Q&A with Dana Fischel, ACP, CAS Director and Treasurer of ICAP (Inland Counties Association of Paralegals)

We sat down for a conversation with Dana Fischel, ACP, CAS. Dana is a board member and serves as treasurer of ICAP (Inland Counties Association of Paralegals), a professional organization serving legal professionals in and around the Riverside area in California. When Dana reached out to share her thoughts on what professional associations can do for a paralegal’s career, we knew it was time to lean in close and listen up. Dana’s enthusiasm is infectious, and we found ourselves hanging on every word as she wowed us with her knowledge and charmed us with her accent while offering up the kind of insights that can only come from an ambitious leader in the legal field with years of experience to draw from.

Tell us a little about yourself, Dana, and how you got started in the legal field.

My name is Dana Fischel. I’m an Advanced Certified Paralegal and California Advanced Specialist in Discovery. I became a paralegal by default. My husband, an attorney split from a large firm and needed somebody who would fill in the role of the office clerk.  I started out as a clerk and eventually got more and more involved in the office work and later became not only his paralegal, but his office manager when his practice grew.

Also I’m the company’s administrator, therefore I’m responsible for our own billing…So I’m not just a paralegal per say, I’m also office manager, and an accountant.

Why I have ACP behind my name and CAS? After I finished paralegal training/studies at the University of California Riverside Extension, and received a certificate, I took the exam through National Association of Legal Assistants – their abbreviation NALA – and received a certification.

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Afterwards I took advanced certification courses and classes and took tests so I have an advanced certification in probate and estate and in discovery. That’s our firm’s major clientele: trust, administration, litigation and conservatorships. We specialize in this type of law.

How I became involved with ICAP? Inland County Association of Paralegals – that’s what ICAP stands for – is a local paralegal organization and was incorporated in 1985.  I felt the need to connect with the people who would understand what I was going through as a new paralegal.  Also I needed to get my continuing legal education. Paralegals are required by the professional business code 6450 to maintain their minimum continuing legal education up to date.

So I found my local paralegal organization, got involved as a member first, and then I took a bold leap in 2010, and put myself on a ballot and got actually elected onto the Board.

Our Board has seven Directors. Slowly through the ranks, starting first as a board director at large then taking minutes a secretary, and for the last two years I serve as the treasurer. I oversee ICAP’s finances.

Last year I also got promoted to MCLE [minimum continuing legal education] chair so I’m the one who is responsible for finding interesting topics, interesting speakers for our members to listen to, to learn from.  I was approached by two universities, my alma mater UCR, and University of La Verne and their paralegal studies departments. I serve on their paralegal advisory committees. That means twice a year I join a group of like-minded people from the legal field and we discuss the needs and progress of the paralegal profession and education that these universities offer to their students.  So that’s a little bit about me.

Now that we understand your role in ICAP, tell us about the role of ICAP, both for experienced members and those new to the field.

I imagine ICAP as a dresser with two separate drawers. There is stuff for the new paralegals, and the experienced seasoned ones. For the seasoned ones we offer very cost-friendly mandatory minimum legal education and we also offer socializing events.

For the new paralegals, even though they need those legal education units too, we offer the benefit of mentorship. Somebody for them to connect with who could share the experience and help them grow within the profession.

This is accomplished at ICAP’s continuing education seminars which start with a social half an hour.  ICAP meetings are monthly – on every third Wednesday.  So the seasoned paralegals, who come there after work mingle with the students or the new paralegals, and the conversations start.  Simple inquiry of “Where do you work?” “That’s interesting,” could lead to great conversations or even to job interview invitation.

So, it’s like I said, two separate drawers with lots to offer to the new paralegal, the student, and to the seasoned paralegal as well. Not just the education, but socializing as well. It’s essentially a club

Is ICAP a local organization?

Yes we are an Inland Counties association. Inland means San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. That’s why our club is called the California Inland Counties Association. Those two counties are one of the largest counties in California and one of the largest counties in the United States as well.

Our readers are really interested in hearing about what it’s like to work in a law firm first hand from somebody who has already earned their stripes. Can you tell us about one of the most memorable, satisfying cases in your career? Were there any that were particularly difficult?

I could not “drop” any names because I’m not allowed to disclose those and I wouldn’t just be able to list just one peculiar case either.  As I said at the intro, we deal with probates, we deal with conservatorships cases, and our firm (I work at a sole practitioner’s firm) has two Attorneys. One who specializes in probate and conservatorship proceedings and the other one, who specializes only in the trials, as even the probate and conservatorship cases could go to trial so he is the firm’s specialist in trial procedure and appeals.

So I wouldn’t say it’s the one case per se, but, as a paralegal I come in contact  with the firm’s clients daily …as I handle the cases from start to finish. In many ways I’m the shoulder that people cry on.

