The WHO, WHAT, WHY, HOW and WHERE of Using Paralegals

In this webinar, Toni Marsh, Director of GW’s online Master’s in Paralegal Studies Program provides a comprehensive review of what today’s paralegals do and how employers can more effectively leverage paralegals’ unique skills to improve the bottom line. The webinar looks at the paralegal role from a variety of angles and settings, including a comparison of the distinct functions they perform in law firms, in-house legal teams or within the government. This discussion provides valuable insight for paralegals as well as their employers so contemporary legal teams can maximize efficiency, effectiveness and overall profitability.


Amanda: Okay, my name is Amanda Walter, I’m your moderator today. I just want to thank everyone for taking the time to join us for our webinar today about the paralegal profession. Toni Marsh, the program director of GW’s Paralegal Studies Program, will be providing a very comprehensive review of everything about the modern paralegal role. And we also have a couple of students and alumni joining us today as well to talk about their job, in various settings and kinda what that encompasses. Before I do begin, I just wanted to quickly go over a couple of logistics for the webinar today. Everyone’s line is muted to minimize background noise, the webinar will last a total of 45 minutes to one hour at most and you can also submit questions to me, the host at any time in the chat window on the right side of your screen.

What we’ll do is we’ll go through the webinar presentation itself, which will last about 30 minutes, maybe 45 minutes and that will reserve a Q&A session for the very end of the webinar. So submit your questions to me at anytime in that chat window and I’ll reserve them for the every end and then we’ll read them out loud for the panelists to respond to. Of course we’ll do everything we can to answer everyone’s questions during the allotted time, but if for any reason we can’t get to some of your questions, I will be recording them and providing them to our enrolment advisors and to Toni afterwards, for us to follow up with you. So thank you again for joining us today … One last note is that the session is being recorded, so in case you need to step out early or if you miss anything, we will make that recording link available within the next couple of days and send that out to everyone, if you do want to catch that or even if you wanna forward it to a colleague. So lets go ahead and I’ll turn things over to Toni now to introduce yourself and our panelists and get into today’s webinar. Toni go ahead.

Toni: Okay, thank you so much Amanda and hello everybody and thank you for joining us today. I’m very excited to be speaking to you all, I always love talking to members of the public and people who are interested in the legal field and people who are interested in legal education and paralegal education and the paralegal profession. It is a very exciting field, it’s an exciting time to be a paralegal. The profession is growing, it’s blooming, it’s thriving and so that makes life good right, for people in the paralegal field. Paralegals are doing a lot more, they’re doing more in more places, they’re working in more law firms and more law offices and government agencies and there’s just paralegals everywhere.

As a result of the big crash that the legal field experienced in 2008, when that happened a lot of law firms added paralegals or cut lawyers, but kept their paralegals and the paralegal profession really grew at that time, so and it never … Even though the economy never really went back, so it’s a great time to be involved in the paralegal field and I am so happy that you are joining us and that you share that sentiment as well. So as Amanda said, my name is Toni Marsh and I am an Associate Dean here at George Washington University. I’m also an Associate Professor of Paralegal Studies and I’m the Director of the Paralegal Studies Program here at GW. I started this program here at GW in 2006 and we’ve just grown tremendously since that time. Before I was at GW I started a program in North Carolina … The University of North Carolina and before that I taught for many years at Georgetown University here in DC and before that I was a lawyer. And actually I was a lawyer … I’m still a lawyer … I’m still a licensed lawyer, but I don’t practice law fulltime anymore, I still practice a little bit, but not much.

But anyway I started teaching in the paralegal profession, I started teaching in Paralegal Studies Program right outta law school, I graduated from law school in 1990 and started teaching almost immediately at a local community college in Ohio, Cuyahoga Community College and never stopped teaching. I just found the paralegal education field to be fascinating. So I’m here to talk to you today and I have three of my absolutely wonderful students with me today, to our alumna … Alumni and one is a current student and they represent all different areas of the paralegal profession, one works at … At a nonprofit, one works at a major corporation and one works at a … At a United States Federal Government Agency. So you’ll be able to hear from paralegals who are out there working in the real world in areas beyond just the traditional law firm. I’ll talk to … I can talk to you a little bit about law firm life, I think that that is … You know I’ll tell you a little bit about that as we move through the presentation, but then I’m gonna let these … These three women talk to you about the unique elements and the exciting part about working in the various … In the various forums.

So our agenda today is Who, What, Why, How and Where of paralegalism … So who are paralegals and what do they know, what do they do, why should law offices use paralegals and once we … Once they do decide to use them, how is the … How do you use them, what’s the best way to use them. So how do you use them and how do you develop paralegals within your law offices. My understanding is that we … And then we’ll go onto where do paralegals work, which is where these … My three students will come in and speak to you about that and then we’ll talk a little bit about their jobs that … In a little bit more detail. My understanding is that those … That my audience, that those of you out there are a mix of aspiring paralegals, people who would like to enter the paralegal field, paralegals who are already working, but would like to move up into the field or would like to move out of where they currently are and move onto you know different venues and then I understand we also have [some 0:06:00:2] lawyers out there. So I’m going to try to make sure that I … I address you all as I speak and that I don’t … I don’t neglect any of you. So let’s go onto who are paralegals?

