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By Alexis Kessler

When people ask me what I do for a living, my answer is simple: “I’m a paralegal.” I then get the “I’ve always wondered what the difference is between a secretary and a  legal assistant/paralegal” question. I always respond that it depends on the structure of the firm and terms they prefer to use.  More and more, I’ve noticed that the titles are primarily for billing purposes, the concept of administrative versus billable work. However, we all have days that are spent doing both, regardless of whether we are able to actually “bill” for the work. Regardless of how you or your firm defines the term, we are both there to facilitate the success of the lawyers we work with.

Then comes the “Well, did you go to school to do that?” No, I did not go to school for that, although I’ve wanted to work in the legal field for as long as I can remember. This then leads to my explanation that legal professionals come from various backgrounds and education levels (associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s degrees, etc.). They come with various titles and certifications. However, with most fields that refer to what they do as a “practice,” experience and motivation tends to make all the difference. Personally, I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration, which I have always thought helped me see the business side of working for lawyers, billable hours, overhead projections, cost-basis for jobs. I do not have a certification because I have always wanted to go to law school (applications pending as I write this), or I would have pursued such titles, an honor for anyone in the legal field.

People then ask how I became a paralegal (in my firm the highest position one can hold without a juris doctorate) if I have no professional training. Here’s when the keyword practice comes into play. We have the unique privilege of working in a field where we get to refer to what we are doing everyday as “practicing” the law which is primarily left up to interpretation and arguments. The legal system is a continuous revolving door of knowledge that changes day to day to accommodate our ever-evolving society. Events such as the BP Oil Spill or TWA Flight 800 that have inspired changes to Federal and State laws require that the legal system continue to be a system built on apprenticeship and mentoring. As demonstrated by positions such as associates, partners, senior/equity partners, etc., we all report to someone. If we’re lucky, we will value their approach and seek to emulate them in our career/life. If we’re not so lucky, finding the best mentor possible is essential.

One of the greatest assets that NALS offers its members is the benefit of having access to its thousands of legal professionals nationwide and their vast knowledge and experience. Networking is essential in our field, regardless of your title within the firm for which you work. I am fortunate in my life to have several people that I work with, whom I strive to emulate in my life. Growing up with a mother who holds a doctorate in education, I was raised to value education. To her, education was more than just what one learned in a classroom but the continuation of acknowledging the value of what the world has to offer you and learning from all of its aspects. Lead by example and people will follow.

When I first got involved with NALS via a training session offered by my local chapter on Courthouse Procedures, the current President of the Baldwin County Chapter, Deborah Rutherford, inspired me to get involved. As I had no formal training in the legal field, she sponsored my membership in NALS and showed me the importance of attending seminars. That one and others I have attended since then have taught me the essential things needed to succeed at my job.

At the time of the first seminar, the other woman that I was working with was using this job as her retirement job and really didn’t care about learning how to help the firm practice law. She primarily kept the books and took dictation and was happy with just that. However, the perfectionist in me needed assurance that I was doing things the way that they were meant to be done. The training course opened my eyes to the inside track of the legal field in my county. It put me in contact with local bailiffs and clerks who, when in a bind, it is a blessing to have access to their personal E-mail and cell phone numbers.

NALS has shown me that there is this amazing extended network of people who are there for you 24/7 not only professionally but personally, as well. I wouldn’t say that in life I have a specific mentor, but I would definitely say I have a slew of sister and brother-in-“laws” who are there for me whenever I need them. They have taught me to not only value what I do but to strive to be the best at what I do. Having a mentor isn’t necessarily about finding that one person to place all your bets with. It’s about teaching us how to find those traits in others worth learning from. Let NALS help you in your journey as your learn how to inspire the next generation, as it did me. After all, we won’t be the Young Legal Professionals forever!

This article was originally posted on the National Association of Legal Professionals website.

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