Jennifer Scordo started towards her career by earning a paralegal degree from her local community college. By the time she was 18 she had managed to land a job at a law firm specializing in a range of issues from personal injury and bankruptcy to real estate and criminal law.
After developing her skills at this establishment she moved on to another area law firm where she acquired true expertise in her profession over 18 years of consistent service. At that point she made the decision to apply to law school.
That led to a job as New York’s Lewis County assistant attorney a few years ago. Today she is listed as a court attorney for the 5th Judicial District of the New York State Unified Court System.
Scordo was featured in a 2013 article in the Watertown Daily Times describing how she wanted to work as an attorney who specialized in custody, divorce, and family cases. Voicing a repeated desire to help kids, she focused on family law throughout her tenure as a paralegal.
Initially planning to start her own practice upon graduating from law school, she jumped when she saw an opening for a county assistant attorney. During her time with Lewis County she said around 95 percent of her job involved working with the state’s Department of Social Services.
So why did it take more than 18 years as a paralegal before Scordo decided to earn her law degree? If you guessed family reasons, you’re correct.
Soon after she began work as a paralegal her first child arrived. Just as her daughter was turning seven years old and getting ready to become a full-time first grader, Scordo had a second child. This time when her son was approaching seven and preparing for full-time school, so was Scordo.
She used her new-found freedom with the kids away at school to earn her degree and graduate magna cum laude from law school. Along the way she received awards for her pro bono work as a student attorney.
Could paralegals be the solution for law firms facing financial decline?
For the last eight years the legal management consulting company Altman Weil has issued a survey to hundreds of law firms across the country to gauge current trends and changes in the legal market. This year, survey findings revealed several discouraging conclusions:
- The recession stunted the growth of the market demand for legal services. As a result, firms remain apprehensive about profitability growth.
- Larger firms, in particular, have a superfluous number of lawyers on staff, many of which are underutilized. By overstaffing high-salaried lawyers, firms incur unnecessary costs.
- Most firms admit ongoing struggles to enhance efficiency of legal service delivery.
With so much pressure to increase profitability, some firm leaders are starting to replace lawyers, especially first-year associates, with paralegals.
Consider this: Last June renown New York-based law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore made headlines by hiking up their starting salary for first-year associates to an astounding $180,000/yr., triggering other big name firms across the country to follow suit. On the flip side, the salary aggregation site payscale.com reports that the average paralegal salary in the United States is currently $44,579/yr.
Since paralegals can generally complete the same tasks typically assigned to first-year associates, law firms can dramatically cut down on staffing costs by hiring more paralegals instead of additional fresh-faced lawyers. Saving money by using this staffing modification tactic also provides the added benefit of lowering client rates.
As for the productivity issue, when asked what their firm was doing to increase the efficiency of legal service delivery, 37.8% of Altman Weil Flash Survey respondents replied they were “shifting work from lawyers to paraprofessionals.”
But that’s not all. According to an October 11 article published by Pittsburg Post-Gazette, in some firms, paralegals aren’t just snagging jobs from lawyers but from secretaries as well. If so, the time for paralegals to shine may have finally arrived.
The Economist summarized the perilous state of many African inmates who lack legal representation. With lawyers in short supply—and very expensive—paralegals help those incarcerated throughout Africa.
Many of the cases revolve around land ownership as Africans return from exile to their villages that had been abandoned during war. In South Africa, paralegals got their start during the anti-apartheid struggle. The landmark legal law in Sierra Leone arose in response to injustices which caused a brutal civil war.
While these paralegals cannot substitute for lawyers in court, they can train inmates on their basic rights such as how to ask for bail. Malawi’s Paralegal Advisory Service also alerts the courts when a prisoner has been held beyond the legal limit. In addition, they try to divert children into rehabilitation programs instead of prison.
Keeping legal authorities accountable is the goal in African countries that do function well:
- Kenya: Paralegals help Nubians become citizens
- Mozambique: They help people with HIV get antiviral drugs
- South Africa: A center that runs paralegal offices recovered $300,000 from unpaid state benefits last year
However, paying for paralegal services in Africa is not trivial. Most get their funding from foreign donors. A major problem with this is that programs “are cut back when fashions change.”
Some paralegal groups find novel ways to fund themselves:
- One South African center uses a recycling business to finance itself
- A Ugandan non-profit called Barefoot Law run by volunteer lawyers uses social media and phones to reach people cheaply
- In Sierra Leone, investors are mandated to pay into a fund that supports local paralegals as a result of a new land policy
One major problem with the use of paralegals in Africa is that only a few countries recognize them in law. Paralegals face the challenge of becoming more professional while keeping their grassroots ethics.
According to an article in the ABA Journal, paralegals are becoming the “go-to staffers for technology.” While many paralegals and legal secretaries face issues of job creep, the biggest change may be their transition to becoming experts in technology.