So paralegals nowadays are far different from how they were in the olden days, in the 1970′s, when the profession first came out or first emerged as a profession. So it used to be that you had a law firm and in the law firm you had secretaries and administrative assistants and eventually those secretaries got to be pretty good at understanding the legal formats and they … They would look up the rules and they learned a little bit about … They learned a little bit more about what they were doing beyond just you know typing things and filing them and putting them where they belong, they actually began to learn a little bit of the substance of what they were doing.

And so those secretaries came to be known as legal secretaries and they specialized in the legal field. And as those secretaries became more and more sophisticated, as they’ve spent more time looking at the rules and understanding where things went and how to do things, they became what … They became more than secretaries and they … There was actually at that time, in the 70′s and 80′s and even up through the 90′s really, all the way through the late 90′s, this has been about what to even call these people … These people who worked in law firms, who knew substantive law, knew the procedure of the law, so understood the rules, understood the formatting, knew how to draft legal documents and even knew what to put in them. So some people called them legal assistants and some people called them paralegals and so that’s how that went. Then eventually the term paralegal came about and I’m describing to you what paralegals is, so I’m describing to you today the paralegal profession, which is really the highest level of that … That non-lawyer … … The non-lawyers in the law firm. If you go into big law firms and big government agencies and big corporations and even medium sized operations, what you’ll find is that there’s a hierarchy of this whole … This whole non-lawyer staff. So you know this body of non-lawyers.

So … And again every … Every office calls it something different, although there is some … Some standardization across the profession, but you’ll have legal … So you might have a docketing … You might have a docketing specialist and then a legal assistant and maybe you’ll have a legal assistant one, two and three, senior legal assistant and then you get into paralegals and again one, two and three and then you get into paralegal specialists or senior paralegals or managing paralegals or paralegal managers, so there are all kinds of names and all of those names describe different jobs or different bodies of responsibility within the law firm, but for … You know just for ease in discussion today, I’m gonna call them paralegals and I’m really going to … As I said focus on that portion of the non-lawyer staff that is the upper level portion, those people who are doing administrative work, support work, system and procedural work, but also a lot of substantive work as well. That’s what I think really distinguishes the paralegals from the legal assistants and things like that. So who are paralegals now? Who are paralegals nowadays? Paralegals nowadays are people who have chosen the profession. So unlike in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s where people just sort of fell into it and you know started out as I said as secretaries and then began to learn a little more and then suddenly found themselves being called paralegals. Paralegals nowadays are people who graduate from college and decide that they want to be paralegals and so they choose the profession. They plan to make a career of it, they’re going to stay in this, again unlike the way that it used to be, there was a time … In fact there’s a term for it and those of you in the law firms have learned this [two and out or sometimes three and out 0:10:09:1] and those are people who would come into the law firm and they would work for two years and then they’d be out, because they would go onto law school.

So a lotta people would go to paralegal … Enter the paralegal profession as a jumping off point or as preparation to go to law school, which is not a bad plan. If you’re really, really set on going to law school, starting out in paralegal school is not a … As a paralegal is not a bad way to approach to start that career path, because you know you’ll learn the law, you’ll learn the substance of the law, you’ll get to know people, you’ll get connected and that’s … That’s a good thing. But those [two and outs or three and outs 0:10:47:5] are becoming increasingly rare, because nowadays people become paralegals and they stay there, they like their jobs as paralegals and they don’t want to be lawyers. So they have chosen to become paralegals rather than lawyers. It’s a completely different job and the people who are great paralegals are … You know have a different skill set and a different perspective and different set of likes and dislikes as those people who want to become lawyers.

Now as I said … I still get people who do come into the paralegal program here at GW and every law … Every paralegal program in the country get paralegals who come in, who really are on their way to law school, but honestly more often than that and you know these people that come in, as I said I encourage them, I say it is … It’s a good way to launch a career in law school, more often than not, once they enter the paralegal profession, they don’t wanna leave. Paralegals are really happy for the most part, paralegals love their jobs and they stick with it. So there are people who plan to a make a career of it, stick with it and they are college graduates nowadays … You know somebody doesn’t have their phone muted, I don’t know I’m hearing conversation in the back, do you guys here that.

For the most part, paralegals now are college graduates. So if you read postings now … If you read position postings, all of the paralegals nowadays have college degrees at the very minimum. And most have Post Baccalaureate Certificates or master’s degrees. So this has become the standard, the college … The college degree and the Post Baccalaureate Certificate or master’s degree has become standard. Alright, onto the next slide … So what do paralegals know? So if you’re a paralegal or if you as a paralegal, if you have gone to … If you’ve got a certificate or you’ve got a master’s degree, that means that you’ve gone to a school that’s either accredited … So it’s accredited by the local agencies, so George Washington for instance is a … Not a local, but a regional accrediting body.

So George Washington’s program is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, that’s the official accrediting agency, the United States Government recognizes that agency, that’s how you get … That’s how GW as a university is allowed to dispense academic credit. So most programs nowadays either are accredited, which means that they’ve been … That they’ve been approved or is an officially … They have gotten the official seal of approval from a regional accrediting agency or they’re ABA approved. So there a lot of programs out there that aren’t academic credit bearing and they’re not academically accredited, but they’ve been ABA approved. So the ABA comes in and they … Then they literally … They literally come and they send a team of reviewers to go in to look at this program, they review the curriculum and by the way this is also what Middle States does … Of course Middle States does even more than the ABA, cause it’s … It’s official accreditation, but the minimum … The ABA is the minimum that you’ll see. So the minimum is they will send a body of reviewers in, they’ll look at your curriculum, they’ll look at the textbooks, they’ll sit in on classes, they interview students and professors and … And alumni and they make sure that the … That the curriculum that these students are learning is good, that it’s real, that it’s legitimate.

