Three critical aspects to forming your paralegal career

 

If you are considering embarking on a paralegal career, then there are numerous decisions to make which affect your career.  This article lays out but three of the areas which are common to all paralegals and for which your actions can have a significant influence on your career.  These pillars are: education, experience, and development.

Learning about the law and studying paralegalism is part one in your excursion into a paralegal career.  Education is generally available in three ways.  The first is a baccalaureate program in paralegal studies which yields a traditional four year degree.  The second is an associates program, generally a two year commitment, less time commitment than the traditional college degree.  And, the third is an accelerated program consisting of intensive immersion similar to a technical college.  A program of this nature may be completed in less than a year’s time.

Online or distance learning is being offered by some education providers.  The differentiator in paralegal schools is the coveted American Bar Association approval, known as, an ABA-approved program.  In order for a school to be able to provide a curriculum and program of study marketed as ABA-approved, it must meet requirements set by the ABA and continually achieve those specifications and standards to maintain the approval.  The current standards set by the ABA significantly limit online classes as the traditional classroom setting is preferred.  Carefully learn about these programs to determine which is fit for your educational needs.  Successful completion of a program earns the degree or paralegal certificate.

Newly minted, the next stage is experience.  While an externship or internship may help, an interesting phenomenon in a legal career is the catch 22 (paradox) of needing legal experience to snare a legal job, while most often the paralegal graduate has little, if any, legal experience.  This can be agonizing to a fresh job candidate, thus plan to overcome this paradox with strategic thinking.

While planning on school for this career, add the extra-curricular effort in obtaining experience.  One way to achieve some hands on experience is through volunteering.  The legal industry is replete with organizations, community outreach, and pro-bono services.  Volunteer for the clinics or events such as elder law, helping the homeless, and intake and advice clinics where lawyers provide free legal consultation to the public.  Explore temporary, entry level, and part-time jobs that a student can engage in on a limited and very entry basis.  Every bit counts in highlighting experience and keywords in your media and resume with which to then market for full time positions.

Entering the field upon obtaining a full time, career role may give cause to pause some of your efforts on education and experience.  After all, now your efforts are concentrated on practicing paralegal roles in law firms, corporations, and the public sector.  A career in the law, however, is saturated with development opportunities.

Governing paralegal organizations, such as National Association of Legal Assistants and National Federation of Paralegal Associations, provide certification tracks in further education.  Satisfying certain requirements like years of experience and other basics, a practicing paralegal can study for a certification and sit for an exam.  Passing these comprehensive exams will enable the organization to provide a designation such as Core Registered Paralegal and Certified Paralegal among others.  In addition, there are tracks for specialty areas of practice and Advanced Paralegal Certification.  Continuing Legal Education (“CLE”) are typically short one hour, half-day, or day long seminars on specific topics which attorneys are required to fulfill in their continuing practice of law.  Paralegals also take CLE and certifications require a certain amount of CLE credits to maintain the designation.  For the ambitious, a legal certification coupled with another certification, as in project management or e-discovery, can enhance your marketability.  There are many other educational opportunities, for example, obtaining a master degree.  Many paralegals have gone on at some point to law school and became lawyers.

In addition to CLE and certifications, most career relevant jobs have prospects for on the job development.  A management system or human resources program may offer and sometimes require development of employees in the workplace.  Depending on the availability, take advantage of all the opportunity available.  And, do not forget to volunteer.  Volunteering in the workspace for special projects, team leadership, or initiatives provides additional breadth to your career path.

Essential to career development is partnering with a mentor.  We all teach and learn from each other, yet a mentor is skilled or experienced in ways that give you the chance to seek more knowledge.  Attorneys are in the practice of law.  A very great deal of your on the job training comes from interacting with lawyers and legal teams that have more knowledge or the experience to feed to you as you develop.  Seek out instances where mentors can provide added guidance and expertise.  Mentors also provide priceless practice tips on things such as ethics, client relations, negotiation, strategy, and other capacities stemming from wisdom.

Thought of strategically, these three facets – education, experience, and development – provide the essential elements to a long, successful, and satisfying career in the legal field.  The more thought, effort, and repetition put into these actions will provide the bedrock necessary for these achievements.

 

 

 

 

© 2015 Neal Huffman all rights reserved

 

 

knowledge to learn

knowledge to learn

A new school year for paralegals

 

          Tonight begins another class in Introduction to Law at the Community College of Aurora (“CCA”) – Lowry Campus.  Eighteen ambitious and aspiring apprentices appear for the first session of Introduction to Law in CCA’s paralegal program (“PAR”).  Tonight the PAR 115 class kicks off the sixteen week semester with some administration, introductions, and a bit of lecture.

            The first order of business is a visit by the Program Coordinator.  She will hand out the Student Handbook and give an introductory speech to the fledgling class.  After the introduction and answers to any questions the students may have, a brief seven minute video will be shown.  The video is a collage of succinct interviews with both pupils and professors.  In addition, the video illustrates a local Denver attorney and her paralegal in their office setting and how the CCA program not only educates, but prepares paralegals at the standards that employers seek in a qualified paralegal.  As an ABA-approved paralegal studies program, CCA leads the way in training these legal professionals.

