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Paralegal Career Advice from 17 Leaders in the Paralegal Profession

**this is a reprint of a past post.  I feel the advice still stands and can benefit new paralegals.  Give it a read and hear paralegal career advice from the straight from the pros.  

We asked leaders in the legal profession to share the best paralegal career advice that they have ever received and benefitted from. Here are their responses:

I have been thinking back on all of my years as a paralegal, over 15, and the best piece of advice I have received came early in my career when I was told to “speak up”. Meaning that if the attorney you are working for is incorrect in many aspects, from procedures to laws, speak up. Our duties are not only to assist attorneys but to keep them on the right track. This is especially true when you are a veteran paralegal and you are working for a green attorney.
-Donna C. Alderman ACP, President of the Mississippi Paralegal Association
I would say by far the best advice I have received is take five minutes in the midst of a hectic day and remember that things are not always as stressful as they seem. Maintaining perspective is important. When we paralegals are in our “work bubble” it can seem as though we will never be able to come up for air.
-LawSchoolDreamer, author of the blog A Paralegal’s Journey to Lawyerhood
Don’t ever hide a mistake; the sooner you admit it the better; never make excuses, and take responsibility.
-Maryanne Ebner, First Vice President of The Philadelphia Association of Paralegals
The best career advice I could give is to go the extra mile when it comes to your education. Obtain a certification, earn a diploma or degree. There are so many options now and convenient ways to do it. Your education will benefit you throughout your career.
-Nikki L. Campos, owner of TruE-Paralegal and Treasurer of the Central Nebraska Legal Professionals.
Always be organized – even when the unexpected happens. Keeping your composure in difficult and stressful situations is beneficial to you, your attorney, and your client. Let people know that you can be professional in any situation by the way you represent yourself at all times. Don’t gossip about attorneys, staff, or other paralegals. It makes you look bad. “What is told in the ear of a man is often heard 100 miles away.” ~Chinese Proverb Keep learning! Things change — keep up with technology! Keep up with software (even if it is just knowing what is out there and being used). And finally, get involved! If you are making a career of being a paralegal – get involved in a local association, a local bar association, or a national organization. By being involved you can help shape the paralegal profession in your community and it creates great networking opportunities.
-Barbara A. Miller, 2nd Vice President of the Smoky Mountain Paralegal Association
The best advice I received was probably to be assertive in making sure expectations of your attorneys are clear. As a new paralegal, I was intimidated at the thought of asking follow up questions after an assignment had been made and I’d gone back to my office and begun my work only to realize I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Going right back to the attorney to clarify the instructions and expectations is the only thing to do to accomplish the task in a timely and efficient manner. The attorney will appreciate you for doing that rather than wasting time trying to figure out what he or she meant on your own and guessing wrong requiring work to be re-done.
-Tammie Pope, Board Member of the Palmetto Paralegal Association
The very best advice I received early on in my career was triple fold: 1) Own your files. From the very beginning get to know all the details of the case and build from there. 2) Dig in, dig deep and stay organized; and 3 (and what I think is the most important) keep the lines of communication open with your attorney.
-Vickie Baker, Board Member of the Palmetto Paralegal Association
I was told to find an area of the law that I enjoyed and stick with it. Do not try and be a jack of all trades and master of none. Find something, do it, get great at it.
-Shawn Hartman, Chair of Probates/Estate at the Massachusetts Paralegal Association
Learn everything you can and try different things.
-Mario Kiefer, President of the San Francisco Paralegal Association
Surround yourself with a group of people who work as a team with a common goal. There is no room for egos as a paralegal. Success comes by doing what it takes to obtain the goal.
-Natalie C. Butrym, Board Member of the Palmetto Paralegal Association
One of the best supervising attorneys I ever worked with told me not to make excuses when I made a mistake because he didn’t want to hear them. Instead, he wanted me to acknowledge my mistake, learn from it, and then work on fixing it. Most paralegals are Type A personalities, and we are devastated when something goes wrong, especially when it’s our fault. But it will happen (more than once) during even the most successful career. What’s most important is that you and your supervising attorney work together to come up with a plan to address mistakes right away – and then take steps to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen again.
-Lynne J. DeVenny, author of the blog Practical Paralegalism and co-host of the podcast The Paralegal Voice.
The best paralegal advice I have ever received is “Document everything”.
-Suzanne Wells, Board Member of the Western Massachusetts Paralegal Association
Do more than what you are paid for. Eventually, you will be paid more than what you do.
-Rebecca Young, Board Member of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals
Know yourself, your boundaries and have a clear strategic plan in place before you begin a job search. Otherwise, you’ll accept positions that are not suited for your character (core values), skillset and/or goals. Understanding clearly who you are (the good, the bad and the ugly) is extremely important when determining your next move.”
-Tausha P. Major, Vice-President of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals
The best advice I ever received was to not be afraid to move around and try different areas of the law until you find the niche that fits you best. It is not unusual in this area for a paralegal to move every 3 years during the first 12 years of their career. Moving can also increase your salary a lot faster than waiting for a raise.
-Stephanie K. Jones, President of the Louisville Association of Paralegals
My best advice for a new paralegal is to ask questions. Get a clear picture of what you are working on. Most attorneys are more than happy to explain things because ultimately your increased knowledge is a benefit to them in the long-run. The only dumb question is the one that you do not ask.
-Rachel Nesbit, Vice President of the Mississippi Paralegal Association
The answer is to join a local Paralegal Association! Each local association provides a wide variety of information and resources to new and seasoned Paralegals in every area of law. The associations provide invaluable contacts with other Paralegals around the corner as well as around the country and in some instances, around the globe. The associations provide continuing legal education by providing seminars through corporate support. Social and networking events where students and recent graduates can mingle and talk to Paralegals who have been in the profession for many years. Finally, the associations provide a platform for Paralegals to unite on such ideas as minimum educational requirements before someone can call themselves a Paralegal, voluntary and/or mandatory regulation of the Paralegal Profession and what the definition of a Paralegal should be.
-Shaun J. Pilcher, Vice President of the Massachusetts Paralegal Association