The way that the create this curriculum is by talking to local lawyers and professors and legal recruiters and working paralegals and paralegals managers, they talk to all kinds of people … This is what I did when I created this program and what I do by the way on an ongoing basis, to keep reviewing my program, to make sure that what we are teaching our students is what the legal field demands. So that’s what you’re learning here. So the curriculum is geared to the local market. So for example here in DC, we are … You know we’re the steps away from the Federal Government, there’s a huge IP market here and there’s a huge international market here in DC. We’re right next to … The GW campus is right next door to the state department, the World Bank is across the street, so we have a curriculum that focuses on international law, IP law and government law and administrative law, cause that’s what we do in DC, that’s what our paralegals need. Now when I started the program in Charlotte, North Carolina, that’s the banking centre of the United States, so at North Carolina we have a banking specialty, because that’s what they needed there. When I worked in Ohio, there was a big focus on labor law and construction law and contract law, so there’s a lot of industry in Ohio. There is banking there as well and the healthcare was really big in Ohio, because that was a big industry.

So when you go to a program, you can be sure, you know that the paralegals would know whatever is current and local and topical. Okay so onto the next slide then … What can paralegals do? Everything … They can do just about everything that lawyers need to do. Now again, when you look at these programs, these bodies come in and they accredit these programs and they make sure … Or approve, so the Middle States accredited ABA approach, but it’s all good, somebody’s giving them a seal of approval. At any rate, they come in and they make sure that there are certain key skills that every paralegal coming through their program has mastered, so crucial … I’ll say number one absolutely number one written and oral communication skills. We’ve gone through, we’ve done the research, we’ve look at the … We’ve looked at the job postings, not only for the paralegal profession, but for any professional career, written and oral communication skills are key, they are so in demand.

So in our program and in the other programs, in any good reputable accredited program, they’re gonna really focus on written and oral communication skills, print and electronic research. So every program that’s approved, is … Or accredited is going to have a course in legal research, so that the students learn how to use Westlaw and Lexis and whatever is the topical database or the technology or the software that they need to know for that particular area, so for example in corporate law you’ve gotta know how to use EDGAR, you’ve gotta know how to use the state’s … The Secretary of State filing system, so you need … If you’re in litigation you need to know how to use something called PACER, because that’s how you use electronic filing. So whatever it is, whatever is key to that particular area of the law, paralegals will have at least learned that, maybe not mastered it, but they will … I’m talking about paralegals right out of school, will have learned that.

And then as they go through their careers they will have … They will have mastered that. Drafting that’s you know writing and oral communication. I just mentioned that, but again it’s not just research technology, but it’s things like billing software, case maps or mapping software, you know deposition software, all of the software’s, all of the technologies that are used today in the legal practice. Paralegals really drive that technology, they really drive that technological learning and so they really … They’re the ones that know that and have mastered it. So what can they do … I’ll tell you … It’s easier and beyond all that, they can interview clients, they can schedule, they can talk to the court, they can talk to the other lawyers, they can fill our forms, they can … You know they certainly … What they’re really good at is setting a schedule and managing things, managing the technology, managing the … If you’re in the middle of a litigation, you know if you’re in the middle of a case, managing the documents, managing the witnesses, managing the statements.

This is what paralegals do, they’re very detail oriented, they’re very system oriented and they manage things, they run things, they’re great at that. There are very few things in the legal universe that paralegals cannot do and it’s really easier to say what they can’t do, so what paralegals cannot do is they cannot sign an legal document, they can’t file a complaint or an answer that’s gonna be filed with the court. They can’t accept a case on behalf of the firm, they can’t set a fee on behalf of the firm, they can’t advocate in court, so they can be in the courtroom, but they can’t be the one who’s actually standing in front of the judge, arguing in front of the judge, although they can in an administrative hearing. In some administrative hearings paralegals can even do that. So you know but they can’t do it in the court in a regular trial. And they can’t give legal advice.

So paralegals can’t give legal advice, which means a paralegal cannot … The definition of giving legal advice is exercising your own independent judgment on a set of facts and circumstances so as to change the legal standing of a layperson. So there are four elements to that, it’s gotta be independent judgment, it’s gotta be change the legal standing … Or I’m sorry, three elements … Independent judgment, change the legal standing of a layperson. So that’s … That’s a high standard, so paralegals can advise lawyers, they can give their opinion to lawyers, paralegals can certainly relate information to clients, but they just cannot interpedently advise clients, tell clients what to do in such a way as to change your legal position. They can help them to fill out forms, things like that, so … And they can certainly communicate with the clients. I don’t know how many lawyers are out there in the … In this audience and how many working paralegals there are, but if there are any of you out there, you know that the number one source of complaint about lawyers and law firms in the legal field is because of … Is based on lack of communication.