            At the conclusion of the video, the class will be handed back to the instructor.  As customary during the first class, the syllabus is handed out to the class and explained with respect to learning outcomes, grading, attendance, and expectations.  Once everyone is settled in, round robin introductions are a proven technique for breaking the ice and prompting participation at the outset of the class meetings.  A short ten minute break is then in order.  When everyone returns, there is plenty of time to go over the first two chapters.  Chapter one initiates discussion on The Paralegal Profession and Chapter two continues with Ethics and Professional Responsibility.

            This concludes class number one.  The scholars now have an idea of how the rest of the semester will go, as well as, their personal introduction to the program and to their peers.  Possessing the syllabus and the textbook, they are eager to return for class two.

© 2012 Neal Huffman all rights reserved

The year ahead: An interview with paralegal Mianne L. Besser

 

Paralegals in Denver are blessed with a cadre of experienced paralegals who take an active role in the profession.  I sought out one such paralegal, Mianne L. Besser, to ask questions about the direction our profession is headed in 2012.  Mianne graciously answered several questions which are more fully detailed below.

Q:  Mianne, thank you for taking the time and sharing your thoughts regarding the upcoming year and congratulations on being named the 2011 ParalegalGateway Superstar from Colorado.

A:  Neal, I was surprised and honored about being recognized as a 2011 ParalegalGateway Paralegal Superstar for 2011.  It was recognition that was completely unexpected.  I learned from Jeannie Sapp Johnston, Founder ParalegalGateway, that my nomination was submitted anonymously.  I am grateful to whoever nominated me and would welcome an opportunity to personally express my thanks.

Q:  You have many valuable contributions to the paralegal profession including a stint as President of Rocky Mountain Paralegal Institute (“RMPA”).  Would you mind talking about other positions you have held?

A:  I appreciate that you feel I have contributed to the paralegal profession.  I was President of RMPA from 2007 to 2010.  Prior to becoming President, I served as a Director-at-Large and Newsletter Editor.  I am continuing my third term as a member of the National Federation of Paralegal Association’s (“NFPA“) Budget Committee as well as my second term as a Special Projects Coordinator for NFPA.  I was also on the NFPA 2011 Ad Hoc Committee Regarding Exempt/Non-Exempt Status of Paralegals.  I continue to serve as a co-Chair of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association Legal Support Staff Committee.  I am also a member of the Colorado Association of Litigation Support Professionals.  I was an adjunct instructor at Kaplan College for the Paralegal studies program and was a member of the Paralegal Advisory Committee (until they announced the closing of the Denver campus).  I also serve on the Community College of Aurora’s Paralegal Advisory Committee. 

Q:  As we begin 2012, what are the top developments that paralegals should prepare for to stay ahead of the curve?

A:  “Top developments”, I think, can be subjective depending on whom you’re talking with and their background/professional experience.  In general, I believe that improving access to legal services through changes in the Court system (e.g., Colorado Civil Access Pilot Project) is an important factor for many in the legal system, including the parties, Courts, lawyers, and paralegals.  I also believe that paralegals are becoming project/case managers as well as being responsible for the overall case management.  As part of the project/case management responsibilities, the paralegal is creating and implementing budgets for their litigation matter.  This is a new role for many paralegals and can be difficult to employ if not done correctly. Clients are taking a more active role in their cases and in some instances establishing national agreements with certain litigation support service providers and directing law firms to utilize those vendor resources for their cases.  In addition, I believe that we are seeing increased examples of legal process off-shoring/outsourcing in an attempt to minimize costs (this is a topic which I address in my October 2011 white paper written for NFPA).  Paralegals should also look to continue their professional education and development, not only in their particular area of practice, but in other areas in order to show dedication to their profession as well as maintaining a competitive edge during periods of economic uncertainty. 

Q:  What does the career have to offer in the 2012 economy?  Will the demand for legal professionals increase, stay the same, or experience downsizing?

A:  Paralegal career opportunities are improving as the economy improves. One thing that I’ve noticed in the Denver market is that firms are replacing paralegals that have retired or have left for other opportunities; there aren’t many new positions that are being created.  Another challenge in this economic climate for paralegals is the existence of a “JD Paralegal”.  While this isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, there are more instances where this is taking place.  Specifically, firms are bringing in first and second year attorneys to fill paralegal positions.  The premise for this type of hire could be that the first or second year attorney performs many paralegal duties while also being mentored to take on attorney duties and responsibilities.  As the associate becomes more comfortable with the attorney responsibilities, the amount of billable hours work increases thereby making the associate more financially viable to the firm.

If you look at the Department of Labor statistics regarding paralegals, the profession will continue to grow at 28% between 2008 and 2018.  Competition for jobs continues to be fierce as employers seek out “…experienced, formally trained paralegals.” (Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Occupational Handbook, 2010 – 2011 Edition http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos114.htm).

