the marketing and you have to do all the billing. In addition, you have training, experience and expertise. All of this is taken into consideration when determining what you will charge.
Think about how attorneys charge for their services: the more experience they have, the higher their hourly rate charged to their "customers". That hourly rate also takes into consideration the over head involved with running the firm. This is the "thinking" you must have when determining your rates and then conveying that information to the attorneys who are now your customers.
Tina Hilton of Clerical Advantage is teaming up with me to answer this burning question. We'll discuss how to set your rates so they reflect your training and experience, how to use research to establish your value, how to "have the pricing talk" with potential clients and more.                                                                 
This is a high-value low-cost opportunity for anyone considering a virtual paralegal business or who is in the process of forming their business. Follow this link for more information and to register.

Congratulations! FSCJ Paralegal Students Win Competition

Mary Alice Groves
Overall Winner
Congratulations to Florida State College at Jacksonville paralegal students Mary Alice Groves, Stephanie Mealer and Christine Lewis who received high honors in the school's first competition for students of its paralegal studies program.

Students were assigned to research a legal issue, specifically a search of electronic data on laptops and phones of travelers without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. 

Students drafted a legal memo with their findings and then sat with a panel of attorneys to discuss the findings. They were scored in research, writing and communication. 

Mary Alice Groves was the “Overall Winner,” and the runner-up for “Best Memorandum.” Stephanie Mealer was the “Overall Runner-Up.” Christine Lewis won “Best Memorandum.”
“The attorneys that judged on the final panel were impressed with the level of preparation and professionalism the students showed,” said Nick Martino, professor of paralegal studies at FSCJ.
“Although the panel discussion was only supposed to last 12 minutes, most of them went over 15 minutes as the attorneys were engaged in spirited back and forth (discussions) with the students over their research,” he said.
Following the success of this year's competition, Mr. Martino plans invite paralegal programs from other schools in Florida to participate next year.

Source Jacksonville Daily Record

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Paralegal Profile: Patricia C. DeRamus, ACP, FRP

Patricia C. DeRamus, ACP, FRP answers my Thirteen Questions today. She is the First Vice-President of the Paralegal Association of Florida (PAF) and employed is a litigation paralegal with Murray & Guari Trial Lawyers.

In addition to an Associates Degree - Legal Assistant, Patricia earned NALA's ACP credential in Trial Practice and Discovery. She is also a Florida Registered Paralegal. Thanks, Patricia!

1.    What prompted you to choose a paralegal career?  A family friend (who happened to be an attorney) encouraged me to seek my potential.

2.    What is your favorite part of your job?  Assisting our attorneys in order to obtain a positive outcome for our clients.

3.    What professional associations do you belong to? I am a member of: National Association of Legal Assistants and served on NALA’s Professional Development Committee; Palm Beach County Chapter of PAF, Inc. - served in several committee capacities; Paralegal Association of Florida, Inc. - First Vice President; Palm Beach County Bar Association - on various committees; and Palm Beach County Justice Association.

4.    How has your membership benefited you?   The benefits include professional development and educational opportunities.  It has also afforded networking opportunities across the United States to spread the word about the paralegal profession -  both professional and personally, as well as establishing valued friendships since 1989 when I first became a member of NALA.      

5.    What has been the highlight of your career?  I have been afforded many highlights such as:

  • teaching in a local paralegal program,
  • being a speaker for Paralegal Association of Florida, Inc. to Florida Atlantic University paralegal students,
  • speaking during Law Week to middle and high school students about my chosen profession
  • writing articles for NALA’s Facts and Finding, 
  • serving on NALA’s Professional Development Committee (2008 – 2009), and
  • serving on the Florida Bar Special Committee to Study Mandatory Paralegal Regulation.
6.    What do you see as hot trends in the paralegal industry?  E-discovery and the changes it has brought to every practice specialty imaginable. 

Electronic discovery influences how people and businesses conduct themselves, what they write in an e-mail, say in a voicemail or put in a blog or website has changed the face of the legal field. It also means that the number and type of assignments for paralegals has increased and changed, particularly in the discovery and risk management arenas.

7.    If someone contemplating a paralegal career asked you for career advice, what would your answer be?  Never stop asking questions and always strive to be the very best ethical paralegal you can be.