A good paralegal comes in and can run the communication, a good paralegal comes in, communicates with the client, keeps the client in touch, keeps the client happy and really decreased the occurrence of complaints filed against a law firm. Alright, so onto the next slide … Why use paralegals? Well money is a big one. Paralegals are way, way, way more cost effective than lawyers, paralegals are fully billable, so if you’re in a law firm … Not too much … In a government agency or a corporation or a nonprofit, this isn’t gonna come into play, but in a law firm, paralegals are billable, which means that in a law firm, used properly, they can be profit centers. So you absolutely … The more paralegals that you use and the better that you use them, the better it is for the bottom-line of the law firm. And for the corporation, cause if you’re working in a corporation or a government agency or in a nonprofit, you have a budget … You’ve got a certain amount of money that you can spend on your legal operation and if you spend that money on lawyers, you’re gonna be spending a whole lot more of it than if you spend that money on paralegals. So it’s much more cost effective to use paralegals. And as I said in the law firm they’re fully billable, which means they’re total profit centers. Lawyer, paralegal and client satisfaction … Clients nowadays are far more savvy than they used to be. Not more … Not that they didn’t used to be savvy, that’s really not the best way to put it, but it used to be that the money and legal fees you know a big corporation, would hire a law firm and the law firm would send the corporation the bill and then law firm … Then the corporation would pay it and that was the end of that … It’s not like that anymore.

People are a lot more conscious of the cost of legal … Of legal services and they’re questioning these things, they’re demanding alternate fee arrangements where they pay a flat fee for a certain legal operation and they’re questioning every item on the bill and they wanna know where their money is going and why. So if a paralegal can do a task and doesn’t, the client deserves to know why now, why did you choose to pay a lawyer to do something that might … That your paralegal could have done and if there’s not a good reason, then the law firm’s gonna have some explaining to do. Paralegal satisfaction, if you are a lawyer, if you’re a legal administrator out there and you’ve got paralegals and you’re not using them to the fullest extent, you’re doing your paralegals a disservice. I sit on the admissions committee here at GW, so I read every applicant’s statement of purpose and if I had a dollar for every time somebody used the word passion, I could take a really nice vacation somewhere, because almost every single person who applies to this program talks about their passion for the law. This is why paralegals choose the profession, they want to do the big work, they wanna do the substantive work. I have never … Another thing that I do is I supervise the practicum, so that’s where my paralegals go out and they work in the legal field and then they keep a journal and they talk about what they do on the job.

I have never, ever, ever read a journal entry where a paralegal complained that they were given too much work, that they were overworked, they never complain about that; they will complaint that they’re not getting enough work. That’s what makes them sad or makes them feel dissatisfied when they’re not getting enough work. They wanna do this work, so if you’re a lawyer … If you’re a managing partner and you’re allocating the work, give it to the paralegals, they want it, they wanna do it. They’ll be happier and they will stay. So your clients are gonna be happier, your paralegals are gonna be happier and your lawyers are gonna be happier, because a lot of the work that the paralegals can be doing that they’re not doing, because lawyers are doing it, lawyers don’t wanna be doing that stuff, lawyers wanna be doing the other stuff. They wanna be doing the strategizing, the executive stuff, they need to be rainmaking, they’re supposed to be out playing golf with clients, that is truly part of what they’re supposed to be doing, everybody laughs, but that’s what they do, they bring in the business. And so they need to be out there doing that. Alright and then finally onto the last slide that I’m gonna talk about and that is how to use paralegals.

So how do you use paralegals … For you lawyers out there, understand what they cannot do, I already outlined that earlier. So don’t give them work that’s gonna cause them to be practicing law, cause that’s not what they do. Let them set up processes, let them organize things, let them set up systems … Paralegals love to do that, they’re great at it and let them … Let them create their network, because that’s another thing paralegals love to do, they love to network, they love to go out and build connections within the community and they’re big communicators. So let your paralegals go out there and let them … And give them as much work as you can give them, give them as many opportunities as you can to get out there and take professional development, go to seminars, to belong to professional organizations to meet their peers, because every time you send your paralegal out there, every person in your paralegal’s network is a person in your network. And for you paralegals out there or you aspiring paralegals this is what you should be asking for, this is what you should be advocating for and you are doing your boss a favor, you’re doing your lawyer a favor when you ask your lawyer to send you out for professional development or to send you to a meeting or to send you to a seminar or a conference, because you are bringing back valuable skill and valuable network to the law firm … Or to your law office.

Alright, so I have spoken enough, so I’m just going to … In fact I’m gonna talk very, very, very quickly about life at a law firm and then I’m gonna turn it over to my students. I’ve really been describing law firm life sort of all … You know all though this seminar, so I’m going to … I’m gonna sort of back off now and I’m gonna turn it right over … Paralegals at law firms … As I said if you’re at a big law firm it’s interesting, the bigger the firm, the smaller the job and I don’t mean smaller in importance, but I mean smaller in range. So when you work at a big, giant law firm, big multinational law firm – Jones Day, WilmerHale, Patton Boggs, something like that … McKenna Long. what you’re gonna do is there’s gonna be a … There’s gonna be a very structured hierarchy in place, you’re gonna start out in entry level and you’re gonna work your way up and up, you’re gonna end up in a group, in litigation group or the IP group or the tax group or whatever and you’re going to spend a lotta time in that group and if you wanna move out of that group, you’ve gotta deliberately make a move out of that group. So you’re gonna learn one thing very, very well, life at a big law firm is glamorous and fun, there’s interesting travel, there’s interesting people, there’s lots of money involved, the buildings are beautiful, the support is endless, I mean it’s really a very, very nice life. If you work at a medium or small firm, maybe you don’t get so many of those big, glamorous perks, but what you’re gonna get in a small firm is you’re gonna get a bigger job. If it’s just you and two lawyers, you’re gonna be doing a lot, you’re gonna be doing everything, you’re gonna be talking to clients, you’re gonna be talking to judges, you’re gonna be doing to court, you’re gonna be doing whatever, you’re gonna travel and … Whatever and you’re gonna be doing lots and lots and lots of stuff. You’ll have a much wider range of duties, so you may not be a specialist, you may not be the premier tax premier tax specialist in Washington DC or New York City or Kansas City, but you will be … You will learn a lot about the law and it will be interesting, cause you’ll do something different every day. So that’s in a very small nutshell life at a law firm.

