Monday, August 8, 2011

Downsizing

I have downsized.

Oh, I don’t mean my paycheck, although for the time being while I’m getting my business going, that’s true too. (Just you wait . . . I’ll be back making the medium bucks again any time now!)

No, I mean I’ve downsized in terms of the size of the offices I work with, and the size of the cases I work on. It’s still a novelty!

In BigLaw in recent years, I tended to work on mega-cases. There were armies of attorneys to respond to, scads of money at stake, and boatloads of documents to manage, and filings and deadlines to track. There were always ten plates spinning at once.

Which isn’t to say I don’t have ten plates spinning at once now – often I do. But they’re my plates, not the plates spun off by the decisions of others, which I must nonetheless keep in the air somehow.

No, the offices I work with now as a virtual paralegal tend to be small. I work with solo practitioners, for the most part. They may or may not have on-site staff, and they may or may not have permanent office space.

Because my clients have smaller offices themselves, they tend to handle matters that are somewhat less document intensive than those I've handled in the past. They tend to use different technology than that which I had become accustomed to in recent years. I work more with PDF document compilations, and less with Concordance databases, for example. I prepare document productions in the hundreds (or maybe low thousands) of pages, rather than in the tens of thousands.

But these are minor differences - differences of detail rather than substance.

In fact, now more than ever I am often called upon to figure out the most efficient way to accomplish a project with available resources and my own two hands and the small-office technology at my disposal, with no Litigation Support personnel to fall back on for getting a project done. This satisfies my practical nature.

Case size and technology may have downsized, but professionalism certainly has not. With my attorney clients, the quality of the work is just as painstaking, and the expectations of excellence are just as high as they were when I worked at larger firms. This satisfies my perfectionist nature.

There is a different “office” dynamic as well. (Yes, in an odd way my attorney clients and I do make up an "office.") There are fewer layers of approval to work one’s way through than in large offices. I find that communication is more direct, and the sense of partnership I feel with my clients is more pronounced. This satisfies my collaborative nature.

So you see, in my world, downsizing has been a very good thing!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Things I Love About Teaching

Do you want to know the thing I love most about teaching?* Well OK, the two things I love most? Well OK, maybe the three things?

I love it when students ask good, thoughtful questions and participate in discussion. When they ask a question not because they suspect it’s going to be on the test, but just because they’re interested and curious - that's a terribly gratifying thing!

Such as questions raised about the benefit of settling a lawsuit before doing a lot of discovery (saves expense, saves a company or individual from having to disclose info they don’t want to disclose) as opposed to settling after a lot of discovery (discovery enables all parties to more objectively evaluate the strength of their case). Or about the effectiveness of different kinds of trial evidence using the at-the-time ongoing Casey Anthony trial as a source of examples. Fascinating!

Another thing I love is seeing students improve over the course of the class. Their written assignments get better. Their comprehension of the discovery process increases. Their proofreading skills even improve. They’re learning!

But do you know what the best thing of all is? My absolute favorite thing about teaching?

Teaching makes me better! It helps me hone and sharpen my own thinking. The process of reviewing the material in preparation for teaching it forces me to reorganize and perhaps rethink what I know, in order to explain it to the students in the clearest and most organized manner possible. It’s almost as though I’m relearning things I had grown accustomed to taking for granted over the long years of my career. I’m looking at my profession through fresh eyes.

And that’s quite a rush!

* I currently teach a Discovery course in the Paralegal Associate Degree program at Empire College.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Vacation Season's Here At Last!

Oh wait . . are you kidding?!? Not for me! I’m teaching all summer long – our program doesn’t take a summer break! So me, I’ll likely be plugging along at my own office desk through the variably hot, mild or overcast summer weather of beautiful Sonoma County where I live.

Vacation Snorkeling!
But for much of the working western world, it’s that time when employees begin pondering escape from the proverbial rat race for their much anticipated vacations.

Although I’ve always been more of a spring/fall traveler, myself.

An interesting article got tweeted recently which stimulated this train of thought: Should you contact that vacationing employee? The article gives what seems to me to be quite prudent advice to an employer about how to decide when it’s appropriate to interrupt an employee on vacation.

During my many years of law firm employment, I’ve run the gamut on this one. I have indeed been phoned while on vacation. I’ve been phoned at 10 pm. I’ve been called into the office on a Saturday afternoon to fix something that went awry. I didn’t really begrudge these interruptions to my non-work life – in most cases, they were legitimate emergencies.

