Dana Medley-Vogel had a dynamic career that involved working in healthcare and later as a teacher, but was drawn to the legal field ten years ago. She holds a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and currently works as a legal assistant for a law firm in Jefferson City, Missouri. Dana sat down to talk to us about her experience working in family law, employment law, and personal injury law and how she transitioned to the career she always wanted.
What is your role in your firm?
]I worked as a paralegal for several years, and now I have the title of Legal Assistant. There’s a fair amount of overlap between the roles of legal assistant, paralegal, and legal secretaries. It’s nice to have the paralegal designation, but what every firm wants to call it and what the role is, is different.
In my role, I’ve watched the things that the two paralegals in our office do. Some of it is different than what I do, but some of it is not. It has to do with abilities and time. If a paralegal is overwhelmed with work and they need it done quickly, if it’s something I can do, I usually end up doing it. There’s not really a clear delineation between what the legal assistants/ paralegals do. It’s kind of a grey area.
Do you feel that your education prepared you for the day-to-day demands of the job?
For me, having a paralegal degree helps with the understanding of the law. Lots of people with clerical skills, organizational skills, and secretarial skills can do the job of a legal secretary, to a point. But to have a knowledge to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it sets you apart from someone who is just doing clerical work.
For me, this is not my first degree. I actually came from a medical profession into the law profession. As far as hire-ability, having the background in paralegal studies gives you an edge and affects your pay. Just having an understanding of the law, at least to some degree, and understanding how to go about finding information and doing research is helpful. In my education, I learned how to use tools to do that research. I think there’s a benefit to having a bachelor’s degree.
What motivated you to switch from healthcare to law?
Making the switch from medicine to law was motivated by my family—having children. In the medical profession, you have to work weekends, and work holidays, and it’s not really conducive to family life. I had gone from the medical profession to staying home with my children for a while, and then I had done some odds and ends jobs. I taught preschool for a while, and I landed in the legal world a little bit by accident.
I had friend that said “Hey, I have an attorney friend who is looking for a legal assistant part-time, would you be interested?” So I thought, well, you know, it’s good hours, I wanted to make sure that I had the skills to do the work that they needed me to do. So I started out part-time, got interested, and then the full time person quit, so I started working full time as office personnel and I went back to school to get my second degree as a paralegal.
I was working in the field more as office personnel while I was getting my degree, but because it was a small firm with a single attorney, I learned a lot just in the doing. I had to learn a lot of things very quickly that you would expect a paralegal to do: drafting of documents, speaking with clients, lots of things of that nature.
What was it like to be working in the field with no prior experience?
I learned very quickly out of need. When you work in such a small firm, you kind of have to be a jack of all trades. Also, because it was necessary that I do a lot of things, I had a lot of good teaching and understanding. We would sit over lunch and talk about cases, talk about strategies, why you would do this over this. I had a lot of one-on-one training as to why they would do things a certain way and what was required by the law. Again, since it was a small firm, I had opportunities to go to trial with the attorney that I worked for. Not all the time, but I did a lot of different things that gave me a broad base.
The attorney that I worked for wanted me to go to law school, but I didn’t think I could do it, factoring in the ages of my kids. This was kind of my solution to not going to law school but still being interested in the profession. I felt like in looking at the cost-benefit analysis and the ages of my kids, I wanted to help put them through school rather than go to law school. Not that I wasn’t interested in going to law school, but it just didn’t seem practical or feasible at the time.
Would you recommend working in the field before getting a degree as a paralegal?
If you thought at all you were interested in a career in law, if you were able to start out even at an entry level, you would know pretty quickly if you found the law interested or boring. Like kids going into college—they sometimes think they want to do something, and then when they get started, they’re like, “No, I don’t think so, this isn’t what I’m interested in.” Even working in clerking or something like that in the court system would be great to find out if you like it.
There are so many different types of law, and I’m not doing the same type of law as I was when I first started. My first position, we did family law. We did a lot of work that involved adoption, guardianship, and the division of family services. I liked it. It was very heavy work, very hard work, but also very rewarding work.
And then 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.
Did you focus on a particular type of law during your education?
My paralegal educational program gave me a taste of everything. There’s the research aspect, which is important for every type of law. We did bankruptcy law, family law, criminal law—we basically covered all the different disciplines on the law. Everybody had their kind of law that they were interested in. It was really beneficial to have the classes taught by attorneys, judges, and paralegals, because they were living it. It wasn’t just a professor saying “this is how it is,” it was people who had hands on experience and could say “this is how it works in the real world.”