And now I’m going to turn it over to Jessica D’Amico who is going to speak to you about … I’m sorry not Jessica … Kate … Kate Crabtree, who is going to talk to you about life at a corporation. So Kate if you could just introduce yourself very quickly and just talk a little bit about life at a corporation.

Kate: Sure, my name is Kate Crabtree and I’m a paralegal with ExxonMobil Corporation. I work … It sounds like working for a corporation is much like a large law firm, in that I work for a group within the company and I work specifically on contracts for that group, but there are opportunities to work beyond that when … When the need arises. There’s … I think that’s probably the best part of working for a corporation is there’s a lotta diversity and subject matter when need arises. So you have your own portfolio, but you know you’ll either be approached with an opportunity to help out on a special project or you can seek it out. When you see there’s a area where … Where someone seems to be struggling or underwater, you can certainly volunteer and overwork yourself, but you can get in on a lotta fun jobs that way. And I think having your principal client, you really get a good knowledge base of their … Their business and so you’re kind of a specialist in that area, but you can certainly use your paralegal skills elsewhere in the company. So that’s really nice and I think one of my favorite things is our company … Like most companies want to offer good corporate citizenship and be active in the pro bono arena and so we’ve been able to participate in quarterly law clinics for Wills, as well as monthly attorney of the day where we will go and support women in protective order cases. And so just being able to do that very … Very different kind of work is really exciting, it’s almost some of the more special work we do.

I mean I think it hits home more and it’s the best feeling work we do, even though it doesn’t always come out well, but you know it’s just nice to know our company does that and other companies does that, but … And that you’re actually getting you know kinda pro bono credit for working for your company. So yeah I think that’s probably my favorite thing. I think also just interacting with the lawyers in my group and also with pro bono, I get to work with lawyers I wouldn’t normally work with, who are outside my group, but you know you really get to know them, you get to know their kind of … You become attuned to their moods and what they might need and you might be able to anticipate some of their needs, which I think really makes you super useful. And when you can just kind of notice a little extra you know busyness on their part and you can offer assistance and maybe tell them how you can assist them, that is just … You know that’s usually very welcome in their eyes and … Yeah so you get a lot of good opportunities that way and I think in past … Or the other good thing about the company is I’m in a multinational and my previous company was also multinational, so you can work for you know attorneys in other cities, your clients might be in other cities. I had the opportunity to support clients in our Brussels office, because there was a job that didn’t need a fulltime paralegal in Brussels and so I was able to work for them on a huge competition issue during one of the mergers of MCI and WorldCom or maybe that was the Verizon merger, I’m not sure, but … So that was really exciting and just to kind of learn about how competition works in the EU versus here was interesting and I did a lotta public policy work where attorneys who were to attend meetings with either the government or industry groups, they would send me out instead because they were busy with other client matters and that was a just a lotta great experience, but it just kinda shows the diversity of things that you might be asked to do.

And I think … Let’s see … I think it differs from a classic law firm career, because you don’t have to keep detailed timekeeping, which is super exciting. I think that’s the one thing you will always echoed from corporate paralegals who’ve previously been in law firms, is just kinda there’s a freedom when you only have to kind of estimate a chunk of time you’re working for a client versus you know keeping track of partial minutes. So … Or partial hours whatever for clients. And I think for the type of person who would thrive in a corporate atmosphere as a paralegal would be dedicated, disciplined and communicative, you have to be willing to approach attorneys to ask questions if you’re not sure of what’s going, but you also need to you know be willing to offer help and kinda identify areas where you might be of assistance and that’s the best way to get exposure and really … Yeah I think do different things and get outside your … Your comfort zone and your portfolio, it does mean more work, but that’s always kinda fun, so anyway I think that might be it for me Toni.

Toni: Okay, well thank you very much and so then let’s go on … Thank you so much Kate, it was really good to hear from you. So now we’ll hear from Jessica D’Amico. Jessica will speak about life at the United States Department of Justice.

Jessica: Hi this is Jessica D’Amico, I am a paralegal in the civil division in the United States Department of Justice. Specifically my component works on contracts litigation and trade related matters. So something that I love is that contract litigation touches on everything. If the United States Government needs to procure something and it can be anything from a number two pencil to 20 Boeing aircrafts for a war, we get involved in that contract litigation. So I have had the opportunity to go to trials all over the country, I may be going to one in Puerto Rico, so fingers crossed, we’ll see how that works out, but I love getting to have the opportunity to travel, I’ve been to New York City for trials, I’ve been everywhere you can imagine.

