Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Paralegal to Run for Leflore County Tax Collector

Former paralegal Margaret W. Clark has filed her paperwork to run for Leflore County, Miss. Tax Collector. Clark has twenty years of experience as a paralegal and office manager, as well as ten years working at the Department of Tax Collection in Holmes County and four years of banking experience. Clark additionally is studying to obtain her real estate license.

Liberian Lawyers Learn How to Use Paralegals

Two members of the Association of the Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) have returned home from an International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) training program held in South Africa. The intensive training program primarily dealt with the use of community-based paralegals. These rural paralegals provide legal services to the rural residents of South Africa who would otherwise not have access to the justice system.

The training program also provided AFELL members with a chance to see how a similar paralegal system could be set up in Liberia. Additionally, the tour acquainted the delegation with best practices for paralegal training.

The Case for Regulation

As more paralegals enter the job force and more law firms utilize paralegals, paralegal regulation has emerged as an issue. Nowhere does this become more pressing than in cases where paralegals handle the bulk of the legal work and engage in intense client contact. Currently, anyone can call himself or herself a paralegal, regardless of training or experience, and inadvertently wreak havoc on a client or firm. Regulation of paralegals can mitigate the damage caused by untrained people using the title of “paralegal,” as well as offer benefits to those receiving some sort of certification or licensure.

Several years ago, I worked with a woman who called herself a paralegal. Unfortunately, she would often stumble over the most basic procedural rules, insert careless typos into her work, and send out erroneous information to clients. Yet because there is no regulation for paralegals in Massachusetts, she could continue to add “Paralegal” to her signature line. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum are the paralegals with either many years of experience, college degrees, paralegal certificates, and/or advanced degrees being lumped in with those who barely have any education or experience. There is a wide gap between these types of paralegals, and regulation could close that gap.

Firms and lawyers would benefit by knowing that the paralegals they hire have gone through some sort of process and have actual credentials. By actually having some sort of credentials, paralegals who cannot perform more advanced legal work would be weeded out of the pool, thus making it easier to distinguish a paralegal with training and experience from someone who once worked for a lawyer or took a quick course and now calls himself or herself a paralegal.

Meanwhile, paralegals can benefit from regulation. There certainly is the question of money, and if regulation becomes standardized, attorneys may be willing to pay more for a paralegal with that piece of paper or license. It seems that being a Notary Public or having a paralegal certificate offers an advantage, so why not a paralegal certification?

We can also hold ourselves to higher standards with regulation. It can be good publicity for the profession. If someone is not up to par, is not able to pass an exam, and is not able to provide some sort of actual qualifications, they cannot call themselves paralegals. That can be reserved for those of us who do have experience, knowledge, and/or education to back up our titles. We can say, “Yes, I’m a paralegal,” and have some acknowledgement of all the work we’ve done to get here, rather than, “What’s that?” or “Yeah, my cousin took a correspondence course and she’s one, too.”

Regulation could be anything from a formal exam given by the state to a fee and an oath taken. It could be administered through a private organization such as NFPA. As long as the paralegal in question could show some sort of qualifications, either through experience or coursework from an accredited school, he or she should be able to apply for the certification. NFPA has already laid out requirements for the PACE exam, which would work well to qualify and disqualify applicants. For example, someone who has been working for ten years as a paralegal but only has a high school diploma definitely should have the opportunity for licensure, as should someone with a degree or certificate in paralegal studies and minimal experience.

With such safeguards in place, paralegals can continue to move forward into more substantive legal work. A regulated paralegal could be trusted with more client contact, more document drafting (ok, more work, but also more responsibility, more challenges, and more money).

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

In Conn., Questions Linger Over Paralegal Certification Bid

In neighboring Connecticut, members of the Central Connecticut Paralegal Association continue to express concerns over a measure that would make Connecticut one of just a handful of states that recognize certified and licensed paralegals.

Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz has pledged her support of the endeavor, encouraging CCPA members to work closely with the state bar association. She offered guidance on how to begin the process of certification and licensing, including a study of programs adopted in North Carolina (2004) and California (2000), both of which are voluntary.

The CCPA has not yet taken an official stance on the issue of regulation. The association estimates a time period of two to five years for the process, and still must come to an agreement on the details, including how to address veteran paralegals with years of experience, as well as educational requirements.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Nominations Now Open for LAT's Rookie of the Year

Legal Assistant Today is now accepting nominations for Rookie of the Year, open to paralegals with one to three years of experience.

Nominees for Rookie of the Year, in addition to being new paralegals, must hold an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies from an accredited institution. If the associate's degree or bachelor's degree is not in paralegal studies, the nominee must also have a certificate in paralegal studies. Self-nominations will not be accepted. The winner will be featured in the November/December issue and will receive a $500 prize, award plaque and complimentary one-year subscription to LAT. The deadline for nominations is July 13, 2007.

