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 in California and Advanced Specialist. I became a paralegal by default. My husband who was an attorney split from a large firm and he needed somebody who would fill the role of the office clerk who would do clerical work for him, so I filled up the void and eventually (as I started out as a clerk) I got more and more involved in office work and became not only a paralegal, but his office manager when the 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 our accountant.
Why I have ACP behind my name and CAS? After I finished paralegal training 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.
Afterwards I took advanced certification courses and classes and took tests so I have an advanced certification in probate and estate and 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. It was incorporated in 1985, and I felt the need to connect with the people who would understand what I’m going through as a new paralegal also to ...get my continuous education because paralegals are required by the professional business code to have minimum continuing legal education units.
So I found my local paralegal organization and 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 into the Board.
Our Board has seven members and slowly through the ranks of being a plain board member I became a secretary, and for the last two years I serve as the treasurer. So I oversee finance of our organization.
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, and also I was approached by two universities, my alma mater UCR, and University of La Verne and their paralegal studies department, and I serve on their advisory committee. That means twice a year I join a group of like-minded people In the legal field and we discuss the needs and progress of the legal field 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 think that there are really, let's say two separate drawers. ICAP is the dresser, and we offer two separate drawers. There is stuff for the new paralegals, and the experienced seasoned ones. For the season ones we offer very cost-friendly mandatory minimum legal education and we also offer socializing events.
For the new paralegal they need those legal education units too, But also we offer the partnerships, the mentorships, somebody for them to find that is more experienced in the field and can help them grow within the profession.
Also for the new paralegals and the students who will eventually become paralegals, MCLE - that's the minimum continuing education seminars - start a half an hour with a social...our meetings are monthly - every Wednesday - and we offer dinner and social event. So the seasoned paralegals who come there after work mingle with the students, or the new paralegals, and the conversations start. “Where do you work?” And, “That's interesting,” and the conversation can go from there…
So, it's like I said, we offer stuff for the new paralegal, the student, and for the seasoned paralegal as well. Not just the education, but the form of socializing. It's essentially a club.
Is ICAP a local organization?
Yes we are an inland county association of paralegals in California. We encompass San Bernardino County and Riverside County. That's why it's called the California Inland Empire. It's one of the largest counties in California and one of the largest counties in the United States.
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?
Not to name names because that wouldn't be allowed, I wouldn't say it was one case, as I said we deal with a lot of probates, we deal with a lot of conservatorships, and our firm (I work at a sole practitioner's firm) we have two attorneys here. One who specializes in litigation, probate, and conservatorship, and the other one specializes only in the trials. Even the probate cases, even the conservatorship cases can go to trial so he's a specialist in trial procedure and appeals.
So I wouldn't say it's the one case per se, but, I as a paralegal come in contact daily with the clients...so I handle the cases from start to finish. In many ways I have to be the shoulder that people cry on because somebody died, somebody's loved one died, Or there are a lot of moms who take care of their disabled children, and when the children come of age they are not only children anymore, but they are adult children...the moms have to obtain - or say the father's - (although the majority of them are single mothers) they 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 this child. The most gratifying thing is when I help them with the burden.
I will tell you this example: A mom will take her daughter to a routine checkup and is told by the doctor that she cannot stay in the office, but won't give her a flu shot until the daughter signs the paperwork because she’s an adult. This child is disabled she can not do that. So all these problems start rising up. She needs to file a petition for the conservatorship with the court. Which is routine for me but not for this lady. It's an enormous amount of paperwork. One wrong box checked, or unchecked, means the petition rejection at the filing window.
So the most gratifying part is when this person comes to our office, and I get the all the paperwork ready for her. It's filed with the court, there is a hearing, and it's immediately approved, and this mom can go along with the life taking care of that child who needs her attention, not the court paperwork that needs attention. That’s the most gratifying part, on my part, as a paralegal.
Those are the ones that most the time I help with. 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 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 conservatorship of a person Is $465 in San Bernardino Superior Court. It's a large amount 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. 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.” That's a weight lifted from their shoulders because they know they can go through this process without acquiring a really, really large debt in the beginning. So that's probably the most satisfying and gratifying part, me as a paralegal in the office.
And what I do with the attorneys? They're not afraid of asking for my feedback. I read their motions. I read their petitions that they filed with the court and it's nice to sometimes see the sentence I actually told them how I would say it differently. It's a little too verbose, or how you lost me. And then I see the changes I actually suggested in the filed paperwork. That's nice too.
So I don't get involved as a paralegal with the research. That's the part the attorneys do themselves. It's a very expensive part if the person, or the paralegal doing the research, doesn't know what they're actually doing, or looking for, it can be extremely costly for the client on the other side. So I don't do that part. I deal with the forms. But it's nice when they incorporate my suggestions, sentence, or they change the paragraph because I suggested it. So it's very nice that they lend me their ear.
It Sounds like they really rely on you.
I’m a detail checker you can say. I also think that's the paralegal role. You have to be detail oriented. As I said, there are numerous a lot of forms...judicial council 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. No. it's a form. Check box here, check box there, and as I said if the box isn’t checked the petition can essentially be rejected, or can start something that you didn't actually want. So...I check the petitions for the attorneys.
For example I have to know that they put the right date? Has the right court case number on it? Also formatting. Is it aligned properly with the numbers in the margin? For example, 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 have at this moment over 98 active cases. It doesn't mean that every single day I have to check 98 cases, but I'm the person who deals with the client on the daily basis. I’m there when somebody calls in to inquire about such and such court date. Most of the time I know what's coming on the calendar. And then I put them on hold - because of course they want to talk to their attorney - I put them on hold. And then I'm saying, “by the way this person is calling about a hearing and it's on that date and it's about this petition.” So when he picks up the phone he will already know what he's going to talk about.
