A Mature Paralegal’s Story in Today’s Legal Market

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01Apr2012

A Mature Paralegal’s Story in Today’s Legal Market

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By Karen George, Florida Registered Paralegal, Miami, Florida

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I am a paralegal.  I am a “mature” paralegal.  I rose through the ranks to become a paralegal.  I didn’t take a class, get a certificate or any other degree (AS/BS).  I am of the “original” paralegals, that worked her way up to paralegal.  I have knowledge gathered through years of doing the work. I have experience in many different areas of law.  I learned through trial and error, asking questions, watching.

Here is one “mature” paralegal’s story.  Sit back. This is going to take you down memory lane and a road the new, the young, the recently certificated, college-educated paralegals, who lament not being able to get a job, have not traveled and never will.  This is a story of a time gone by.

The year was 1976:  I started working for a law firm shortly after graduating high school as a runner.  In those days fax machines were few and not very good.  Remember the rolls of fax paper?   In those days, there were two choices to get your product out: mail or hand delivered.   I did the hand delivering.  I took an interest in the documents I handled, copied, and filed in the court.  I asked the legal secretaries questions. I read everything I got my hands on, and my legal education began.

I watched the legal secretaries typing away at their Selectric IIs, rollers jammed with multi-colored carbon paper.  On each of their desks sat a row of various colored “white out” bottles.   These legal secretaries were the heart of a law firm.  They were amazing working machines.  Legal secretaries answered calls, scheduled hearings and depositions, and typed like their fingers had wings.  These women (in those days only women were legal secretaries) knew every in and out in the legal field.   I wanted to be a legal secretary more than anything in the world!  I took a legal secretary course at night and “graduated” with a certificate saying I had successfully completed the course of legal secretary.  I was thrilled and excited.  I was a legal secretary!

The year was 1981:  Do you remember the Lanier dedicated word processor?  Wang?  Amtex?  The dot matrix printers that had to have a muffler placed over them because they made so much noise when they printed?  The print wheel that always broke?  Floppy disks that were huge and truly “floppy?”  Then the smaller hard disks came out that held “a little bit more” information?   With all the word processing machines, every office still had a Selectric II with correction tape, “just in case.”

Is this a walk down memory lane for some of you?  It is for me.  I have seen many changes through my years in the legal work force.

I worked as a legal secretary but on a word processor.   In the beginning I worked for one attorney, then two, then three.  With the advent of the word processor, firms realized they could assign more than one attorney to one legal secretary, and the game was on to see just how many attorneys could be assigned to one legal secretary before she went into meltdown.  I was young, I was good, I was fast and I learned – a lot.   The day came and I was tired of being a legal secretary and I became a word processing operator.  No classes needed for this “move up.”  All I needed was the ability to type fast (I could do that), have knowledge about legal document formatting (I knew that), know legal vocabulary (I had that) and knowledge of certain word processors.  I was qualified.  First, I was a word processing operator, and then I got promoted to word processing supervisor.   I enjoyed the work just being dropped off and handing the product back to the secretary to finalize.   But this got old after a while, as well.  My “break” was over, and I wanted more.

The year was 1995:  What to do?  I wanted to be on the creative, thinking side of the legal work I had been typing the past years.  I didn’t know it exactly, but what I wanted was to be a paralegal.  “Paralegal” was just becoming a buzz word in the law firms around this time, and it seemed like the next logical step – for me at least.

How would I become a paralegal?  I started taking some courses at a local college at night and applied for a paralegal opening in my firm.  I was hired and quickly started doing the work. We had a trial out of town, and there went my classes.

At this point, I had been officially in the legal industry for 18 years.  Oh, my goodness, time does fly when you’re having fun.

I honed my paralegal skills through the years. I am a senior paralegal (and not because of my age!).  I have taken classes as I found them interesting, relevant, and necessary.  I became a Florida Registered Paralegal when registration opened up.  I became involved in the associations of my profession.  I attended continuing legal education courses to meet my requirements and have broadened my mind and my knowledge base because of them.

I attend trials, depositions, interview witnesses, do site inspections, answer discovery, draft discovery, prepare complaints, various motions and memoranda of law. I prepare witnesses and clients for deposition and trial, and I guide my attorneys on various matters as it becomes necessary.   I help to keep my firm up to date on changes in the rules, statutes and new case law that is relevant to our areas of practice as they hit the boards.  I am an integral part of the firm’s practice of law.  I am integral but I am not indispensable.  This brings me to where so many senior paralegals are today, experienced and unemployed.

The year was 2007:  The economy essentially CRASHED.  Firms were merging, closing up, people were being laid off, and paralegals were no exception.  If you were part of the flotsam of any of these economic downfalls, you were a mature paralegal looking for work in a Whole New Legal World.

I write the following for us, the mature paralegals (hereinafter “us”).   Us, the ones who grew up in the legal profession and became paralegals.  We are the paralegals who post to the blogs, imparting advice, offering suggestions, and giving encouragement to the newly minted paralegals.

But who gives us encouragement, suggestions, advice, a helping hand?  Many of us saw the writing on the wall and decided we had better get some “official” education and title.   Some of us became CPs, some RPs, some got a Certificate, some went to college or university and got an AS or BS.  Some of us did none of the above because we were raising our children and then helping with elderly parents.   Simply put, many of us were taking care of everyone but “us,” and, now, we are scrambling to catch up in a world that with every advancing step we take, the goal moves faster away from us.  But never underestimate a paralegal!  Hear us roar. We are invincible. We are paralegals.

When the hard times came to the legal industry, paralegals were part of the bottom line and many found themselves out of a job. at that stage of the game.  We licked our wounds and began putting together our resumes.

Resumes aren’t the same as we used to know them. They are done differently, and, frankly, we don’t know the new way.  So we reach out to friends or pay for a resume service so that we can have a resume that meets today’s standards.

We are looking for work in a world that is not only overrun with paralegals, experienced and inexperienced, but a world that involves things some of us haven’t had to work with at our previous positions.   We are “experienced” and yet “not experienced.”

I am not saying we are outdated. I am saying a lot has been going on outside the offices we held for so many years, and we need to catch up.

So what do we do?  I’ll tell you what you do.  You stand up, brush it off, and straighten your back.  You dress professionally and you go out there and you start looking for a paralegal job.  You join your local paralegal associations.  You talk to others who have already been down the road you find yourself traveling and you network.  You join a national paralegal association and you start studying.   You study for CP or RP.  You haven’t studied in a long time, but you are a paralegal, and studying (research and analysis) is your life.   You take the test and you pass the test – sometimes eventually – but you pass.  Now you hold a designation behind your name. It proves to all who see it that you are a paralegal that has met the standard.  You are a Certified/Registered Paralegal.

You start taking webinars. You attend CLEs (required now for your new designation), and you learn more and more.  You feel the ground beneath your feet hardening and becoming more stable.  You become experienced at the new game that is today’s paralegal.  You just needed to train a bit.  You are back on the track and the starter has gone off!  You are the favorite to win.

After all, you are invincible. You are a paralegal!

This article was originally posted on The Estrin Report website.

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