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The 21st-century paralegal: from interviewing prospective clients to managing documents at trial, today's paralegal participates in every aspect of an attorney's practice, bringing organization and perspective to complex legal tasks.

After Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, Regina Valenti, the senior paralegal for former AAJ president Russ Herman, swung into action. The firm's New Orleans office had been left with little electricity and was running on backup generators. She and an attorney, armed with flashlights, carried the firm's computer servers down 14 flights of stairs and then drove them to the firm's national office in Atlanta.

Because many staff members were able to work on laptops and many documents and other data had been stored electronically, the firm got back on track quickly, setting up temporary offices within days in three other cities. But some issues remain unresolved.

"Our biggest problem still is lost files and lost research and re-creating things," Valenti said. For example, two weeks before Katrina, Valenti sent certified letters to some potential clients, telling them the firm had decided not to take their cases. Then the hurricane hit.

Valenti knew that the statute of limitations on those claims would end a month later, but the destroyed postal system could not provide receipts showing who had received the letters. So she arranged to file suit on behalf of the people she couldn't speak with to confirm declining their cases. "We had to get those people to a point in their cases beyond the immediate deadlines so that they could decide whether to go find a new attorney or how to proceed," she said.


Valenti also briefly stepped in as a recruiter for the firm. After Katrina, there was no one left in the city to fill job openings, so Valenti kept an eye out. When the firm needed to take over a big class action with a lot of clients, she produced the resume of a paralegal she knew who was moving to New Orleans. The firm hired that paralegal within the week.

While most paralegals aren't responsible for keeping a firm running after a hurricane, many of Valenti's duties are typical of those found in today's paralegal job description. Legal knowledge, good communication skills, and multitasking proficiency are essential for the job.

Every day brings a new challenge, whether it's an attack by the defense in the courtroom or by Mother Nature herself. But paralegals stand prepared for anything, and their support and assistance keep attorneys organized, cases on track, and law firms running smoothly.

"My attorney introduces me as his right hand and his left brain," Valenti said.

David Landay, a sole practitioner in Pittsburgh, echoed that sentiment. "A paralegal is a lawyer's right arm," he said. Landayworks with one full-time and one part-time paralegal. They order medical records and bills; prepare file summaries; schedule depositions; answer discovery requests; and prepare trial exhibits, estate inventories, and family settlement agreements.

"We give our paralegals much of the work that attorneys do," said David Lansner of New York City, who works in an office with eight attorneys and five paralegals. "They meet with clients, speak to adversaries, prepare drafts of many documents (such as letters, pleadings, discovery notices, and deposition questions), sit in on depositions and trials, analyze and digest records and transcripts, and call witnesses--all under close supervision." He said a partner, an associate, and a paralegal are assigned to each case, and they work closely together.

"A good paralegal can do the work of t newer attorneys in our scheme of operations," said Ed Lau, who runs a general c practice in San Francisco with a focus on international litigation and the Chinese community. He works with two multilingual paralegals who interact directly with clients.

Paralegals take assigned tasks and run with them, implementing the work with ideas of their own.

Natalie Andrus, a litigation paralegal who works with a sole practitioner in Spring Lake, Michigan, manages cases from the get-go. On a typical day, she might accompany an attorney to interview the family of a patient injured by malpractice; on another, she might travel to assist with client depositions and coordinate exhibits or be sent to help with defendant depositions.

"From the minute the case starts, I help prepare the complaint, file the complaint, docket all the dates to follow up on deadlines, send interrogatories, answer interrogatories, investigate all the witnesses, investigate all the exhibits, and assist with the depositions," said Andrus, who follows the case all the way through discovery.

Having managed a case from its outset, Andrus might facilitate a focus group to explore how a jury will react to the plaintiff's case. She'll also assist at mediations, taking all the exhibits and video deposition testimony with her in a case management software program to present to the facilitator.