That said, I have a confession to make. Historically, I have been a bit rebellious on this topic!

Don’t get me wrong. I do not endorse rebellion in law firms. It is generally a poor strategy for maintaining gainful employment. But truth be told, I have not always been docile and compliant when it came to making myself available during non-work hours, including but not limited to vacations.

There was a particular small law firm in my past, with a particular beloved attorney (No, really! I was fond of her! Honest!) who was notorious for . . . how shall we put this . . . neglecting certain boundaries. For example, she was prone to sitting at her desk and hollering my name when she needed something, causing me to stop what I was doing, get up from my desk, and walk into her office to say, “What?” Rather like my mother used to do, and evoking a startlingly similar emotional response.
Now granted, she probably thought it was silly to pick up the phone and call me when I was right next door. And maybe that’s true. I dunno . . you pick your poison.
She was also prone to phoning me (if I wasn't within hollering distance, that is) in “dire emergencies.” Such as not being able to find a piece of paper she suddenly needed.

Which was on her desk.

Which she was standing next to.

Knowing this, I once intentionally failed to leave my contact information when I went on a week-long vacation. (Note: This was before everyone and her brother had a cell phone.) I knew that while she may have had difficulty finding a document on her desk, she would have had no difficulty tracking down my phone number while I was travelling, if it was anywhere in the office. And I knew she would call me when she couldn’t find that piece of paper. Which was on her desk. Which she was standing next to.

And in fact, I learned upon my return that she had indeed asked others in the office for my contact number on that vacation when she couldn’t find something. But they didn’t have my contact information either. Woops! (It was a nice vacation :)

There was another law firm (this time in BigLaw) where, at a certain point due to a massive case I was managing, I was offered a firm Crackberry Blackberry.

And I refused. (GASP!) 

Because I knew what would happen. I knew that notwithstanding all assurances that I truly wouldn’t be expected to be on call 24/7, in reality I would receive countless evening/middle of the night emails, to which I would be expected to reply. Those same attorneys who refrained from phoning me at 10 pm (thanks for that, guys!) would still have emailed me at all hours of the night, and would have stared hopefully, expectantly, at their own Crackberrys, anticipating my inevitable response.

And if I failed to respond, you can bet I would have heard about it.

So I politely declined, and they didn't force me to carry one. (Thanks for that too, guys!) And lo and behold, the world kept turning, and the case was (ultimately) successful anyway.

It may seem by this that I’m advocating a refusal on the part of staff to make themselves available to their attorneys in off-hours times of need, and I’m really not. There are times when things go wrong after hours, or even, heaven forefend, in the middle of a vacation, and the team player is willing to help out.

No, I’m simply advocating establishing some reasonable boundaries to our personal lives, and assisting our bosses in respecting them.

After all, we all need a little vacation now and then!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Of Matriculation and Minefields

Well, there was a little flap in the legal twitterverse and blogosphere last week with what was widely perceived to be a quite ill-informed attack on paralegals over at ATL. A number of my colleagues have responded to this admirably in their own blogs here, here and here, as well as in a large number of comments to the post, and I don’t want to rehash what’s already been very well said.

In fact, I hesitated to weigh in at all, as the post has probably already gotten more traffic than it deserves, except now that I'm teaching in one of the very degree programs the post is ridiculing, I guess I took the whole thing a little personally.

So . . . . I want to comment on two aspects of “paralegaldom”: education and appreciation.

The slender excuse for the slam on paralegals was an alleged question to ATL about the utility of an A.A. degree in Paralegal Studies. (I say alleged because who really seeks career advice from the notoriously snarky ATL? I've always assumed these “Pls hndle Thx” queries were made up – which if true, actually makes the meanness toward paralegals that much more gratuitous.)

So how about it? Exactly what kind of education does one need to be a good paralegal? All sorts of education plus a healthy dose of life experience might fit the bill, in my view.

Granted, there are some law firms and corporate legal departments that would not consider hiring a paralegal candidate who lacked a 4 year college degree.

However, that hiring stringency is by no means universal. There are lots of law firms out there who care more about law firm experience than educational credentials, and are hiring (when they hire, anyway . . . whole 'nother issue, that) candidates with Associate of Arts (i.e., A.A.) degrees, or even no post high school degrees at all.

In fact, I even see the occasional paralegal job posting insisting on a paralegal certificate (i.e., that same maligned A.A. degree) which suggests that my B.A. plus over 20 years' paralegal experience wouldn't be enough for them.

Which is just weird.