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. And my biggest mistake I ever did was about the date I put on notice of hearing. In Europe you go date, month, year. In the United States you go month, date, and year. I did switch those two. So it was very difficult but I had to fess up to the mistake that I put on the notice of hearing the wrong date.
So what I learned from that is I never put any more numbers. For the month it's always the abbreviation of the month like November...or September - 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 know those people very, very personally. You interviewed them with the attorney, you were present when they actually retained by the Firm, and it doesn't go the way how it was envisioned.
You lost everything, and you have to be there, and relay this message to the client too. The attorney is very good about being very realistic. He doesn't promise a golden palace when there is just wooden structure available. But it's still very difficult to say, “No we are not prevailing.” This is not how it will go. I'll be there for the low, and not take it personally. That you are personally responsible for this outcome. You don't have powers like that. If the man and the woman on the bench, and the other party had a stronger argument...that's what happened.
That's the emotional part that's very hard to deal with. To not take it personally... sometimes these cases go on for years. It's not done in just two weeks or three weeks. There are cases we are handling...they are going on for ten, twelve years now. So you know these people very, very well. You know their families. That's the tough part.
One is I always say you come in the office with Glenda the Good Witch and then the attorney comes from court and you are dealing with her sister Beelzebub...As a sole practitioner’s firm, sometimes I’m the only one in the office when they come in from court and the mood switch. Okay so I met the nice person in the morning and they return absolutely flabbergasted. So not to be able to take it again personally. It's not my fault. I didn't make them mad. It's not because I said something. No. Let them breathe. let them cool down...and 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 40-50 years and now the can of worms is open. Sometimes I interject myself and remind the attorneys that he is an elderly gentleman. Just take a deep breath and let me handle that. Let me be the person who sits with him and talks about apple cider; 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 on a theoretical part because I wouldn't be the one doing the hiring. Some paralegals are getting into the 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 professional and is neat. The same thing applies to the resume. Clean it up. I know there's a lot of stories on the internet that she sent her resume in on a Hershey bar wrapper ,or he sent it in some creative way. That's very interesting... But this 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 every resume will work for those three. Have more than one available. Have the one tailored to a government job...you will say something else there than If you're applying for the sole practitioner office job. You have to elevate information in your resume that applies to that part of the 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 practitioners, 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 computer skills and billing programs will probably go higher on your resume.
Make sure you also tell people that you put them down as a reference on your resume. Because it happened In the past - not necessarily with the work-related part- but we noticed some of the applicants were putting my name on the resume as a reference. And it was only because I spoke to their class. And I say no, no, no, just because I visited your classroom doesn't make me a point of reference. I don't know you.
Also speaking about the reference make sure that, not only a person knows that you listed them as your reference, but make sure you actually want them, that person, to talk about you. Do you have a positive relationship? Did they actually have something nice to say about you? Stuff like that.
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 you're near circle posts. 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 read the resume. 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 would find. That's what I tell people too. And not only about your posts, but what you tag yourself to you. What you like. And what other people tag you to. Because there are software...it will automatically search for those posts, those tags, Likes, sites that you visited…
How would you like to be perceived by this 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 and things, and having a good time. Or something like that.
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 graduate - his or her writing has to develop. A lot about working in a law firm is about writing. A lot 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 communication with the client. You write letters. 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 can not 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. People who know I’m on the Board of a paralegal association will ask me, “Do you have someone who can fill my 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 the attorney’s time...they would rather spend their time on billable time rather than helping somebody learn how to write a simple paragraph.
Another part, we talked about living in the electronic age - and this is where the younger generation have a much better position, for example, than me. How to deal with all of these new novelties and work on the computers. How to work with the social media. How to integrate the communication channels between them and the attorney...
But let's stop and think for a minute how archaic the law part 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 you will need 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. Paralegals teach the newbies. This is what it means...yes you learn this in school, that is the theoretical part. This is the practical approach working in a law practice
How does one find a mentor?
A lot of paralegal organizations they'll have that in their program. For example, I live in San Bernardino County I would Google my local paralegal association...most of these paralegal associations will have direct email links. If they don't then just email their program director or email their president and inquire.
For instance, I'm in San Diego County and I would search for my local paralegal organization San Diego Paralegal organization would come up. Same as in Los Angeles. Same as it in Kern County. Same as it is in Sacramento... I’m sure you can translate this to the other states in the United States, not just for California.
I move for example. I move from California to Nevada. I will be in Reno and I'm sure I can find my local legal paralegal Association in Reno and say, “I'm a new paralegal to your area. Where is your next meeting?” Come to the meeting of their paralegal organization and find out do you have a mentoring program? I am in need of somebody who will actually help me transition from California to Nevada. Do you have somebody for example... in trust and probate, do you have somebody who mentors in that area? 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 will spit out the right form. And what these attorneys are forgetting is the human factor…and the ever-changing area of law.
And in a sole practitioner firm...there are attorneys who take what’s going into the door, the paralegals are the ones who actually sorts those things out. She deals with the forms. She knows what to actually prepare for this client.
Sometimes the attorney will rely way too much on their paralegal. And don’t check their work as they should. That’s a requirement. The paralegal...can not independently practice law. Let me make that clear. You cannot give legal advice. You cannot practice law. You 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 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 a mount 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...kind of 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?
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 can not give them legal advice.
Also, ethical part. 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.