A Chicago Paralegal’s Rewards and Challenges in Litigation

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01Nov2009

A Chicago Paralegal’s Rewards and Challenges in Litigation

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By Barbara Lynch, Staff Writer

chicago“What was one of your most embarrassing moments?”

I think we all have been asked that question before. For me, quite honestly, besides accidentally pouring iced tea into a man’s coffee cup during my waitressing days, I really hadn’t experienced any red face-turning moments.

Until last week, that is.

As I do every month, I research specific topics and subject matter for this newsletter – areas of litigation support that you, our readers, will find helpful. In doing so this month, I came across Eric Baker, a 32-year old litigation paralegal at Reed Smith in Chicago.

Eric was featured on the Illinois Paralegal Association’s website which initially caught my attention. After curiously doing some more digging, I came to find out that he is the key contact person for the IPA with regard to the future of U.S. paralegal regulation. Between that important role and his daily work in the trenches of working for multiple litigators, I thought he’d be a good person to interview.

“Hello, this is Eric Baker,” I hear on the other end of the phone line.

“Hello, Eric,” I said with a very cheery and hopeful voice. “You don’t know me, but I found you on the Internet .. and …”

Before I could finish, I hear, “Click,” and then I hear what was unmistakably a dial tone.

At that point, with some disbelief, I was thinking, “What? Why would he hang up on me?”

Then it hit me: “Oh, no! With that opening line, he must have thought I was an Internet stalker!”

I’m not sure how, but thankfully, I mustered up enough courage to call him back with a more professional approach because, after we laughed about my faux pas, I found Eric to be a legal professional who I think all of you can relate to when it comes to the multiple hat-wearing in the unpredictable world of litigation support.

Regardless of Eric’s understanding and forgiveness of my temporary “phone stalkage,” I can now claim a new “most embarrassing moment.”

The Diversity of Tasks and People

Eric, a mid-Missouri native, decided to pursue his legal career in Chicago where the community is well-established and still remains fairly close to home.

He is assigned to several cases with one attorney and has an average of four cases with five other attorneys going at once. He also pitches in on small or emergency projects when needed. Between his attorneys and the legal secretaries and other paralegals on the cases, Eric, like most of you, is a part of teams with many members who depend on each other to get the tasks completed.

teamworkAfter listening to Eric describe the weighty workloads his teams carry, my mind was on “tilt” just thinking of the chaos and miscommunication that can potentially happen, easily undermining productivity and cause division.

When I asked Eric how working in such a diverse environment can be managed, he gave a great example of what’s needed to make it successful:

“I remember working on a project late at night for an attorney. She had a much higher billable rate than I did, but she got her hands dirty and helped me get the filing ready to go out the door. We even had to go to the copy center to fix some of them, and she went right down there with me until it was done. She didn’t let rank get in the way of accomplishing our task, to get the client’s work done. I think it often surprises people I work with, but I use that in every task I work on; I never feel that any other person is too far above or below that we cannot work together to accomplish the same task.”

Litigation: Both Intense and Rewarding

As I’ve come to learn more about the litigation and discovery process myself, I realize how intense it can be and how imperative it is to have things synchronized and managed in such a way where all team members and their tasks are working together.

I asked Eric what it’s like to have to be “on your game” at all times and how it might differ from other practice areas.

“Things come up and change on a dime. You have to be knowledgeable and skilled not only to take on a new project or deal with an urgent situation, but also prepared for a case to end without notice, close it up and immediately dive into other work.

”Litigation creates a lot of unpredictable opportunities. Because I often put myself in the forefront with attorneys, I find I have to be ready when someone calls me up for a new project by name; litigation is no place to be complacent!” Eric shares with conviction.

Eric also hit on something that legal professionals everywhere know: the law firm environment is a melting pot of personalities and work styles which can oftentimes be very challenging to work with, especially when working together on a case for the same client.

Overall, he’s pretty positive about it and has healthy ways to overcome the challenges.

“Different personalities and work styles can create opportunities to learn new ways of doing things or overcoming huge challenges. It is important to remain professional and not internalize your differences so you can learn from one another.

“Technology is here for a reason, and it can help make things run smoother. I believe we should take advantage of it at every opportunity and I also believe stepping up regardless of your position and helping to get the job done is the way to go,” he said.

Beyond the Workplace

It became very obvious to me that Eric thrives on the legal profession in general but he also carries this unwavering energetic disposition into other parts of his life.

Diligence. Commitment. Perseverance. Determination.  These are common attributes of people who naturally tend to strive for metaphorical “finish lines” in life, which Eric obviously does. So, I wasn’t a bit surprised when I found out that Eric not only ran the Chicago Marathon twice, but he took on the two-time challenge even though he doesn’t enjoy running – he did it to benefit the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

finish lineLegal professionals strive for challenging “finish lines” in litigation every day.

Like many of you, Eric is a member and is very involved in a legal professional association. Over the last four years, he has grown into the position of “national affairs secondary representative” for the Illinois Paralegal Association, which includes attending events that take place across the nation, namely the annual convention for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Also, as a Director and chairperson, many of his colleagues informally rely on him for key information relating to the IPA.

“I think my involvement in the IPA helps me appreciate the professionalism and work that I do for our clients, and it also provides a sense of purpose for my daily work.

“Joining and getting involved in the IPA has really instigated growth in me professionally. Making decisions that will affect the paralegal profession and my colleagues is very rewarding. It also allows me to practice discipline and leadership skills, and I meet a lot of great people!” he said.

The Legal Professional’s Profession

Last year, the IPA sent Eric to Dallas to attend and report back on an NFPA Regulation Conference. Paralegal Regulation is becoming a big topic in several states, and Eric went to find out how the changes might affect paralegals in the future, not only in Illinois, but around the country.

“The legal community continues to struggle with what paralegals and secretaries are capable of and educated to do. By putting yourself out there and staying ahead of the game, your capabilities will be noticed.

“Being a paralegal is very rewarding for many reasons. Working in litigation has opportunities to challenge your professional, organizational and today, your technology skills. If you want to be at the forefront of the legal field, especially in a position that is expanding rapidly, litigation is the place to be. It is a very dynamic area and, as always, it is what you make of it,” Eric said.

As the legal landscape evolves and conforms as it goes, Eric reminds us that all litigation support team members wear multiple hats every day and it’s your love for your profession and role in the bigger picture that helps overcome the challenges that arise.

Before I Close …

My goal is to write an article in The Reporter every month that encourages, inspires or helps you in some way.  Please email me your story – a professional accomplishment or interesting perspective, a personal mountain you had to climb or share something extraordinary about yourself. I also would like to hear any tips, strategies or helpful hints that you might have with regard to your role as a litigation support team member.

I am grateful to Eric for letting me share his story with you this month, but I’m even more grateful that he graciously took my second call.

As mentioned, Eric Baker works as a litigation paralegal in the insurance recovery group at Reed Smith in Chicago. Besides his IPA Directorship, running in marathons and working diligently as a paralegal, he also does some great impersonations of Britain’s finest celebrities: Michael Cane, Prince Charles and Sir Anthony Hopkins just to name a few!

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