Julie Hunt, a paralegal with a Paducah, Kentucky, law firm for 25 years, works with five attorneys and five other paralegals. She's primarily a litigation paralegal who does a lot of courtroom work and trial preparation. "I help with exhibit prep and witness prep, and the trial file is my responsibility," she said, as is the firm's trial war room. She's also the network administrator for the firm's computer system, though she works with a full-time computer technician on staff.

"The attorney I'm working with, to the best of my knowledge, has never set foot in a trial without me," said Hunt. She gives him her notes from the trial before he prepares closing argument and shares any pertinent thoughts.

Once, she said, they were in a focus group situation preparing a group of lay people who stood in for jurors and trying to make them understand the negligence split--that 100 percent liability could be divided among the four different parties. They just didn't understand, so Huntwent and got 10 pens and 4 cups and performed a simple demonstration, with each cup representing a party and each pen 10 percent liability. "And that wound up in closing argument," she said. "It was amazing how close the verdict came to the closing argument cup scenario."

An evolving job

Paralegals didn't start out this way. In the late 1960s, a movement to provide the public with more access to justice encouraged legal secretaries to learn more about the law. In 1967, the ABA issued an ethics opinion that outlined what legal work was appropriate for nonlawyers to do, then formed a special committee to study the use of lay assistants.

In 1971, the ABA adopted the term "legal assistant" and gave that name to the committee; today it's the Standing Committee on Paralegals. In 1986, the ABA officially defined the term: a paralegal is "a person qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."

State legislatures, courts, and bar associations have all instituted definitions of "paralegal," according to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). "All definitions describe a professional group working under the direct supervision of an attorney and acknowledge that the terms 'paralegal' and 'legal assistant' are used synonymously," according to NALA, which adopted the ABA definition in 2001.

Many modern paralegals have certificates, associate's degrees, bachelor's degrees, post-bachelor certificates, or even graduate degrees in paralegal studies.

"The training paralegals get today is extensive, and many paralegal programs focus on teaching the practical skills needed to work in a law firm," said Althea Kippes, professor/coordinator of the paralegal program at Canada College in Redwood City, California. "Some of my paralegal students do everything on a case except appear in court."

Currently, California is the only state that requires paralegals to be licensed. Professional associations like NALA, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and the American Alliance of Paralegals have professional ethics codes and offer voluntary certification programs. Public and private colleges, proprietary institutions, and community colleges run formal education programs; the ABA accredits some of these, but accreditation is not mandatory. Most paralegal programs have an internship requirement and provide technology training, said Kippes, which makes paralegals immediately productive when they start work because they' re familiar with being in a law firm and can use the latest tech tools.

Paralegals don't need a degree to do their job, though some want mandatory licensure of the profession, saying that would set paralegals apart from legal secretaries and other administrators and ensure that qualified, trained professionals provide services. Others hold that statutes against the unauthorized practice of law provide sufficient safeguards and define what a paralegal can and cannot do.

Many paralegals said their most important training began when they started working in an office, some as temps, others as sole assistants, who learned many areas of law while working on different assignments.

Andrus, who was named AAJ's paralegal of the year in 2007, learned most of her skills on the job. She first worked for an attorney part-time while still in high school as his only assistant and did a little of everything; then she went to a large firm as a floater, working for a different attorney on a different project each day.

Hunt got an associate's degree in legal secretarial work and went to paralegal college to take some courses, but she never got the degree. It didn't matter; she was AAJ's paralegal of the year in 2006. Her first job was in a one-attorney office where she did "everything."

Valenti has a degree in paralegal studies but said some paralegals at her firm don't and others have certificates but not degrees. Her daughter is also a paralegal for the firm and has a degree but not a paralegal certificate. "So we have a mix as far as education is concerned," said Valenti. "Some people have been formally trained and some people have been thrown into the pit and taught along the way. It's worked out both ways."

Hunt takes a lot of continuing education classes to maintain her paralegal certification. "The firm is super about making sure I get the education that's out there," she said. Her "just do it" approach is also an asset. When the firm switched to using new trial presentation software, she took training courses, "then locked myself in a room with it," she said. "We were in the courtroom with it less than two weeks later. That's basically what it takes."

