Expert Insights: The Paralegal Profession
Karen Anderson-Miller is a certified paralegal and legal technology consultant who operates her own business, Legal Technology Solutions, LLC in Four Corners, WY. In this interview with JobMonkey, Karen talks about her background, experience as a paralegal, and the future outlook for paralegals.
What drew you to the paralegal profession?
My father was a government lawyer who held a position in the office of the Field Solicitor. As a child, I would walk to his office after school to wait for a ride home. His office was located in the Federal Building on the 5th floor near the law library and courtroom. I remember being amazed at all the books, and the power of the courtroom. It was my first exposure to the law profession, and I was awed by it. I wanted to be like my dad.
In 1982 my marriage was failing. I wanted a job that would allow me to be home in the evenings and on weekends with my son, but I did not have any practical skills. I knew that I needed more training. One day I saw an ad in the paper for a paralegal program being offered at a local college. It was a two and a half year degree program and seemed to be just what I was looking for. It would give me an introduction to the law profession and help me to embark on an exciting career. I enrolled immediately.
What sort of education prepared you for a career as a paralegal?
I had only one year of college post high school before enrolling in the paralegal program. The education I received up to that point that impacted my career most was basic English, grammar and writing skills.
The paralegal program that I enrolled in was new in my area. Most of the instructors were local lawyers who had never actually worked with paralegals. In fact, there were very few “real” paralegals employed at that time in a city with about 300 practicing lawyers. The courses were taught in much the same way as a law school course. The courses were helpful in providing some basic information about different areas of the law, but they did not provide the practical applications that were needed to work as a paralegal. Most of my paralegal education was obtained while I was actively working in the field.
Tell us about your first paralegal job. Was it hard to find?
I knew on the first day of class in the paralegal program that from the number of people enrolled, the competition for positions would be great. I knew that I needed to do something that would set me apart from the other students. Because the instructors were local attorneys in the area, I knew that my first exposure to the field would be through them. I dressed for each class as if I was going to work in a law office.
It wasn’t long before I was approached by another student who was employed by a local law firm looking for a part time employee. I applied and got a job working as a paralegal in their collections department. It was a great experience because I learned the basics of filing and pursuing a collection action from beginning to end.
Six months later, I received a call from yet another student that was enrolled in the program. She told me about a position that was available at one of the most prestigious law firms in town. As a single parent making just slightly more than my mortgage payment, I desperately wanted that job. I spent hours selecting the right suit and preparing for my interview. I believed that what I lacked for in experience I would make up for in appearance and enthusiasm. My strategy worked, and I was hired. My career grew from that point forward.
Do you think paralegals should be licensed? Why or why not?
Yes, I think that paralegals should be licensed. Licensure would help to protect the profession by promoting professional standards of performance for practicing paralegals, by regulating the use of the title and work performed by paralegals, and by establishing standards of qualification, training, education and experience.
What importance do you place on certification of paralegals?
When I first enrolled in a paralegal program there was no such thing as certification of paralegals. You could obtain a “certificate” from a course or school, or a degree in paralegal studies, but certification was an unknown concept. As the profession grew, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), and the National Federation of Paralegals (NFPA) created a certification exam whereby paralegals passing the exam could become certified by NALA or NFPA. There being no other certification courses of this kind at the time, the NALA and NFPA examinations became the benchmark for paralegals seeking certification.
The importance of certification varies from state to state. There are states that require paralegal certification, while other states are just becoming familiar with the term. As states move toward regulation and/or licensure of the profession, the NALA and NFPA exams are two methods to measure competency of paralegals and as such can only benefit those choosing to take the exam.
What sort of paralegal positions have you held during your career?
I started work as a business paralegal working primarily in bankruptcy matters and then graduated into real estate law. As the need for assistance in the litigation area increased, I began working in the area of person injury litigation and then expanded into all areas of litigation.
What areas of law have you worked in? Is it important for students to take classes in certain areas of law more than others?
I have worked in nearly all areas of the law with the exception of family law. I always knew I was too emotional a person for that type of practice. I believe that experience in all areas of the law is beneficial and helps a person determine which are of the law would be the most satisfying to work in. Areas of the law overlap, and some knowledge in all areas is beneficial. Once you have gained some experience you can pursue further education in the area of law that appeals to you the most.
How can attorneys best utilize paralegals, in your opinion?
By taking the time that is needed to acquaint a paralegal with their particular style and method of practice, involving them in their cases and sharing information, challenging them to take on more complex and greater responsibilities, believing in their professional abilities, demanding a high level of work product, and making their expectations clear.
What are some of the biggest challenges faced by paralegals today?
Some of the biggest challenges faced by paralegals are non regulation and/or licensure, and the impact of individuals who call themselves paralegals, but who don’t have the proper training or experience to do the job, resulting in damage to the reputation of the profession.
What do you enjoy most about being a paralegal? Least?
What I enjoy the most is the satisfaction that I derive from doing the best job that I can for a client, and the ability to work with some of the best legal minds on some of the most interesting cases. What I like the least is the tedious nature of some projects.
You now have your own consulting business. Tell us how that came about, and what you do.
In 2003, my husband and I made a decision to move to Wyoming on 5 acres of land located 30 miles from the nearest town. I knew that the job opportunities in my field would be far and few. I had gained some experience working with the digital presentation of exhibits at trial, and in utilizing legal software for case management. It was becoming more and more clear to me that the law profession was headed in a paperless direction.
It was my interest in the area of legal technology, and my recognition of the need for technology services and training that led me to form the company I now own and operate, Legal Technology Solutions, LLC. I offer a complete line of services, from document and case management to trial support and presentation, utilizing the latest in document management and imaging technology. I am a Certified TrialDirector Trainer and as part of my business I operate the TrialDirector program at trial. I also give technology presentations to various legal entities, including judges, the state bar, other paralegals and legal professionals. My experience, education and training, combined with the latest in imaging and document management technology, allows me to provide my clients with the best possible litigation and technical support services.
What is the outlook for the paralegal profession, as you see it?
As the need for affordable legal services continues, the need for paralegals will also. While the practice of law is ever changing, the need for professional and quality legal services remains the same. Paralegals are essential to the delivery of these services at a lower cost. Statistics show that the profession is growing and that the number of paralegal positions will increase. Law firms will continue to employ paralegals to assist lawyers in preparing their cases, and there are jobs available to paralegals in a number of other sectors. Overall, the outlook for the paralegal profession continues to be very good.