Another great thing about the component that work in is that we’re often involved in the things that you see happening live in the news. So for example one of my colleagues is working on the AIG litigation and I’ve helped her out with some research for that and I personally also have been helping out with doing some cite checking and research for the attorneys that are supporting the litigation that is going on against the United States Government. So I feel that I’m constantly learning things and that’s just such a wonderful thing to have the change and have the variety. I mean I can’t tell you the range of topics that I’ve worked on, everything from how trucking contracts are run in Iraq to how shrimp are imported from Thailand are the things that I get to see and learn about on a regular basis. So government is a little bit different than law firms certainly in the private world. The best thing about it I think is that I can really take pride in being a public servant and I know the attorneys that I work with would say this as well that we can go in a court and you can say I represent the United States Department of Justice and it’s a really fantastic feeling to be a … Not really an officer of the court, but to be supporting the constitution. Another great thing about government life is that there is a work-life balance. So something I value outside of work is my time and I love the fact that on most nights when 6 o’clock rolls around, I can go home. I mean when trials come up, things are just insane and you’re there 18 days for a couple of weeks in a row, but that’s just the nature of the job. The con about working for the government is that it does pay a little bit less than traditional law firm careers, so it’s really a balancing act about what you … What you’re comfortable with and what you want out of the career versus the time you have outside of work.

When I think about my colleagues and what makes them successful it’s that the person who’s very self directed and able to figure out an open ended project is going to be comfortable in government work. So for example I’ll go for two weeks without seeing my supervisor, she maybe incredibly busy, she may be travelling, she just doesn’t have the time to be meeting with me for an hour everyday to go over projects. So personally I love that we have so much freedom to just figure out how to make things work. One of the attorneys that I work with for example will come to me and say I have this case that’s going into discovery, can I just put you in touch with opposing counsel and can you just sort of make discovery happen for me. So that’s a little bit of a broad statement, but I love the fact that I have so much opportunity and so much freedom to really use what I’ve learned and to … To really have these opportunities to grow and keep learning.

Toni: Well thank you so much Jessica. It was really good to hear about that and it is … It’s exciting you know to work … Again whether you’re at a big corporation you know and when you’re at a big government agency, it’s exciting to know that the stuff that you’re doing really, really matters. And again on that topic now I’d like to … I’m gonna introduce to you Sarah Coats who works at the Children’s Law Centre, this is a nonprofit and she’ll tell you a little bit about what she does and how it matters as well.

Sarah: Hello everyone, as Toni said I’m Sarah Coats, I work for the Children’s Law Centre. Specifically I focus on appellate litigation, we typically handle cases stemming from child welfare and neglect. And I frequently hear how … From other people that respond, oh that must be very difficult and well it is, I really wanna encourage you that if there’s a topic or an issue or a cause that you feel very strongly about, then it can be so empowering to go work for that cause and that is my favorite part about working in nonprofit law, is I am able to really feel and effect change at a local level. We have worked on any number of cases of first impression where the courts had never interpreted a statute before, so that requires a lot of legal research on my part and the part of my supervising attorney who’s our staff appellate counsel. The environment at a nonprofit is much different from the environment at a traditional law firm.

I came here off of K Street and it was night and day. It’s a much more casual environment, there is a great deal of emphasis on self care and work-life balance and I think in response to the heavy nature of some of the subject matter of the cases that we handle, but the management team here is fantastic and they’ve really created a very open environment that allows people to say – hey I’m really stressed out about this, I need to deal with that, I need a mental health day. So that’s what we get instead of the big bucks, is we get that flexibility. Somebody who would thrive in this environment would be somebody who really is interested and dedicated to social change, justice, if you wanna feel like you have a mission every morning when you’re alarm clock goes off, something that keeps you from hitting snooze over and over, this is the kinda job for you. I do a lot of work that people tend to think of as attorney work and that the majority of my time is spent doing legal research, writing memos and working with attorneys on their appellate briefs. I handle most of the factual research that goes into the logistics of filing an appellate brief, nobody here could tell you how to order a transcript, except for me, that’s … That’s where I come in handy, is handling logistical questions such as that and does this need a red cover on it or a green cover.

Again with the flexibility that I get from my job, I really feel that I am able to pick the best parts of a legal career and combine them with my own personal interests and I’ve been able to teach yoga here in the office as part of our work-life balance initiative. And so that combines two of my interests, you know helping my lawyers and I heard … I believe it was Kate mentioned that sometimes you see your lawyers getting stressed out and it’s great to be able to go in and help relieve some of that stress … I call that the care and maintenance of my attorneys. And that’s a very important consideration if you are planning to be a paralegal, whether or not you think that that would be a capacity that you would have, being able to recognize when your supervising attorney is stressed and whether you need to approach them and say hey is there something I can help you with or just give them some leeway … Some space, because that care and feeding can be incredibly important as an element of your job. Yeah, so I have to say that I am a big fan of the nonprofit world. If you have any questions, I’d love to answer them.

Toni: So thank you so much Sarah and again thank you to my three students, I am so … Gosh I mean I don’t wanna take credit for these three, because they did it all themselves, but I am just so proud that you three came out of GW. So anyway Jessica, Kate and Sarah, thanks again. Amanda thank you and I … At this point I’ll turn I over to Amanda and if there are any questions for the three … For the three paralegals or me, we’ll be happy to answer them.

Amanda: Great, thank you very much. Yeah let’s go onto some questions. What we’ll do is Toni if you could talk a little bit about just some of the high level job outlooks, while people go ahead and start submitting questions to me. And again to remind everyone you can submit those to me in the chat window on the right side of your screen. So Toni we’ll talk just for a few minutes about kind of what the outlook looks like, how the profession is growing and job opportunities and then within the next couple of minutes I’ll start reading some questions out.