In fact, many firms specifically seek paralegals with e-discovery skills, including familiarity with databases like LexisNexis and how to search them. In addition, legal firms need paralegals who know the lingo so they can speak with vendors… do the databases load in native or use TIFFs … Anyone?
The need for intensive technology skills can garner higher incomes for paralegals who are knowledgeable enough about technology to function as litigation specialists. Specialists who possess this level of knowledge make sure that the legal firms obtain all relevant discoveries from clients, including information residing on phones and laptops.
The ABA cited comments made by NALS (National Association of Legal Professionals) president Karen McElroy who said she feels her job is “morphing backwards” (in a good way) to a time when paralegals were involved in every aspect of a law firm’s business and the cases they handle.
The comparison appears to be apt as paralegal roles morph to span a variety of business functions. Today’s paralegals may have roles in accounting, billing, marketing, finance, and HR according to McElroy. Paralegals at smaller firms in particularly are likely to encounter a high level of job creep as these jobs become “hybrid positions.”
With such rapid changes in job functions, the future of paralegal and legal secretary positions remains uncharted. However, one thing is clear. Obtaining an in-depth knowledge of legal technology and continually enhancing that knowledge will help paralegals stay relevant in a rapidly changing job market.
Homeless woman, Wanda Witter, is making serious headlines across the country as her 16 -year battle with the Social Security Administration finally comes to a much anticipated close.
According to the Washington Post, Witter’s amazing story of survival and justice goes something like this:
- Witter loses her job as a machinist for Ingersoll-Rand plant in Corning, New York
- Relocates to Fort Carson, Colorado to live with her daughter and enrolls at Pikes Peak Community College, later obtaining a paralegal certificate
- Leaves Colorado around 1999 to find paralegal work in Washington, DC but can only get odd jobs that leave her financially unstable and living on the streets
- Starts dipping into Social Security benefits in 2006 but refuses to cash government-issued checks because of inaccurate payment amounts and eventually stops receiving checks altogether
- Despite endless letters, phone calls, and help from homeless service providers, Witter is treated as mentally ill and any attempts at a resolution are largely ignored by the SSA
Witter’s unrelenting stubbornness and frustration stemmed from her ability to prove the SSA was at fault and owed a substantial sum of money. In fact, she carried around suitcases filled with organized documentation to that effect.
Then she met social worker Julie Turner.
Turner decided to meet with Witter after being contacted by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. As she waded through the mountains of paperwork Witter had accumulated throughout the years, Turner was shocked to discover that Witter was absolutely correct in her claim.
Soon afterward, Social Security dispute attorney Daniela de la Piedra got involved through her work with the AARP-affiliated group Legal Counsel for the Elderly and now Witter will receive a $99,999 check from the SSA.
As for the SSA’s take on Witter’s case, a spokeswoman told the Washington Post that the agency was not authorized to comment on individual cases.
It hasn’t been an easy year for Geneseee County Jail inmates. Back in March, attorney Daniel Manville representing two jail inmates filed a lawsuit against the Detroit U.S. District Court demanding that all inmates receive bottled water in light of Flint’s contaminated water crisis.
On June 28 the lawsuit was settled, forcing Genesseee County Sheriff Robert Pickell to supply bottled water for both drinking and food preparation purposes to the entire jail population until continual testing results proved the jail’s tap water was again safe for consumption. Yet, inmates are now engaged in another legal battle.
Just two days after the safe water settlement was declared, attorney Trachelle Young filed an injunction against the Genessee County Jail with the Flint U.S. District Court to allow inmates to meet with paralegals that have signed authorization from a supervising attorney. It appears that inmates were denied access to paralegals working for the Civil Rights Clinic during the bottled water lawsuit and still struggle for contact.
According to the Flint Journal, on March 4 Manville told Pickell, that the jail would now prevent detainees from meeting with law students and paralegals unless an attorney is present. The clinic is requesting an amendment to the rule so as to allow law students and paralegal to meet with inmates if an attorney condones it and puts the request in writing.
At the time, Genesseee County Jail deputies allegedly banned paralegals from visiting jail inmates because it violated a policy authorizing only attorneys with bar cards to engage in visitation. However, the June 30 lawsuit claims that inmates have a constitutional right to receive paralegal visitations.
In response to the lawsuit, Pickell has expressed a willingness to alter the jail’s current policy to allow qualified paralegals to meet with inmates.
While top notch research and writing skills are essential for a good paralegal, Kimberly A. Grabbe described a number of other qualities that can make or break a paralegal’s career. Ms. Grabbe described such soft skills in the January/February 2016 issue of the magazine Facts and Findings published by NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants).
According to Ms. Grabbe, employers are looking for a range of less tangible skills. In particular, getting along well with others and being easy to work with are highly attractive to employers. So are having leadership skills and a good sense of humor. In fact, she claims that being a better team player or being able to wear many hats may make the difference in being chosen for a paralegal position.
Good customer skills are imperative, and Ms. Grabbe stated that “you are expected to act to a higher standard…than the average businessman or woman.” She wrote that up 80% of your day is spent communicating with clients, potential clients, experts, vendors, or your attorney.