Lots of our clients are moms who take care of their disabled children, and when these children come of age and they become adults, these moms have to obtain – I should say the fathers too – but overwhelmingly the caretakers for the disabled children are single mothers.  The caretakers have to obtain what is called Conservatorship of the Person. There’s no income coming except for the help from the state, but they have to take care of the daily needs of their child. Most of the time, these ladies devote themselves fully to the disabled child. The most gratifying thing is when I, a paralegal, could help them and ease the bureaucratic burden they face.

I will tell you this example: A mom will take her daughter to a Dr.’s office for a routine checkup and is told by the doctor that she cannot stay in the office during the exam and further that her daughter won’t receive her flu shot either, until the daughter signs the office paperwork because she’s an adult now. This child is disabled and cannot do that.  Mother now needs to file a Petition for the Conservatorship with the court, which could be a routine paperwork day for me at the office but not for this lady. It’s an enormous amount of forms. One wrong box checked, or unchecked, means the petition rejection at the filing window.

So, I should say that the most gratifying part for me comes is when this person leaves our office, relieved that all the paperwork will be ready for her and this mom can go along with the life taking care of that child who needs her attention, not the court paperwork. That’s the most gratifying part.

Cases like the one I just described are the ones I help with most. Because most of the time these ladies don’t have the funds to pay for the attorney’s time. Therefore, I am the one in the office handling the paperwork so it’s not as expensive as it would be if the attorney was handling it.

Also I can help them overcome the burden of paying the initial court filing fees because those are not under the control of the attorney’s office; those are mandated by the court. Just for example a simple filing of the Petition for Conservatorship of a Person is $465.00 in San Bernardino Superior Court. It’s a large sum of money to come up with at a moment. So there are ways to avoid paying the filing fees and that’s also my part.

I say, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to actually pay that, proven that you qualify for the waiver of the filing fees. There are forms that we can fill out, and we can prove to the court that it would be an undue burden on your part and this fee will be waived.”  You can almost immediately see a weight lifted from their shoulders because they know they can go through this process without acquiring a really large debt right at the beginning. Again, that’s probably the most satisfying and gratifying part, me as a paralegal in the office.

And what about the attorneys?  Both are not afraid of asking me for my feedback. I read their motions, briefs and petitions.  And when get the chance to I re-read their submitted paperwork later, it’s nice to see the changes they made based on what I suggested.

I don’t get involved as a paralegal with the case research. That’s the part the both attorneys do themselves. I deal with the forms.

It Sounds like they really rely on you.

You can say that I’m our office designated detail checker. I also think that’s one of the major paralegal’s roles at any firm. You have to be detail oriented. As I said, there are numerous judicial council or local forms that start a process. Essentially you are checking boxes. You are asking the court what you want to do. You’re not writing some big essay like a motion. Check box here, check box there, and as I said if the box isn’t checked the petition can essentially be rejected, based on the oversight, and that is something that you do not want.

Further I check the petitions for the attorneys. For example, did they put the right date of hearing in heading?  Does the petition have the right court case number on it? Further, is it aligned properly with the numbers in the margin? Next, if it says it contains such and such attachments, I’ll make sure the attachments are actually included. If they say the attachment has this many pages, I make sure I count them, and they’re really there.

We handle at this moment over 98 active cases. It doesn’t mean that every single day I have to check all 98 cases, but I’m the first person who deals with clients on the daily basis. I’m the one who picks up the phone when somebody calls in to inquire about the court date.  I have to know the ins and outs of the Courts’ calendar.  So, when I put callers on hold – because of course they want to talk to their attorney, it is me who is telling the Attorney, “by the way this person is calling about a hearing and it’s on this date and it’s about this petition.”  So when the Attorney picks up the phone he will ready with the answer.

We talked about the satisfying part of the job, but what about one of your worst moments or something that was really difficult for you?

…when I just started – I don’t know if you noticed from my accent – I’m from the Czech Republic. The biggest mistake I ever did was that I put a wrong date on Notice of Hearing. In Europe you go date, month, year.  In the United States you go month, date, and year. I did switch date and month. It was very difficult but I had to fess up to the mistake I made.

I learned from this to never put month on documents in a number form. For the month it’s always the abbreviation of the month.  I always put it in a letter form. The date is a number and the year. That would be on my part a procedural part mistake.

And what’s very sometimes tough in a sole practitioner’s firm is, as I said, you start a case, and you get to know your firm’s clients very, very personally. You might have interviewed them with the attorney, you were present when they actually retained by the Firm, and now the case doesn’t go the way how it was envisioned.