8.    Is there a quote that inspires you?  I have two quotes:  Eleanor Roosevelt – “The future belongs to those who believe in  the beauty of their dreams.” and Maya Angelou – “When you know better, you do better."

9.     You've enjoyed a successful paralegal career.  To what single event or person do you attribute that success? Certainly my husband and family as they have supported me throughout my professional career.  My husband (my biggest supporter) enjoys travelling with me to paralegal seminars, board meetings and CLE opportunities meeting some of the most phenomenal women and men in my profession. 

I have met many professionals throughout my 20+ years as a paralegal that have shared their knowledge and expertise, which has helped me to grow and expand my horizons.

10.    What is the most important step a paralegal can take to keep his or her career interesting?  Certification is number one.  This reflects on your professionalism.
It is also important to become involved in professional organizations and be open to change and additional responsibilities – all this things add to your growth potential.

11. What’s your favorite vacation getaway? I love Discovery Cove, Orlando, Florida where you have the opportunity to swim and interact with dolphins, sting rays and tropical fish and birds in a lush setting.

12. What was the riskiest thing you ever did? Skydive while living in Maryland and just recently met the Black Dagger Skydiving team.  They have inspired me to do one more jump which will be on my next birthday.

13. Is there a philosophy you live by? Yes, never, never, never give up.

Bonus Question: What scares you the most?  After skydiving – I have no fear of anything!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Paralegal Salary Survey Shows Positive Turn in Paralegal Compensation

There's some good news for paralegals from Paralegal Today Editor Sally Kane:  

While salaries aren't rising like they did in apex years, the legal job market is thawing and compensation is slowly climbing back from previous levels, according to Paralegal Today magazine's 19th Annual Salary Survey, published in its April/June 2011 issue.

The survey, which drew paralegal participants from across the country, reports that the national average salary for law firm paralegals in 2010 was $50,730, a 1.3% increase from 2009 while corporate paralegal salaries rose to $63,566, a 1.7% rise from the previous year. The highest reported full-time salary was $152,500 while the lowest annual salary was $14,400.

In addition to a small bump in salary, many paralegals are also seeing a rise in caseloads, another positive sign of recovery, the survey reports.

Only half of paralegals received a raise in 2010 (up from less than half in 2009). The average raise was $2,684 in 2010 while the largest reported raise was $15,000.

According to the survey, top-earning paralegal specialties for law firm paralegals in 2010 were: municipal law (with an average salary of $71,254), energy law ($68,000), tax ($64,350), workers' compensation ($63,742) and commercial law ($63,360).  The lowest paying paralegal specialties were family law ($35,512), criminal ($37,003) and personal injury ($45,576).

For those working in a corporate legal setting, the most highly compensated specialties in 2010 were mergers and acquisitions ($94,096), real estate ($89,822) and corporate governance ($73,562).

The survey also revealed several trends in the legal industry: the outsourcing of legal work; flexible work arrangements; associate-level work tasks; and a growing distinction between "paralegals" and "legal assistants."
"As we emerge from one of the worst legal climates in history," Ms. Kane says, "Paralegals will hopefully continue to see an uptick in employment and compensation. Today, everyone is looking at the bottom line. Paralegals who generate revenue for their firm and keep their skills fresh in a changing legal market will have the greatest earning power."

For a copy of the salary survey issue, contact Sherry McCoy at Conexion International Media: Also, I recommend that you subscribe to Paralegal Today...this is one of the many ways to follow trends in the paralegal profession and plan your career path accordingly.

Brynne Williamson PP, PLS: Paralegal Gateway June 2011 Superstar

Brynne Williamson, PP, PLS
Brynne Williamson, PP, PLS has been named Paralegal Gateway's June 2011 Superstar.

Brynne is a probate paralegal at Helsell Fetterman LLP in Seattle, Washington, specializing in estate and trust administration and taxation issues. 

A 2004 graduate of the San Joaquin College of Law paralegal program, Brynne obtained her ALS certification from NALS…the association for legal professionals.  She went on to obtain the PLS certification in 2005 and the Professional Paralegal (PP) credential in 2007.

Brynne has been an active member of NALS, since joining the association in 2004.  She began volunteering on the national Education Committee by moderating online study sessions.  She went on to serve as Secretary and President of NALS of Greater Seattle and Membership Director of NALS of Washington. 

For the last two years, Brynne has served on the NALS national board as the NALS Region 7 Director, representing the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.  In 2011-12, she will serve as the NALS Marketing Director.