Grabbe stressed the importance of being well organized and pointed out how time-intensive that can be. However, this skill is particularly vital if your job is document intensive. For instance, you will need to classify, categorize, catalog, and organize everything that your attorney needs.
According to Grabbe, a successful paralegal sets aside a large amount of time to organize and create detailed duty lists. Doing so will make his or her workflow go more smoothly. Successful paralegals must also be able to quickly adapt to “change priorities at the drop of a hat.”
Being aware of the importance of these skills before you apply for a paralegal position can help you to better position yourself to land one of these key jobs.
Legal systems are complicated, and it is not unheard of for the uneducated to be taken advantage of by someone with a more intricate understanding of their local rule of law. A group of paralegals working out of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, have taken steps to combat this by offering their expertise to the underprivileged people of their state.
The paralegals in question are employed by the Madhya Pradesh State Legal Services Authority (MPSLSA) and their current campaign is not the MPSLSA’s first. In the past, they have been responsible for sweeping legal awareness campaigns in an effort to combat a variety of welfare schemes and con artists that preyed specifically on the state’s underprivileged people.
Now, these paralegals have taken things a step further. Alongside attempting to educate the public and prevent fraud from happening, paralegals have undertaken the effort of filing and drafting complaints for victims. This takes a burden off of the victim’s shoulders while also helping to make sure reports are filed accurately and to the letter of the law.
The state paralegals also recently hosted a camp for the residents of the Chor Barhata Village in Madhya Pradesh. Nearly 3,500 residents attended, and all received detailed education on welfare schemes and on the laws in place to protect them from criminals. The camp also handed out scholarships to exceptional students and distributed medical equipment to the handicapped.
The success of the camp has led the MPSLSA to develop standardized procedures for holding similar camps in the future. They believe that districts facing potential epidemics of welfare schemes could be aided by the education and aid being provided by state paralegals. Hopefully, camps in the future will be able to stem the tide of legal abuse and equip the people of Madhya Pradesh to better understand their legal rights.
One of the most important roles for a paralegal is client interaction. Lawyers will often handle initial consultations and interviews with clients at the beginning of a legal process; however, as trials grow increasingly long and complex, a lawyer may have to focus their attention to other areas to ensure that cases are resolved to the letter of the law. The presence of a paralegal can be felt throughout this entire process and can be useful well after litigation is finished as a part of maintaining the relationship between attorney and client.
Over the course of a trial, a whole host of paperwork may need to be filled-out and filed by a client. A paralegal’s job might include keeping track of that paperwork during ongoing litigation and ensuring that clients are kept up to date on any fees, forms, and documents the law firm may need from them. A paralegal also has the expertise to field questions from clients about the nature of this complex process, freeing up lawyers to continue pursuing the more intricate aspects of the legal process.
Some of this paperwork is also drafted by paralegals. While the drafting of legal documents must take place under the direct supervised of an attorney, a paralegal is often responsible for initially creating the document and smoothing over that process for an attorney.
Importantly, paralegals are also responsible for managing the final phase of a client-attorney relationship. Distributing settlements between the client and their attorney and identifying any outstanding debts and liens the client may owe at the end of a trial are an important part of ensuring a settlement process goes smoothly for everyone involved. Finishing well is a crucial part of maintaining healthy relationships with clients whose referrals could lead to business in the future.
Without the persistent presence of a paralegal, settlement proceedings could be a confusing and difficult process for clients and lawyers alike. However, their mediating touch helps to bridge the gap between the complexities of the legal system and everyday people caught up in it.
Major General Charles J. Dunlap Jr. visited the Air Force Academy recently for a speaking engagement. While there, he took the chance to visit the Academy’s legal office led by Colonel Dawn Zoldi. Major General Dunlap was afforded the opportunity to speak to the legal office staff about his career with the JAG Corps and the Air Force. He began by saying that while everyone must develop their own personal philosophies, he “thought seeing an example might help some folks get started.”
Some key reflections that Major General Dunlap found helpful in his career include:
Service: A lot of promising paralegals (military or private sector) fail to meet their potential because they often lack qualities that complement their firms. Success does not depend on having a superior intellect or talent, but rather a great work ethic and positive attitude.
Know your client’s business: The research and knowledge required for each individual case is one of the most important aspects of the life of a paralegal. “All the knowledge of the law in the world won’t help you if you don’t understand the facts involved, or the context in which it will be applied.”
It’s not supposed to be easy: Becoming a true professional takes dedication and patience. In the age of online research and instant gratification, there is enormous value in taking your time and researching other issues that might not seem like they have immediate relevance.
Mentors: A mentor can be the greatest asset you have in your early career as a paralegal. Find someone who is willing to tell you what you need to hear over what you want to hear.
Major General Dunlap boasts a 34-year career in the JAG Corp, and he served as the Deputy Judge Advocate General from 2006-2010. He currently teaches courses on national security and international law at Duke University School of Law.