You lost everything, and you have to be there when the Attorney relays this message to the client too.  My supervising attorney is very good about being very realistic from the beginning. He doesn’t promise to client a golden palace when there is just wooden structure available. But it’s still very difficult to say, “No we are not prevailing.”  It is hard to witness the low, and not take it personally, that you are somehow personally responsible for this outcome. You don’t have powers like that. If the man and the woman on the bench, and  or the other party had a stronger argument…that’s what happened.

That’s the emotional part that’s very hard to deal with, not to take it personally as sometimes probate cases go on for years. There are cases we are handling for ten years old and still not closed.  So you know these people very, very well. You know their families. That’s the tough part.

Other,  as I work in small office, one has to be ready to work  with someone who changes from Glinda the Good Witch into Elphaba the Wicked Witch in minutes. In small firm, sometimes I’m the only one in the office to witness such mood switch. Okay so I met the nice person in the morning and they return from Court absolutely flabbergasted. So, again learning how to not to be able to take it again personally was a slow and difficult process. It’s not my fault. I didn’t make them mad. It’s not because I said something. Let’s let them breathe the fire out and  let them cool down and let’s move on.  Those are the lows.

It sounds like you have to have many skills.

I switched careers. I was a third grade teacher. That helped me. I don’t mind repeating the same thing over, and over, and over, again because it is sometimes necessary….

And also the human approach. Because sometimes when I see attorneys who practice in the field for a long time, they sometimes lose the human factor in their practice. I think sometimes it even happens to doctors too. They see the case. This is the case.

But I met this elderly gentleman, for example, and he has been married to this lady 50 years and she died suddenly and now he deals with uncooperative institutions. Sometimes I interjected myself into the conversation and reminded the Attorney that he is an elderly and bereaved to kindly take a deep breath and let me handle the small talk instead. Let me be the person who sits with him and talks about his wife’s home cookies and apple cider for a minute and not about the case.

Whether coming out of an associate’s program just after high school, or after earning a post-degree certificate after some years in the workforce, every newbie paralegal has one thing on their mind: They want to know how to land a job. What advice would you give that would help them stand out in a sea of resumes?

This is something I will talk more in a theory because I wouldn’t be the one doing any hiring at my firm.  Some paralegals are getting into the legal field as a secondary career. They were something else before and then they went for their certificate and they are of age right now.  I would say treat your written communication on the media and remember that’s the first impression that a person will get.

Remember if you would show up at an interview in flip-flops, shorts, and a tank top, chewing gum you would not be in the same category as a person who’s professionally dressed and neat. The same thing applies to the resume. Clean it up. I know there are lots of stories on the internet describing creative resumes like one on Hershey bar wrapper. That’s very interesting… But law office is a professional field.

Know what law firm you are applying to.  Is it a big corporation and they have a branch that you want to work at? Is it a sole practitioner firm and he has an opening for the job? Or is it a governmental entity?

Not a same resume will work for those three. Have more than one available. Have the one tailored to a government job where put emphasis on different set of skills one you’re using applying for the sole practitioner office job.

What I am in practice talking about, when you’re applying for the work in a large firm, you may want to stress that you’re able to work with others right?  But, if you’re working at a sole practitioner’s firm, is it really necessary to stress that part of your personality? If you’re applying for a sole practitioner, maybe he’s looking for more than a paralegal. Maybe he’s looking for somebody who will do the bookkeeping. Therefore, your knowledge of bookkeeping software and computer skills should probably make in onto your resume.

Make sure you also tell people that you put them down as a reference on your resume, because it happened to me in the past. Few students were putting my name on the resume as a reference and it was only because I spoke to their introductory class and handed out my business card.

Also speaking about the reference make sure that, not only the listed person knows that you listed them as your reference, but make sure you actually want them, that person, to be approached by potential employer.  Did you have a positive relationship? Did they actually have something nice to say about you?.

In the age of digital data, I don’t know how many people do not have Facebook. Make sure you clean up your Facebook. Make sure you clean up your posts. Make sure you not only clean up your post, but your friends’ and family posts too. There are companies who will know more about you days before you ever set foot in the office for the interview. Because they will do their due diligence and know absolutely everything they can about the applicant before they ever met them and read their resumes. So I would say be cautious. Not everything you want to say to your friends about yourself or about your day would be something that necessarily a potential employer should find. That’s what I tell people too. And not only about your posts, but what post you tag yourself to you, what posts you click like, because there is software automatically searching for those posts, those tags, Likes, sites that you visited…

How would you like to be perceived by the HR person? Why you would be the perfect fit? This company that is looking for a candidate, who is business-oriented and detail-oriented, and you find out the company handles mostly trust drafting where they are going to come in contact with elderly clientele, I don’t think you would want them to see your post of a cruise to Mexico and the drinking with buddies even though you were having a good time.

It seems like a basic career diploma just isn’t cutting it anymore, as all the big organizations seem to be in agreement that a two-year degree in paralegal studies or a post-degree certificate is really what it takes to be prepared. Can you comment on this, give us your thoughts and the reasoning behind this.