Paralegal Turns Passion for Fashion Into Booming Business

Clothing designer and former paralegal Edwing D'Angelo has turned his love of fashion into a thriving business. He dresses celebrities like Vivica A. Fox and hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari with a Latin flair.

At the urging of his parents, D'Angelo worked in law offices from the age of 15, where he learned a lot about running a business. He studied fashion marketing at the City University of New York's Baruch College, with the idea that he would go to law school and become an attorney in the fashion industry. However, when he designed his younger sister's prom dress in 2001 -- which her friends loved -- D'Angelo quit his paralegal job with $100,000 in the bank and launched his own line of clothing.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

SALT Board Names Director

The Superstition Area Land Trust in Arizona named Rosemary Shearer, a former paralegal, as its first executive director. Shearer will be responsible for administering the land trust, producing the newsletter, working with other state groups on open spaces issues at local, state and federal levels, serving as media contact, appearing at public hearings, and interacting with other organizations and agencies that affect the open spaces at the base of the Superstitions. SALT's president cited Shearer's paralegal background, as well as her hard work on behalf of the trust, as reasons why she was chosen for the position.

Streaming Blues Power

In Georgetown, California, radio host and Sierra Blues Society president Thom Myers is using his paralegal training to research international copyright law in order to bring blues music to a wider variety of people. Along with co-host Gary Welch, he created "A World of Blues," a Web site that broadcasts blues music around the clock. The two aim to not only introduce the music to a wider audience but also to pay fewer royalties to record labels and more to the artists themselves.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Paralegals Track Deadbeat Parents

A two-person team of paralegals tracks down deadbeat parents in Kittitas County, Washington. Lorraine Hill and Adrianne Gerlach handle 25 open cases of parents living in the county who owe back child support. When these two receive the cases from the state's Division of Child Support, it's the state's last resort to attempt to get payments before possible arrest and jail time. The two would rather have the payments made than have the parents face jail time, although that's not always possible. They liken themselves to detectives. Sometimes, the custodial parent will thank Gerlach or Hill for their tireless efforts.

U.S. Department of Labor: Paralegals and Legal Assistants

Interested in becoming a paralegal? The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics Paralegals and Legal Assistants information sheet has plenty of facts, including the nature of the work, working conditions, training, employment outlook, earnings, and related occupations. The profession is expected to grow faster than average, as more law firms and legal departments look for cost-effective ways to deliver legal services. Competition, however, remains strong, and well-trained, formally educated paralegals will always have an edge in the job market.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Taking the PACE: How the Review Course Helped Me Pass

Achieving my Registered Paralegal (RP) designation is a goal I have wanted to reach ever since I first joined a local paralegal association, back when I was taking night courses at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Mass. to receive my certificate and working in a law firm as a legal secretary. I watched as people would call themselves paralegals but make careless errors, give out incorrect information, and in general, give the impression that the paralegal profession consisted of glorified secretaries. I knew that regulation, whether voluntary or mandatory, was needed to protect clients and law firms.

Two years after I received my certificate, I was eligible to take the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), but I found myself forgetting a great deal of the basics I had learned in school. After two years of focusing on estate administration, areas like legal research, litigation, bankruptcy, and intellectual property were not as clear in my mind. I looked to my local paralegal for study groups, but at the time, no one else was expressing interest in PACE, and I knew that just studying the manual would not be enough to refresh my memory. I also knew that I would not adhere to a study schedule unless prompted, so I signed up for the online PACE review course from the American Institute for Paralegal Studies (AIPS).

Honestly, I had some misgivings about taking an online course. The biggest misgiving was, of course, me, because I did doubt that the necessary self-discipline existed to take the course successfully. Secondly, I worried that not having actual classroom interaction would hamper my learning ability.

Despite my misgivings, I logged in and began downloading the study guide and assignments. To my relief, the course had actual deadlines for each assignment, and each assignment logically followed the review manual. I purchased a large binder and filed the assignments and lessons by week. And, most importantly, I did the assignments, which consisted of multiple-choice questions that required an explanation of the answer, as well as a practical assignment. I found the practical assignments to be helpful as a refresher of what needed to be done.

I found the instructor, Loretta Nesbitt, RP, to be very helpful, and she was willing to work with me to accommodate my rapidly-approaching exam. She helped me identify the areas where I definitely needed more work (Domains 1 and 3, as well as portions of Domain 2, which is so vast that almost anything can appear as a Domain 2 question).