Toni: Okay, thanks very much, I guess I skipped that slide didn’t I? So right now as I said in the very beginning, the job outlook is good, employment for paralegals and legal assistants is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow at least 17% between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than average. And then grow 17% … What the BLS does, is they have bands of growth and so the paralegal profession is just in that top band, it just topped out at 17%, it may be more than that. Salaries … And I can tell you this anecdotally, that here at GW we’ve got a job board and we have a LinkedIn group where we post job notices. And again around 2008/2009, that job board was getting pretty dry and our LinkedIn group was getting kinda lonely, but now those jobs are picking up again and we’re getting lots and lots of jobs into our job board and getting a lot of calls from employers.

A lot of government agencies are coming here, they’re starting … Some are hiring again, there’s still that sort of … There’s still a little bit of … It’s slower … Certainly slower than it was pre-sequester, so that has slowed down a bit, I know a lot of agencies are hiring, but I do know people that have gotten a job at the federal agencies, some of my students have gone out and gotten jobs at the big agencies. So the job growth is … Salaries are all over the place. It really … Everybody always wants to know what’s the average salary and I just … I can’t tell you that, because it varies by city, by state, by field, you know whether you’re corporate or a law firm, big firm, small firm, what practice you’re in, litigation, IP, so it’s really, really hard to tell you about salaries and of course it’s gonna vary depending on the amount of experience that you have. I would say that you can expect … Wherever you go, I don’t think you’re come in less than 40 and that’s the low, low, low, low end and then I know lots and lots of paralegals who are more experienced, who are making well into the six figures and paralegal managers make a fortune. They do … They do very, very well, they’re very comfortable, they do very nicely. They earn salaries well, well into the six figures, at least in the big cities, they do … But again you know if you go to a small … If you live in a small town, the salaries can be a lot lower, but the cost of living is a lot lower. So you know here in DC you can pay $2,000 a month for a 600 square foot apartment, so you know you better be making a lotta money.

So there’s a big difference in salaries and difference in the cost of living as well. The key to getting in and really getting started is to … You know is to start your career … So think about your career early, here at GW in our very first class we offer … There’s a career unit in the very first class the students take and we get them thinking about their careers, setting their goals, we start them out networking early, networking is really the best way to go. We’ve got a great career services offered here, a lot of schools have a good career services office. And I would say that’s the best way to get yourself going in a career. Okay.

Amanda: Great, thanks so much Toni. So yeah lets get into a couple of questions, we’ve got about ten minutes here to … To go through them. One person is wondering kind of how you can get into the profession, whether it be our current panelists, how they got into it or you know how do people pursue kind of their first role or first position within the paralegal profession?

Toni: Well you know what I’m gonna do, is I’m gonna let … I’m gonna let my students handle that question and let them talk about what they did. I can tell you again, networking … You gotta get started networking, that’s the way to go,, those kinds of … Those jobs forums, they’re okay, but that’s not really not … That’s not really not where you go to get your career started, it’s really it’s networking, especially if you’re going entry level. But I’m gonna let the three of my students tell you very quickly how they got started.

Kate: I can start, this is Kate. When I first started back in 1990, I actually worked for my law … Or the paralegal professor and she was a lawyer and I did some work while I was in school. And ended up doing just … I think pretty much answering an ad in the Washington Post and ended up working for a real estate settlement law firm in Washington DC and then after that, that got a little old pretty fast, it was pretty stressful, but I think it was a really good way to kind of learn kind of attention to detail and just making sure things are right for the client. And then from there, because I was in real estate … Yeah I’m not sure how I transitioned to … Oh I went to a communications law firm in DC and just kinda did research at the FCC, which was really interesting, which then transitioned me to work for MCI in a communication … As a communications paralegal doing public policy work.

Then after that … After a few years I was working on contracts and then I did post on one day when I was disgruntled at maybe being overworked, but I really loved that job and I had some great opportunities, so I stuck with it. And then one day after I’d been there eight years, ExxonMobil contacted me off the Monster thing that I had posted two years earlier. So that was all just kind of … You know I completely forgot I had posted my resume, so that was kinda sheer luck and I … Eight years later I absolutely love this job here at ExxonMobil. So I can’t say I didn’t have a job I didn’t really love, they do get … You know when they’re a little too monotonous or a little too similar and there isn’t variety, that probably was my first job and while it suited a purpose, that was one I could easily move out of after just a year. So yeah there’s just a lot of opportunity.

Jessica: So this is Jessica. Before taking a position in the government, I actually worked as an editor. And for a number of reasons I decided that I wanted to leave that job. And being an editor was great, because it prepared me with a lot of translatable skills. So anybody … The other students can tell you that you really have to have extreme attention to detail in order to be a successful paralegal and that’s something that I did as an editor. I also did a lot of fact checking and something that a lot of paralegals do is cite checking and this is very similar skills that … And like I said you have to be extremely attentive to detail and know sort of how to make a document flow and how to make a document look good.

So I actually answered a Craigslist ad for an internship position within the Department of Justice. And I thought when I applied, I was like there’s no way that I’m going to get this, but they called me on a Monday, I interviewed on a Wednesday, I absolutely loved it. I didn’t hear from them for six months, because they were trying to figure out their internal structures and if they could bring somebody else on and then one day out of the blue I got a call from the guy who interviewed me and say – hey can you start in a couple a weeks. So I went through a very, very fast background check and I started shortly after he had offered me the position. And I’ve been there ever since and it’s great. I will say that if you are interested in a government career, you should specifically look for something called the Federal Career Internship Program and the goal of that program, that’s … I came into the … Or through the predecessor of that program, but the goal … The Federal Career Internship Program now is to bring people in from out of school and train them and get them geared up for a career in public service.