High school graduates’ his or her writing skills have to develop. A lot about working in a law firm is about writing. A lots of writing. That contradicts a little bit about what I said in the first part because I deal in forms, but there is a lot of written communication with the client. You write letters, e-mails. You write memos. You write summaries for the attorneys for the petition that was received by our office….I don’t say a person graduating A+ in English and comprehension cannot do that. I’m just saying that’s a part that they need to work on.

Plus, I don’t know if there will be time in a busy office to train someone from ground zero. Attorneys who know I’m on the Board of a Paralegal Association will often ask me, “Do you have someone who can fill my immediate need?” And most of the time they stress, “I don’t have time to train them to know what this is about.” So the minimum training is really necessary. And I’m saying not even sometimes the minimum training will suffice because Attorneys time…they would rather spend their time as a billable time rather than helping somebody learn how to write a simple paragraph.

Another part, we talked about is we are living in the electronic age – and this is area where the younger generation has a much better position than me.  How to deal with all of these forms of media and how to implement their use at office? How to integrate the progress made in communication channels between them and the attorney…

But let’s stop and think for a minute how archaic the language of law sometimes is. You read some of the Motions and you come across the words and you say, “Oh my God that’s not even English. What is this?” That’s the part a paralegal needs to know from school. That’s the part you will learn there. It’s called legalese. It’s a lingo specifically tailored to the law….

And that’s sometimes where the mentoring comes in.  Seasoned paralegals teach the newbie. The theory is learned at school but the practical must be experienced by working in a law practice.

How does one find a mentor?

A lot of paralegal organizations will offer Mentoring program. For example, as I live in San Bernardino County I would Google my local paralegal association’s website. Most of the paralegal associations would include mentoring direct email link on their website if not or email their president and inquire.

Next, I move for example. I move from California to Nevada. I will be in Reno and I’m sure I could find a local legal paralegal Association in Reno and say, “I’m a new paralegal to your area. Where is your next meeting?” I could go to the meeting of their paralegal organization and find out about a mentoring program as I am in need of somebody who will actually help me transition from California to Nevada. This is how it works.

Paralegals seem to be taking on a lot more responsibilities…how has this changed the attorney paralegal dynamic?

Good ways and bad ways too. Awhile back I read a blog article that read that paralegals could be replaced by reliable software.  That if you put in the right data, the computer would spit out the right form. And what these attorneys are forgetting is the human factor….

In some sole practitioner firms…the attorneys take anything what’s coming into the door, the paralegals might be the ones who actually need to sorts those things out, to find  the forms and to knows what to actually prepare for this client.

Sometimes the attorneys will rely way too much on their paralegal and won’t check their work as they should. That’s a requirement. The paralegal…cannot independently practice law. Let me make that clear. Paralegal cannot give legal advice.  Paralegal cannot practice law. Paralegals are always working under the direct – and I stress that direct part – supervision of the attorney…

What do you feel is the greatest roadblock to advancement in the paralegal profession and how does joining a professional membership organization help a paralegal clear these obstacles?

I would say this is a two-way street. What you put into you will receive back. Sometimes the roadblocks are that a person expected something that was not offered. We had that experience with a few new student members. They believed that by joining Inland Counties that they would automatically be placed in a law firm and we will find jobs for them. That’s not our function.

I think sometimes the biggest roadblock is you don’t want to change what’s working. Not to innovate. Not to put new programs into place just because this works, let’s not touch it…especially for the young people coming into the law practices. They see large amounts of paper everywhere. “We can go paperless. How easy would be. There would be no more paper anywhere.” But this attorney is practicing for thirty years and he’s used to printing out stuff. Sometimes the roadblocks the young are feeling in the law practices is the fear of letting go…and the reluctance of learning the new stuff on the part of the attorney.

What would you say are some other important or even controversial issues affecting the paralegal profession today?

There is a Code Section dedicated to this are – Business and Professional Code 6450. You brought up a very important point: ethical issues. What’s ethical; and what’s not ethical. I just said a little while ago, a paralegal is not authorized to practice law. It’s very easy to sit and sip wine with your friend and she brings up, “ I have a mom and she’s getting older…” and because I work in that field – stop! Not your place giving legal advice how to solve the problem. I can suggest to them to contact an attorney…I can talk about procedural part, but I cannot give them legal advice.

It’s very important to know where our boundaries are. Yes we can have a very juicy case in the office…I can know information about individuals that are not putting them in the best light, but it’s unethical for me to go outside the office and say to my friends, “Guess what? You will not believe who I just met. You may know him as a nice guy, but he’s doing this and that.” And go and talk about names and talk about cases. So those are the things that the paralegal has to know.