Contrary to what I expected, I learned that taking an online course was every bit as challenging and interactive as a traditional classroom course. I had assignments to complete; there were discussions on the bulletin board. At the same time, the online course was more convenient, as I did not have to be anywhere at a certain time (and saved on gas!) but could work around my schedule.

On August 5, 2006, I took PACE after completing the course. I was nervous; I still knew that my Domain 2 knowledge was weak, but felt more confident about Domains 1 and 3. The testing center was exactly as described in the review course and on the Web site. I arrived, put my belongings in a locker, and presented two forms of identification. The time allotted for the test is four hours, but I finished in an hour and a half, and that was after double-checking my answers. There were still questions that stumped me, even with the online course and heavy studying, but I remembered the test-taking tips given in the course to help me submit a best guess. I have to add here that the exam is very heavily weighted toward litigation.

Finally, I ended the test, scrunched my eyes closed, and waited for the on-screen results. And I passed! I feel very accomplished, not only for passing the exam, but for taking the online course and refreshing my legal knowledge.

I received my certificate and CLE information in February from NFPA, and as an RP, I feel more confident in my career.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2007 issue of the National Paralegal Reporter.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

From Paralegal to Politician: Running for Office

Several paralegals have announced their candidacy in local elections.

In Danbury, Conn., paralegal Helena Abrantes plans to run for mayor. Abrantes is a former City Clerk, a restauranteur, and a paralegal with the Danbury firm of Pinney Payne.

Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink is seeking re-election in the May 8 primary in Fayette County, Pa. Prior to her election four years ago, Zimmerman worked full-time as a paralegal in Greensburg. She is also chairwoman of the Fayette County Housing Authority. Zimmerlink holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and pre-law at California University of Pennsylvania and obtained a paralegal certificate from Penn State Fayette.

Also in Pa., Perry County resident Harva Owings Baughman announced her candidacy for Clerk of Courts in Perry County. Baughman is a paralegal at a Harrisburg law firm.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Uganda Utilizes Paralegals to Document Human Rights Violations

In Northern Uganda, internationally displaced persons living in camps still experience human rights violations, despite the best efforts of the government to protect them. In order to curb the abuses by Ugandan soldiers, the government has successfully used paralegals to document and report human rights violations. Few government employees are available for this task, and the paralegal system established has helped register abuses.

Full article: Analysis: Uganda, Uganda: Government must live up to protection responsibilities in the north

Legal Technology Resource Guide

There comes a time when almost every paralegal laments the ancient computer equipment and/or outdated software provided by the firm. While the lawyers (in particular, the senior partners) may have finally accepted this "new" technology, the paralegals know better, and know it just might be time to upgrade.

Legal Technology News offers its Hardware & Software - LawTech Resource Guide, a comprehensive listing of technology vendors. From this page, a technology-minded paralegal can research the software or hardware desired and prepare a proposal that even the most technophobic senior partner cannot refuse, a proposal that will, of course, include the magic phrase: "increased billables." Because as we all know, technology is here to help us do our work more efficiently.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Strength Found Inside Every Woman

Women have passion, and in unleashing that passion, we can succeed, says Vickie L. Milazzo in her new book, Inside Every Woman: Using the 10 Strengths You Didn't Know You Had to Get the Career and Life You Want Now. A true pioneer, Vickie molded the legal nurse consulting profession and founded her own multi-million dollar company. In her book, she tells other women how they can tap into potential that they may not know they have to achieve the career and life they want.

Vickie's approach lies in utilizing the ten strengths women often suppress: fire, intuitive vision, engagement, agility, genius, integrity, endurance, enterprise, renewal, and female fusion. To unleash these forces, Vickie guides her readers through a series of exercises to find their passions. Then, Vickie implores her readers to make five promises:

  1. Live and work a passionate life;
  2. Go for it or reject it outright;
  3. Take one action step a day toward my passionate vision;
  4. Commit to being a success student for life;
  5. Believe as a woman I really can do anything.

With these rediscovered passions and five promises, Vickie then explains the ten forces with examples from her own experience, as well as anecdotes from successful women who have made their dreams a reality. While some of the advice and exercises feel like a typical self-help book, Vickie's overall message is an empowering one, worth exploring.

Note: I received this book for free as part of a marketing campaign, and I found it to be very interesting.

Outside the Box: Opportunities for Paralegals Outside the Firms

Attorneys are not needed for many routine legal tasks, such as research and drafting documents. Paralegals can easily fill this gap, and at a lower cost to a company or client. This value is becoming more apparent, and as a result, more job opportunities for paralegals are springing up outside the traditional law office. Paralegals are often employed by corporations and government organizations to assist attorneys with critical legal work, or to handle document preparation and act as liaisons between a company and its outside counsel. In addition, paralegals are finding work in nonprofit organizations, legal aid clinics, consumer groups and paralegal service companies, all due to the increasing need for basic legal services without the high cost of an attorney.