I’ve had about ten years in the field at this point. For the first eight, I did family law and worked with children and did stuff like that. For the last two, I’ve done a different type of law. There weren’t necessarily things that surprised me, but that might be because I’m older and have seen more of the world than a college graduate.
I find the two places I’ve worked at different. For family law- I felt like it was hard, because we dealt with a lot of child abuse, and a lot of abused women and children. That was very hard, and very disturbing. At the same time, it was very rewarding to feel like you helped people. I very much like that aspect of it.
In what I’m doing now, I think it has more to do with an interest level in the uniqueness of some of the issues that we now face as a culture. In doing employment law, we deal a lot with discrimination- those topics that are facing society, whether you consider them moral or not, are working their way into the workplace. It’s interesting and it’s kind of cutting-edge, a lot of things that employers are now faced with.
I also find real-estate law interesting. I’m one of those people that likes to learn and I find a lot of different things interesting and fascinating. There are some aspects of my job that are not riveting work. We do a lot of contract type things. They are important, they are crucial, but I don’t find it quite as interesting as some of the other aspects of the job.
What is most challenging about the profession?
Being a paralegal is one of those professions where you have to be okay with your work being critiqued and kind of ripped up and not be offended by that. It doesn’t mean you didn’t write it well- it means that the attorney may have something different in mind. Or, sometimes you start something and they change their mind by the time you finish it. For some people, that’s very difficult.
I do a lot of contract work. The attorney may give me a 45 page contract to do edits on, and I may spend hours doing it. Then, they may talk to the clients and change their mind, and I’ll spend a lot of hours undoing and redoing it. And that could happen a ton of times. It’s a little bit maddening and frustrating. It’s one of those things that you can’t take personally, if you know it’s part of your job and you do what has to be done, you’ll be okay.
It’s been my impression in looking at how some people come and go in the field, it can be really hard to have an attorney criticize your work, and they take it personally.
The other thing that’s really hard is that the attorney may come out and say, I need you to work on this. I’ll be in the middle of it and the attorney will come back out and ask me to do something else. And you get working on that, and there’s kind of a back and forth. if you’re geared towards starting Project A and completing it, not wanting to be interrupted, that can be hard and you can get frustrated.
It’s kind of one of those things that if you don’t overthink it, and you know there’s a reason you’re switching gears, it helps. Often it has to do with the client. Today, one of the attorneys I worked for said “Hey, I’ve gotten an email and a call from my client today, and I need to get this off my plate so that they’ll stop calling me.” So I had to get that done right away.
Sometimes, you don’t always know the reason, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what the reason is, the attorney gets to call the shots, that’s their position. Your age and experience can play a factor in how you deal that. The older you get, the more you realize that life doesn’t happen the way you want it to, and you’ve got to be flexible. If you learn to expect some of that, things get a little easier. For some people, changing gears is hard.
Are there any personality traits that are important for paralegals to have?
Being a multi-tasker is important. You’ve got to have good people skills, because people can be difficult. They can be irritating, they can be frustrating, demanding. Learning how to deal with the customer/client and being able to manage them and not lose your cool with them or get flustered is important. It is a crucial aspect of the job. You will get repeat business if you can handle the customer.
It’s also important to have a level of compassion for your client and understanding, but being able to balance and say they don’t understand everything you do, kind of like going to a doctor’s office. At the doctor’s office, the patient might not understand all the medical language, and their life is on the line. So they get frustrated, irritated, they get emotional. And you kind of have to take a step back and say, what if this was me? what if I were getting sued? how would I be reacting? is their reaction normal, understandable, and manageable?
Certainly we have clients that can go over the line, and it’s important to understand what the line is and how to manage that. You have to be a good communicator, have a lot of patience, and maintain composure. You need to understand confidentiality. Everything we do, you have to be so careful with everything that’s said or not said, and every document that’s provided. You have to take those things very seriously.
Has the profession changed since you’ve been a paralegal?
Some of the law has not changed a whole lot over the past ten years. The issues of society are what change. 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. Some of the things we are seeing now we wouldn’t have seen five years ago, certainly not ten years ago. In that aspect, that is what’s changed. As far as the work itself, everything is more technically advanced. Everything is filed electronically across the board. As society changes, as social issues change, that affects law.
Any other words of advice for those considering the field?
Being a paralegal is one of those areas that is maybe not a unique profession, but certainly your work ethic, and how well you do the work can help you stand out in today’s marketplace.