Sarah: This is Sarah. My experience is very similar to what Toni had initially described. I moved to DC after college, specifically to go to law school, but I sort of diverted a little bit and got a paralegal certificate from George Mason. With that certificate I then got my first law job at a small boutique law firm that specialized in handling family cases for LGBT clients. I had never envisioned myself in family law, I kind of thought I would either stay academic and focus on constitutional law or maybe go into criminal law, but I really discovered doing adoptions, how exciting that kind of work could be for me. So moving on from that firm, I was still considering law school for a while, I tried a couple of other positions, one with a firm that was general counsel to the Fraternal Order of Police here in DC and at a K Street firm that focused on government contracts.

Having had that experience as a paralegal, I realized that this is what I wanna do, I didn’t wanna be a lawyer, I wanted to stay where I was in terms of being a paralegal and using the skill set I already had. In terms of networking, I do keep an active LinkedIn profile and I am contacted maybe once a month by recruiters or one time it was Lockheed Martin, with some really interesting job opportunities and … You know I’m very, very happy where I am, so I haven’t really pursued any of those, but just as a word to the wise, like Kate did with Monster, put something out there, if you’re looking or if you’re willing to keep your mind open for other offers, because they will come to you.

Amanda: Excellent, thank you. And just one last question, I guess directed over to Toni, it’s a bit kind of all encompassing, but can you quickly explain to people who are considering whether … You know the benefit of you know the master’s compared like an industry certificate or other sort of college level just basic certificate … What’s the true benefit and how those who do earn a master’s, how can they advocate for … How they’re different and better than some of the other entry level type educational experiences?

Toni: Well thanks, that’s a good question. So the … As you know or I’m not sure if I said it exclusively at the beginning, but many of you probably know that a certificate is really all that’s required to enter the paralegal field. Most law firms, government agencies, corporations, if they advertise for a paralegal position, they’re gonna say … More likely they must have a college degree and a certificate … A paralegal certificate. They’ll usually say that. So the para … The master’s is not a requirement by any means. So why would you get a master’s? There’s a couple of reasons to get a master’s. First of all a lot of people that come … And by the way let me say that GW offers both a graduate certificate and a master’s, so you can come into GW, you can get the certificate, you can stop there or you can get on to get the master’s, right … So why would you go on for that master’s? Either you’re already a paralegal and you wanna move up in your firm or your office and so the master’s will help you to do that, it will set you apart from your colleagues, if you’re in a competitive market, now … Right now the market in DC is pretty healthy, but some of those smaller towns, especially you know some of those Midwestern towns, those industrial towns, not so much and the competition is a little bit tougher, maybe this will set you apart.

Now there’s a potential downside, a lot of employers will say ‘I guess you have this master’s and you’re gonna be expecting me to pay you more, because you got a master’s and I don’t wanna pay you more, cause you’re just entry level’. That’s something that you’re gonna have to come to terms with, you’ll have to understand that if you’re getting the master’s and if you’re entry level and you’re going into a competitive market, you may not earn more in the beginning with the master’s. So that’s something that you need to know, but you will be the one to get the job right, so you’ll get the job, you may not start out any higher than somebody without a master’s, but you’re getting more than the person who didn’t get the job right, so there’s that. If you work for the Federal Government, a masters degree makes you eligible for a higher GS level and that actually does translate to a higher salary. Some corporations base their pay level on the … On the level of the credential … The highest credential that you’ve got, so you may get more money at a private corporation, with the master’s degree.

Some people just love to learn and just want that credential, for some people you know good enough just isn’t good enough, they want the best … The best out there, they wanna be the best, they wanna lead the profession and for those people they … You know those people want the masters. But I would say you know if you’re not sure, start out with the certificate … Beginning in fall of 2014, GW is gonna offer the certificate online, as well as on campus and you know I mean if you’re interested in GW or wherever you go, but you know start out with the certificate and then you know once you get started and you see that you like it, you see it’s not so bad, you’re enjoying what you’re doing, move onto master’s.

Amanda: Great, thank you so much and let’s go ahead and wrap up today. I wanted to just point out one or a couple of quick things. Obviously we are recruiting right now for the upcoming summer term, there is just over a week or a couple weeks before the deadline to complete your application. So if you haven’t started your application yet, please do reach out to your enrollment advisor right away, her name is Shiromi and you can contact her at the phone number and email address provided on the screen right now. She’ll certainly answer all your questions and help you go through pulling together a compelling portfolio to submit for review, which again as Toni mentioned she is on the review committee so I’m sure she’ll look forward to … To reviewing that and we’ll certainly share the information with anyone who attended the webinar today. Also you know any further questions about financial aid or that Shiromi can answer that for you and likewise if there’s a specific date and time that would be convenient for Shiromi to follow up with anyone, I’ll leave the webinar window open for another five or ten minutes, so just go ahead and send something to me in the chat window with your name, phone number and email address with one or two dates and times that would be convenient and we’ll have someone follow up with you accordingly. Otherwise thank you again to Toni, to our panelists and to everyone for joining us today, we really appreciate you taking the time.

call to action
Post a Comment or Question

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.