The point is, law firms evaluate their staffing needs, their clients and their firm culture, and make decisions about what sort of training they're looking for in their paralegal candidates.

In fact, in my state of California, the only state so far to legislate mandatory educational standards for paralegal*, an A.A. degree in an accredited paralegal program satisfies the statute’s requirements. As an instructor in an A.A. paralegal program, I can attest that when my students graduate, they will certainly know more about the legal system and the job skills needed by paralegals than I did when I entered the field and started my on-the-job training.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a BA myself (plus a few years of grad school to boot – I just couldn’t let go of being a student for a while.) I loved my field of study, and I believe my college education taught me how to research, how to write, and how to think critically – all necessary skills for a good litigation paralegal. But does anybody really think that my philosophy and literature courses actually directly prepared me for work as a paralegal?

I'm also in huge favor of paralegals gaining all the training and continuing legal education they can pack in, and taking advantage of the superb professional development and certification resources available to them.

That said, it seems there is this elitist view that a Bachelor’s Degree is inherently superior to any type of vocational training, and my question is, superior for what? This ridiculing of paralegal degree students - exactly as if a person actually desiring to pursue a course of study that would prepare her to . . . wait for it . . . be a paralegal is a thing worthy of scorn - makes me tired!

Can we all get along?

And finally, because I did say I would also comment on appreciation, I’d like to add that there are a lot of lawyers and law firms out there who appreciate paralegals and the value we bring to their practices and their clients. People who don’t view us as being at the low end of the law firm pecking order. People who appreciate the fact that we know Minesweeper is just about the lamest game on the planet.

(Oh wait . . . sorry to all you Minesweeper fans out there . . .)

So hats off to the lawyers who appreciate us, and let’s quit giving time, attention and precious RSS feed real estate to those who don’t!

* See Business & Professions Code §6450(c). In addition, the New Mexico Supreme Court, in its Rules Governing Paralegal Services, sets mandatory educational standards for paralegals. (Rule 20-115 NMRA.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Terror and Exhilaration!

No folks, it’s not a roller coaster ride.
Did you know (well, how could you know?) that I used to beg my father to take me on roller coasters when I was very young? I loved 'em; I couldn't get enough of those nail-biting, scream-enducing amusement park rides!  But I digress.
No, the terror doesn't come from the standing up in front of a class of 12 and talking about Discovery. Perhaps that would frighten some, but for me that’s a piece of cake. In fact, it’s really fun. In fact, it’s the exhilarating part! It’s a huge rush, talking through my lesson, seeing comprehension on faces (or occasionally lack thereof), eliciting discussion, telling stories from my paralegal career and hearing the occasional chuckle.

The terror comes from my perfectionist nature. What if some student doesn’t do well? What if they appear to be tracking in class, but when it’s time to grade the assignments, it turns out they really aren't? What if they don’t like me? What if I’m not doing it right?

You know. Normal neurosis.

So I proceed through my week like this. I panic about how I’m going to fill up two hours in the next class. I go through the course curriculum and decide what material it makes sense to cover. I review the next class homework assignment to determine what I need to teach in order to prepare my students to succeed on it. And these decisions make me feel a bit better.

And then I talk through my lesson plan a time or two so I can create some memory of it. And then I feel a bit better still.

And then I show up in class, and work through my lesson, and answer questions, and ask questions, and finish the two hours. And it seems like it went well, and I feel great! On top of the world!

And then I start to worry about how they’ll do on the assignment, and about what I should have covered more thoroughly, and about how I’m going to pace out the rest of the sessions in the course, and about how the students will do on the final (you see, I do a lot of worrying about my students).

Until I’m panicked again.

So come to think of it, I guess it’s a bit like a roller coaster after all!

P.S. What in the world am I talking about, you ask? I’m teaching an evening Discovery course in the Paralegal Degree program at Empire College. About which I'm incredibly pleased, excited and proud! Albeit a bit terrified . . .

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's the Best Learning Environment for a Paralegal?

Question: What’s the best learning work environment for a litigation paralegal?

Answer: Any work environment can be an excellent learning experience – a paralegal just might learn different things in different settings.

Tiny firm. In my experience, this is the place that affords a paralegal the chance to perform the most substantive tasks. This happens because there are fewer hands to do the work, but that rarely translates into less work to do. So a paralegal might get a lot of experience drafting all manner of documents, interacting  with clients, and becoming a veritable jack-of-all-trades.