Good paralegals are good communicators--not just with clients and attorneys, but also with each other. Valenti said that when a paralegal in her office goes to a seminar, he or she comes back and shares the information with everyone else, with an added benefit: The person teaching others in the firm can spin it for them. "We try and teach it to our people in how it applies to our cases," she said.

Then there's one-to-one personal assistance. "My daughter's not that familiar with medical records because she works on the hurricane cases, which is insurance, so when someone needed medical summaries and chronologies done, she volunteered and asked me to help her," said Valenti. "So I'm going to train her how to do it because I think that's very important."


The biggest challenge of the job for Andrus is having the time to read through everything in the case and stay on top of it. "You're constantly getting bombarded with documentation in the cases, and you have to be one step ahead at all times," she said. "I need to be able to keep my arms around my work."

It's not the attorney who needs to be organized, she said. That's her responsibility: "As paralegals, our main job is to anticipate what [the attorneys] are going to need before they need it."

Hunt agreed that anticipating what's coming isn't easy. "When you're in the courtroom you never know what's going to happen, and to try to be ready for every contingency is extremely difficult," she said. Knowing the evidence and the case helps, then being flexible and prepared takes over.

"If there's a witness on the stand that I expect to be trouble, I have his deposition on my computer screen with search capabilities, so I can follow and check if there are any contradictions, plus I have his paper deposition too," Hunt said. "If it becomes an issue, I can hand the actual deposition to the attorney--if I see something in the transcript that doesn't match with the testimony."

Technology is a big asset. Recently in a personal injury case, the court videotaped the trial every day. In the evenings, Hunt and the attorney took the video and the real-time transcript from the court reporter, put it together using trial preparation software, then used it for cross-examination the next day.

"That was the first time I'd ever seen that done--that we had live testimony in that format for the next day's trial," she said. Of course, she acknowledged, "I'm fortunate to have a trial attorney who's extremely technologically advanced. That's probably something that not many paralegals are able to say." She and the attorney carry computers with matching external drives to court so they can run the same programs with duplicate data at the same time.

Quid pro quo

Lawyers expect a lot from their paralegals--and paralegals expect a lot from their lawyers. Good attorneys recognize the brains they've got working with them as paralegals and reward them with challenging work.

"We try to keep paralegals by providing them with good supervision, interesting work, involvement with the clients and cases. We treat them as partners in our work," said Lansner. He reported that paralegals for his firm have gone on to law school (one clerked for a Supreme Court justice), medical school, and Ph.D. programs.

Lau said he has hired good paralegals who were first-year law students who chose to continue their legal education at a later date.

"Some are able to do rudimentary legal research, and in certain areas of legal specialty, they can be taught narrow areas of law to be as fluent as an attorney but not acting in the capacity of an attorney," he said. And it's not just those few. "Many of our paralegals go on to law school, and some are offered attorney positions."

Mike Abourezk, a plaintiff lawyer who practices in Rapid City, South Dakota, handles mostly insurance bad-faith cases in a firm with a lead attorney, two support attorneys, another lawyer who does research and writing, two paralegals, and a secretary.

The paralegals in his office do a little of everything, starting with handling initial interviews of prospective clients. He tries to pay well and strives to make the office a good place to work by being loyal and trusting his staff.

"Let them grow," Abourezk said. "Carefully balance the need to keep control and maintain a top-notch work product with the need to go ahead and let people grow and learn and sometimes fail, and therefore grow some more."

Beverly Salhanick, a sole practitioner in Las Vegas, also tries to be a good boss. She works with one paralegal and an office manager who does billing, bookkeeping, and "legal assistance"--both handle routine litigation matters from drafting the complaint to taking a default judgment. Salhanick makes sure the office manager handles the phones (a job the paralegal dislikes) and lets both staffers work whatever hours they prefer. "As long as the work is done, I don't care what hours they work," she said.