During her career, Brynne has received several honors for her efforts on behalf of the legal community.  She received the award for NALS of Greater Seattle Volunteer of the Year in 2006.  In 2008, Brynne was honored to be named the NALS of Greater Seattle Legal Professional of the Year.

Brynne also took the time to answer The Paralegal Mentor's Thirteen Questions. To read more, follow this link. Congratulations, Brynne!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Office Politics? Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil!

Office Politics – strategies people use to achieve personal advantage -- are a fact of life. Some are “good” and some are “bad”.

When thought of as “bad” office politics, reference is to the tactics people use for their advantage at the expense of others, adversely affecting the work environment and relationships. “Good” office politics help you promote yourself.

You may hate them, but like it or not, you need to learn to handle office politics well to ensure your career success. If you refuse to deal with the 'bad politics' churning around you, your career may suffer as others take unfair advantage. If you avoid practicing 'good politics', you may miss opportunities to promote and advance your career.

Office politics may be compared to navigating a minefield. To deal with them effectively, you must accept the reality that they exist and then develop tactics to deal with them. The “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” approach is best. Here are some tips to help you survive:

Hear No Evil
Disregard Biased Comments. Negative feelings about a co-worker often result from something another co-worker says. Don’t pay attention to biased comments. Instead, get to know your co-workers and form your own opinions. Once you know someone well and understand what motivates them, you may find they’re not so bad after all.

Don’t hold a grudge.  Anger toward a co-worker only serves to adversely affect your work. Instead of bottling up your anger and risking an emotional explosion, take steps to diffuse the crisis regardless of who may be at fault. Once the problem is resolved let go of your anger -- treat the problem as history and move on.

See No Evil.
Observe your co-workers. It’s always helpful to know where other people stand. Take some time to observe your co-workers and assess their political power. Who are the real influencers? Are there groups or cliques? Who gets along with whom? Who are the chronic complainers and crisis seekers?

Build relationships that with peers as well as bosses. Be part of multiple networks so you can keep your finger on the pulse of the firm. Get to know politically powerful people in the firm or company. Build relationships with them but never fear them. Be friendly with everyone but don’t align yourself with one group or another.

Speak No Evil.
Treat everyone with respect and kindness. No matter how upset you are about something or how upset you are with a co-worker or client, keep your comments to yourself, put on a smile and greet them warmly.

Avoid joining with voices that criticize your boss, the firm or the company. Never complain to a client or anyone outside the firm about internal conflicts. This only sheds a bad light on everyone, especially you. 

Don’t be boastful.  Co-workers perceive you as bragging, you may have a label you don’t want. It’s best to let your work speak for itself or let somebody else do the bragging for you. Of course, it does no harm to point out to your boss what you have contributed and achieved beyond the call of duty. If you make a mistake, admit it and fix it...don't blame it on someone else.

Beware – ultimatums may be very dangerous.  Before you rush to a manager and lay down an ultimatum, consider what the results might be. If you get someone fired, you may pay a steep price with your co-workers. If you are ignored and nothing is done, you are no further ahead and you’ve made it known that you are so unhappy you’re ready to leave the firm. When and if you decide to take your problems to a manager, always be able to offer constructive solutions.

Additional Steps You Should Take.
Concentrate on your work. Be the best at what you do, no matter the size of the job, and always leave your mark of excellence on your work. Be punctual, meet deadlines and follow the rules (written or unwritten) of the firm or company. Become an expert (the go-to person) in at least one area. Watch for trends in the industry. Always be learning new systems and software. 

You may have to make a change. If the chaos of office politics becomes too difficult to handle, you may have to request a transfer or decide that another job is the best route for you. Do not wait until you are completely broken down to do this. Know the danger signs and when it’s time to quit. If at all possible, land the new job before letting go of the current one.

There’s a saying that you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar. This certainly applies to office politics. Always weigh your options. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Be patient. Be open to new opportunities.

The Bottom Line
When you learn to deal with office politics, you will regain your self-confidence and enjoy your work more. You’re a winner!
© 2011 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 setting 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 Paralegal Strategies, a weekly enewsletter for paralegals and co-hosts The Paralegal Voice, a monthly podcast produced by Legal Talk Network.

More information is available at where subscribers receive Vicki's 151 Tips for Your Career Success.