I cut my teeth in a pretty small law firm with 4 attorneys and about 8 staff. I drafted and answered discovery. I collected and reviewed documents. I created a calendaring system. I helped prepare for trial. Heck, I even assembled my own office furniture! It was a great opportunity to gain experience in every aspect of litigation.

Even the furniture assembly experience was not wasted!

Medium Firm. In medium firm settings, there may be fewer document drafting or client hand-holding opportunities, but there are greater resources and there are more hands to help.

I spent some years in a mid-sized firm of (if memory serves) about 65 lawyers in 3 offices. It was small enough to know everyone and to have a lot of firm-wide parties, but large enough to have more resources, such as an excellent library and librarian, daily court messenger runs, and training classes. I did a bit less document drafting and had a bit less contact with clients, and there was no furniture assembly. But I still did a lot of factual investigation, and document collection and review. And of course, lots of trial prep.

BigLaw. Then came my 10 years in BigLaw. In my experience, large law firms utilize paralegals differently than small firms do. They have armies of associates, which can mean that paralegals’ tasks are less substantive. I rarely drafted discovery responses for example, and had even less contact with clients.  With a couple of notable exceptions, I did less factual investigation too.

Oh, and no furniture assembly.

On the other hand, the cases were larger, there were many more documents involved (we’re talking millions of documents in some cases), and bigger attorney and paralegal teams. This required much greater management skills. As lead paralegal on my cases, I had to be the liaison between the attorneys and staff, to assign staff projects, and to supervise maintenance of a huge file and copious amounts of evidence. And there was still a great deal of trial prep.

Trial prep seems to be a given regardless of firm size.

Freelancing. Of course, now that I’m the self-employed owner of my own Virtual/Contract Paralegal biz, my duties have changed yet again. My litigation related tasks are extremely varied – from administrative duties such as invoicing, to hands-on tasks such as trips to the law and public libraries, to legal research, to drafting research memos, motions, declarations, etc., to discovery tasks such as document productions.

I find that I have a bit less in-depth knowledge of my clients’ cases, because I’m more likely to work on isolated projects than to run cases from start to finish. I have little or no direct contact with my clients’ clients.
And then there are all the other tasks related to running my biz, such as accounting, purchasing, IT, and marketing, marketing and more marketing. Even at my smallest law office, I wasn’t doing much of those tasks.

Oh, and I’m back to assembling my own office furniture. So it seems I have come full circle at last!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Driven: Part 4, or Believing Isn't Necessarily Seeing

OMG it's been f-o-r-e-v-e-r since I posted last, where have I been?

I've been here!
Pretty, eh? 

Plus when I haven't been frolicking in the desert, I've been Crazy Busy.

Enough of that, onward with the thoughts I've been thinking while reading Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

The farther I read in this provocative book, the more I realize that it has vast implications for virtual paralegals such as me, and  for all other freelance or telecommuting workers.

I’ve seen a lot of articles suggesting that trust is a barrier to telecommuting or remote working relationships. That managers, supervisors, and business owners who hire contractors worry about the work getting done when no supervisor is present to watch it happening.

This is the exact opposite of what I experience, and I'm guessing it is the opposite of what all of my virtual colleagues experience too.

The notion that a remote working contractor, such as a virtual paralegal, won’t work when not being watched operates on the old assumptions that people don’t really want to work, and must be driven to by carrots and sticks. An assumption that doesn’t really bear out when people are interested in what they’re doing, and have a deep personal investment in what they're doing.

In fact, the very reason that many freelancers want to be self-employed and want to work remotely is that autonomy is very important to us, and it is also highly motivating. The control I wield over when and how I work is an integral part of my drive to excel.

I've commented in previous posts about the way in which carrots and sticks can warp our natural motivation to work hard. Studies show that in a work environment where workers know they are being monitored to assure they’re performing, they may actually slack if monitoring stops. The goal can shift from performing the work to appearing busy for the ever watchful boss. So I can see how managers – lawyers in my case – could become programmed to believe workers require monitoring to get them to perform.

But a self-employed person, someone owning her own business and responsible for her own income, benefits, livelihood and well-being, is really operating outside such an environment. She has strong motivation to perform and to exceed expectations that has nothing to do with being monitored.

Now I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible for a remote working professional to slack off and charge clients for not working – obviously there are unscrupulous folks around. I'm simply saying that for me, the motivation to do my best and most efficient work stems from my love of what I'm doing, from the exhilarating sense of pride I feel from owning a business that provides services to clients, and from the knowledge that it's the value I provide that keeps clients coming back, whether they can see me working or not.