Corporations are the second-largest employer of paralegals, but only 15 percent of paralegals work in corporations. Banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms and manufacturing companies are all examples of corporations that employ paralegals.[1]

In corporations, paralegals work with corporate law topics and laws of the specific industry of the corporation, assisting corporate attorneys with employee contract and benefit plans, shareholder agreements and stock option plans. Corporate paralegals often send meeting notices and take notes at these meetings as well. The corporate-employed paralegal also stays abreast of all laws and governmental regulations that relate to the company’s industry.[2]

In recent years, some companies have chosen to have their legal department consist of just a paralegal, since much of the legal work involved does not require an attorney. In such a case, the paralegal would draft documents and work with outside counsel on the final versions. The paralegal would also be responsible for identifying when outside counsel is needed.[3]

Paralegals may be attracted to corporate positions because billable hours are not required. In a corporate position, the paralegal would need only to keep track of one client -- the corporation -- as opposed to a law firm’s many clients. These factors contribute to a significantly lower-pressure environment than in a law firm. However, the work can often be monotonous, since there is only one client. Depending on the paralegal’s preferences, the heavier emphasis on business and administrative tasks and lighter legal research duties can be a selling point or a drawback.[4]

Federal, state and local government agencies also employ paralegals. On the federal level, paralegals are employed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, among other agencies. On the state level, they can be found in state agencies and offices of state attorneys general, and in district attorney, public defender and city attorney offices.[5] In addition, paralegals are often employed by the courts as court administrators to manage its docket and personnel and possibly conduct legal research for the judge. Positions exist for paralegals in the government that are not necessarily known as paralegal jobs. These include export compliance specialists, who investigate commodities and data being exported outside the United States, and patent examiners, which aid in researching inventions that are eligible for patents.[6]

The federal government has developed two classifications for paralegals: paralegal specialist and legal clerk/technician. A paralegal specialist is similar to that of a private practice paralegal that specializes in one area, while the legal clerk/technician is similar to a case assistant and is more clerical.[7]

Paralegals seek government jobs for the security and the higher starting pay that they offer, but often are repelled by the bureaucracy involved in the hiring process. The very stringent procedures are often an additional disadvantage.[8]

Nonprofit organizations also employ paralegals. Advocacy groups, such as poverty law organizations that assist disadvantaged people or activist groups such as civil rights, women’s or environmental groups all hire paralegals. Most paralegals in these positions find their jobs very rewarding, in the non-monetary sense. However, paralegals looking to own a BMW would be disappointed, as positions in non-profits are low-paying but rewarding if the paralegal is working for a cause he or she champions.[9]

In addition to these opportunities, paralegals can freelance, working with attorneys on a case-by-case basis. Self-employment allows for more freedom in terms of structuring time, but it also requires paying one’s own business expenses and includes a sense of uncertainty about the next job.[10]

Some paralegals turn to temporary agencies that place workers in a plethora of jobs. There is more security than in freelancing and some flexibility over time. It also allows paralegals with newly minted degrees to test drive different specialties before settling down at a permanent job. Temporary assignments often can lead to permanent positions. However, temp work does offer less security than permanent employment, and there will be periods when the agency does not have any assignments.[11]

Paralegals can also choose the independent route, working directly with clients without an attorney’s supervision. These paralegals primarily fill out forms for bankruptcy, estate planning and taxes, treading a fine line between assisting and giving legal advice. This type of paralegal job is best for a paralegal with several years’ experience, because it is possible to cross the line and practice law without a license by giving legal advice.[12]

Whether employed by an organization or corporation or freelancing, paralegals are able to find work outside the traditional law firm as the value of paralegals becomes more obvious. Sometimes these jobs do not carry the title of paralegal but do require the skills and knowledge gleaned from paralegal training programs. Paralegals themselves are no longer limited to working for a firm and can explore other options that may interest them. In the end, both companies and paralegals benefit: companies save money, and paralegals find interesting, challenging and rewarding work.

[1] Barbara Bernardo, Paralegal: An Insider's Guide to One of Today's Fastest-Growing Careers (Paralegal)(Princeton, New Jersey: 1993, Peterson’s Guides) 29.
[2] Jo Southard, Paralegal Career Starter 2e(New York: 1998, Learning Express) 18-19.
[3] Southard, 20.
[4] Bernardo, 30.
[5] Bernardo, 31.
[6] Southard, 20.
[7] Bernardo, 31.
[8] Southard, 21-22.
[9] Southard, 22.
[10] Southard, 22.
[11] Southard, 22.
[12] Southard, 22.

Originally published in the June/July 2003 issue of the National Paralegal Reporter.