“The law is always changing,” according to Gabrielle Crisp, a paralegal who has worked in the field for three years. Over those three years, Gabrielle has seen federal rulings affect even the small Springfield, Missouri family court where the cases she works on are heard: “The supreme court has passed a few things that have affected family court—same sex marriage, specifically.”
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Until June 2015, same-sex marriage was only recognized in select US states. Same-sex couples legally married in those states were still living with the knowledge that they would not be recognized as legally married anywhere that had yet to lift the ban. For many who traveled to the more progressive states to perform their nuptials and sign their marriage certificates in full compliance with state law, this meant going back home to a place that would not accept their legal union, though it is the very place where they live, work and pay taxes.
However, on June 26th, 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a legal right throughout the United States, a decision that would move gay and lesbian couples closer to equality under the law, overruling the laws in states that were still holding out.
This ruling affected a number of other precedents within the domain of family law, and cases eventually began finding their way into small law firms operating in states that had always had a ban in place on same-sex marriage.
In Missouri, for example, where one paralegal we talked to named Gabrielle Crisp practiced at the time, same-sex marriage had been banned until the 2015 Supreme Court ruling. But with that change, same-sex couples in the state could now not only marry and have their union legally recognized, but they would also gain access to all the many rights that accompany marriage. Family law firms became the defenders of those rights.
The Paralegal’s Role in Family Law Didn’t Change with Same-Sex Marriage; They Just Found More People in Need of Their Help
From the viewpoint of a paralegal, Gabrielle explained, “The changes aren’t huge. It happens in such an incremental way that it doesn’t feel like a sudden change.”
We also had the opportunity to speak with Dana Medley-Vogel, a legal assistant who began her legal career ten years ago in a firm that dealt with family law.
“The issues of society are what change,” Dana said. “The things that you see and deal with— what becomes more common, the social issues that are making headlines, whether it’s local courts or in Washington DC, those things certainly are changing the cases that come through.”
In her role as a paralegal with a family law firm, Dana says that she did a lot of work “that involved adoption, guardianship, and the division of family services. It was very heavy work, very hard work, but also very rewarding work,” she said.
“When I made the switch to a large firm, working with two different attorneys, we do employment law, civil law, and personal injury law, so I kind of switched focus entirely. However, some things about the law don’t change,” Dana said.
The adoption and guardianship cases that Dana worked on as a paralegal involved in family law are now subject to the inclusions that arose from the Supreme Court’s ruling. But that’s it, she found that the laws ensured greater inclusion, but the fundamental underpinnings of family court proceedings and the work that paralegals do was the same as it has always been.
It isn’t always the case that when a new Supreme Court ruling is handed down that things actually become less complicated, more streamlined and centered on individuals more than the intricacies of law. But in this case, the legalization of same-sex marriage actually meant much less red tape and legal confusion when a same-sex married couple made the decision to adopt. The relief that this brought was felt the most in states like Michigan, where same-sex marriages were not only not legally recognized, but where joint adoption was not available as a work-around for couples looking to adopt.
And adoption wasn’t the only right granted by the Supreme Court ruling: spousal insurance benefits… eligibility for certain kinds of housing… the right to sponsor a foreign spouse… the ability to make health care decisions and visit the spouse in the hospital in family-only situations… inheritance rights and tax benefits… and many other rights were now guaranteed under the law to married gay and lesbian couples.
It is the job and sole function of the Supreme Court to serve as the ultimate, impartial arbiter of justice and equality without prejudice.
“Whether you consider them moral or not, those topics that are facing society are working their way into the workplace. A lot of things that employers are now faced with are kind of cutting-edge,” as Dana explains.
How Do Paralegals Keep Up With the Changing Law?
The good news is that as decisions like this are handed down to ensure everyone enjoys equal protections and rights under the law, the work that paralegals perform doesn’t necessarily change that much. For the most part, family law paralegals continue to do what they’ve always done, they simply work with same-sex couples more often now as they deal with all the same issues straight couples have always dealt with as it relates to things like adoption, health care decisions, and other benefits that legally accompany marriage.
Still, staying current and keeping up with changing laws is of utmost importance for any paralegal in family law.
Gabrielle is a huge advocate of continued education for paralegals, whether it’s through more formal continuing education classes that can eventually lead to specialty certification in specific areas of family law (like adoption and assisted reproduction or dissolution case management), or through things like conferences and workshops.
“Each state has their own family law association,” she said. “Every year they have a family law conference, and I’ve been going to that for the past three years. I even went when I was on maternity leave. I still went because it’s just so helpful. It’s not really for paralegals per say, but it’s still helpful.”
Gabrielle has also taken education classes from NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals and has received two certifications.
“Spending the time studying and listening to speakers for that has been crazy helpful, insightful and eye opening to other perspectives. You know, being in a single person firm, I don’t have other people to bounce things off of, I don’t have other perspectives, so the classes have been hugely helpful.”
Participating in continuing education allows paralegals to gain a deeper understanding of laws like the same-sex marriage ruling and their relevant impact. Since paralegals are charged with contract work, pleadings, and an understanding of the issues behind the cases, understanding the “why” behind the work is critical.
As Gabrielle puts it …
“There’s always something new to learn. There’s an infinite amount of learning to do, because you can always go a little bit deeper, get a little better, get a little more understanding about what you’re doing and learn how to make it better. That’s one of things I love the most about what I do. It’s never dull.”