Paralegal salaries vary within the state of Colorado as well as across the country.  Someone considering becoming a paralegal or is already a paralegal should conduct a thorough review of salaries through surveys posted by NFPA, Robert Half Legal, Paralegal Today, and other paralegal resources including journals, trade magazines and resources available on the internet.

Q:  New graduates often speak of the disparity between legal job postings requiring one to three years experience and the applicant lacking the experience as they have just completed their degree or obtained their paralegal certificate.  What advice for students is foremost on your mind? 

A:  I can understand the students’ frustration; however, they should consider the employers’ position.  Depending on the size of the firm and the practice group profile, there simply may not be time or available resources to hire and train a new paralegal.  I’m not condoning this, but simply looking at the realities of the work environment.  I would strongly encourage paralegal students who participate in intern/externship opportunities to talk with the firm’s Legal Administrator, Hiring Partner or HR Representative about the possibility of being retained as a fulltime member of the firm upon completion of the intern/externship.  If that’s not a possibility, then inquire as to other opportunities, including an Administrative Assistant position.  While that may not seem as “glamorous” as being brought into a firm as a paralegal, accepting an open opportunity can lead to being the first candidate of consideration when the firm looks to hire a new paralegal.  For some, taking a position other than a paralegal can seem a defeat and an affront to his/her education.  On the contrary, often times being at the right firm at the right time can bring about an incredible and unexpected opportunity.

I’d also like to have paralegals understand that there is no such designation as “ABA Certified” paralegal.  There are ABA-certified paralegal programs for someone already possessing a 4-year degree (e.g., Arapahoe Community College); the student who graduates from one of these programs receives a certificate of completion.  Therefore, this student is “certificated”.  A paralegal that passes an exam administered by NFPA and receives the PACE credential is a “Registered Paralegal”.  Similarly, if an individual successfully completes the NALA exam, the resultant designation is “Certified Paralegal”.  I agree with my colleague Misty Sheffield, CP, who notes that “…the confusion is caused by the similarity of the words “certified” and “certificated.”  Paralegals, regardless of their level/expertise, would do well to understand the difference and to be able to explain it to a prospective (or existing) employer.

Q:  What is your number one piece of advice to a new paralegal?

A:  Never stop learning.

Q:  Going forward, what does 2012 hold for issues such as licensing, regulation, and exempt vs. non-exempt classifications?

A:  As we discussed earlier, the paralegal role is expanding to include project management.  A paralegal that isn’t prepared for this change would do well to obtain information and education about project management to ensure success in this role.

For the state of Colorado, licensing and regulation are not currently topics of discussion for the members of the Colorado Bar Association and the Supreme Court.  Licensing and regulation continue to be discussed and implemented in some form or fashion across the country.  Paralegals who are interested in this issue should continue to keep themselves apprised by researching the topic via the Internet as well as print magazines and local legal publications.  They should also reach out to their local Association to determine the Association’s position on these issues.

With respect to exempt and non-exempt classifications, paralegals consider themselves as professionals and may possess undergraduate and advanced degrees.  Unfortunately, the Department of Labor has consistently refused to recognize most paralegals as exempt employees under either the professional or administrative exemptions.  The Department of Labor has stated, “…there must be the exercise of discretion and independent judgment on matters of significance or consequence related to the management or general business operations of the employer or the employer’s customers.”  (Can Paralegals and Legal Analysts Qualify as Exempt Under the FSLA, http://www.thompson.com/public/headlines.jsp?id=55).  Many paralegals feel that there are similarities between this profession and that of a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant.   Those individuals are supervised by a medical doctor while carrying out their duties, yet they are afforded professional, exempt, standing within the Department of Labor.  Many paralegals, though, prefer to remain as non-exempt employees to ensure that they are paid for any overtime hours incurred.  Some exempt paralegals report that they are unable to take “comp” time due to the workload and at the end of the year they have been unable to take use time banked in lieu of payment for their overtime hours.  Some paralegals feel that they are not evaluated or treated as learned professionals by their supervising attorneys or their Legal Administrators or HR Directors.  I encourage paralegals to help educate those who appear to be uniformed about the level of professionalism we possess.

Another issue, which I touched on earlier, is the outsourcing/off-shoring of paralegal work by employers seeking to minimize or contain costs on behalf of their clients.  eDiscovery continues to be an area that expands to incorporate more tools to make electronic document management more efficient for paralegals (who are often referred to as litigation support managers in eDiscovery).  Even if a paralegal is not actively working with eDiscovery, it is important that s/he have a working knowledge of eDiscovery as many firms are looking to automate processes in order to be more efficient and effective with their practices.

Thank you Mianne, we are all very grateful for your candor and for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.

Thank you, Neal, for your time and asking me to speak with you.  I believe that this is a great time to be a paralegal.

©  Neal Huffman 2012.  All rights reserved.