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Litigation Paralegal Practice Tip: Get to Know Your Courtroom Pre-Trial

A trial consists of a compilation of complex processes of courtroom procedures and rituals, which can often change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and can seem like a strange and mysterious world if you don’t know what those procedures and rituals are.

Since ritual and tradition play a large part in the trial process it is integral that as paralegals we make it our business to understand what those procedures are. I think one of the most important things we can do as paralegals, once our case has reached the Courtroom, is to know the layout of the land. What I mean by this, is “Knowing your Courtroom” - being aware of your surroundings and its inhabitants.

Simply put: “Don’t Be a Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Jonathon Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, was correct when he said:
“… A stranger in a strange land, he is no one: men know him not - and to know not is to care not for.”
Think about it, do you really want to be in a venue where no one knows or cares about you? I think not. If you are on trial, you’ve got enough to worry about, right? So let’s start with some rules.

The Rules of the Courtroom
All Courtroom procedures are governed by a series of rules. The rule of law which governs our justice system is derived from a number of sources. It remains fundamental however, that as Paralegals, we realize that while procedural rules have their part to play in regulating the trial process, there are also practical rules, which are equally important.
Know your Courtroom Staff
By the time your case reaches the Court, you will know who your Judge is. The Courtroom Staff will consist of a number of people. Do your best to get to know each and every one of them because you never know when you will have to call of them for assistance. Being aware of what each staff member’s Courtroom function is, will save you time and stress.
Know your Courtroom’s Clerk
The Clerk of Court is responsible for a wide range of duties, including the supervision of the internal administrative function of the Court itself as well as the planning and administrative direction.
Know Your Courtroom’s Administrator
A Court’s Administrator functions under direction of the Court to help develop and implement administrative policies and services. The Court’s Administrator’s office ensures court operations and judicial administrative needs are identified, and manages the daily operations of the court, under the direction of the presiding Judge.
Know Your Courtroom’s Security
The Marshal or Bailiff of the court is responsible for building security, Courtroom security and personal security for all persons working for and doing business in the Court.
Know Your Courtroom’s Legal Staff
Legal Staff within the Courts may include Primary Legal Counsel, Staff Attorneys, Research Attorneys and Law Clerks. They examine briefs, case records and legal authorities. They also perform legal research, analysis and writing under general supervision.
Know your Judges' Support Staff
Judges’ Support Staff may include Judicial Executive Assistants, Judicial Administrative Assistants and Secretaries. They may type and edit opinions, agendas, and correspondence; create and maintain administrative files; coordinate and arrange meetings; coordinate travel arrangements; and answer or direct telephone inquiries, mail and visitors to appropriate staff.
Know Your Courtroom’s Court Reporter
A Court Reporter records judicial proceedings verbatim; reads back requested portions of records or notes; transcribes stenographic notes and files by computer aided transcription to a finished transcript in official format; keeps a detailed log, marks, receipts, secures, and files all exhibits with the Clerk's Office.
Know Your Courtroom’s Jury Supervisor
A Jury Supervisor in the trial court reviews the lists for potential jurors and determines whether an individual is qualified to serve as a Juror; determines the number of Jurors to be summoned; issues summonses; and handles requests for postponement, exemption or disqualification. The Jury Supervisor also meets with summoned Jurors to explain procedures and other aspects of jury service and to answer questions; selects jury panels and directs them where to go; and dismisses Jurors from the jury assembly room at end of the day or of the Juror’s service.
Remember: All of these individuals don’t have to be your best friend but you should have a working professional connection with them, it’s worth it. Trust me.

Know your Courthouse

Know the layout of your Courthouse. If you are like me, when you are at a trial you only want to be focused on the Attorney’s needs, on your Client, on the Jury and the trial exhibits. Placing yourself in a comfort zone is integral to being able to function effectively. To reach this comfort level, I suggest that you know your CourthouseFor Example:
  • Where are the copying/fax machines?
  • Where is the vending machine or cafeteria?
  • Where are the media outlets?
  • Where is the storage for media equipment and materials?
  • What type of computer system does the court use?
  • Where are the small conference rooms for witness conferences?
  • Where are the restrooms?
  • To gather all of this information, be sure to go to the Courthouse ahead of time.

Be Nice

Doing something nice for someone always brings a pleasant response. You will feel good about yourself, plus you will gain the respect of others. Remember the jury is watching you, so be your “Best Self.”
Finally, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “There is no knowledge that is not power.” So be knowledgeable about your Courtroom. I want you all to be empowered.

Ms. Sherry Kubanyi received her B.A. in Political Science and has worked as a paralegal for plaintiffs and defense firms throughout the State of Georgia for over 15 years.
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