Neither staffer had any experience (though the paralegal had been to paralegal school) before coming to work for her, but that didn't matter. "I care more about competence in basic skills and in teamwork," she said. Both had played team sports and understood how to work together. "Those qualifies are more important because they make the office function better."

The people on Salhanick's staff get minor indulgences like Costco and Borders discount cards, plus a 401(k) plan--and they have had the option of health insurance, though both are currently insured through their spouses.

The paralegals interviewed have all worked on almost every aspect of litigation that they can--and they recommend that attorneys recognize the resources right under their noses: their paralegals.

Hunt advised lawyers to communicate with their paralegals, listen to them, and let them see a case through. "Two heads are better than one, and it's always good to get a different perspective," she said.

Valenti agreed. "Paralegals are not trained as attorneys; therefore, they'll give you great insight into things they don't understand about the case," she said. "And if they don't understand something, the jury certainly won't."

Attorneys get so involved with their cases that they can think about them only from a legal point of view, she added, but "a paralegal is not trained that way. We're more people people, and you get a whole new point of view from us." She said her attorney relies on her comments and feedback, especially when it comes to jury selection.

Respect is the key, Valenti said. "If you give the paralegal that respect, you've got them. The pay can be a little lower if they feel they're respected and their opinion is valued and they have a little leeway to feel like they're participating in a case and not just doing a job. So to have us participate and feel like we've helped to resolve a case, it means the world," she said.

The professional paralegal has chosen the job and tailored his or her work to the firm's needs, taking a role as part of the team whose goal is justice for the client.

"I like what I do," said Hunt, who also owns a company that she started as a hobby and retirement project. "Could I be self-sufficient with the other company? In a heartbeat. But it's not what I want to do. I like what I do, and I love my work in the courtroom."

AAJ Paralegal Affiliate program meets members' unique needs with varied benefits

AAJ's Paralegal Affiliate program is a practical resource specifically geared to the needs of paralegals who work in plaintiff law firms. Member benefits include networking opportunities, continuing-education programs, and complimentary subscriptions to TRIAL and the Law Reporter.

AAJ paralegal affiliates can get up-to-date information about a variety of practice areas by joining any of the association's 18 practice sections, which offer newsletters, education programs, member directories, and online forums. By participating in section activities, paralegals learn valuable tips and techniques about law practice from the nation's legal masters.

Paralegal affiliates have ample opportunities to learn from each other, too. For example, AAJ sponsors an accredited paralegal program at its Annual Convention--held in July each year--where paralegals and trial lawyers explain the nuts and bolts of pertinent cases and highlight the growing importance of the paralegal's role on the litigation team.

While attending conventions, paralegal affiliates can develop a widespread network of colleagues and contacts. Education programs and other convention events allow affiliates to meet and share ideas with each other and with lawyers, judges, and law professors from around the world.

Other membership benefits include

* a 50 percent discount off the registration fee for selected AAJ Education programs when the paralegal attends with an AAJ attorney member

* a 10 percent discount off the cost of programs and certificate courses offered by the Center for Legal Studies, a legal education company based in Golden, Colorado

* access to AAJ's paralegal list server, where affiliates can ask questions of each other, share information and referrals, and receive special notices of AAJ events and services

* eligibility to participate in AAJ's Paralegal of the Year program, which recognizes the extraordinary work of one paralegal every year.

AAJ's Paralegal Advisory Task Force is charged with overseeing the education needs and function of the affiliate program. The task force chair is Dennyce Korb of Rapid City, South Dakota; its vice chair is Penny Herman Grisamore of New Orleans.

To join the AAJ Paralegal Affiliate program, a prospective candidate must be sponsored by a Regular, Sustaining, Life, or President's Club member of AAJ in good standing. First-year membership dues are $75. For more information or to join, call Nathalie Etori at (800) 424-2725, ext. 593.

REBECCA PORTER is an associate editor at TRIAL.
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Author:Porter, Rebecca
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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