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Jamie Collins

By: Jamie Collins

Each day it becomes more apparent that there are two distinct sides to the paralegal sandbox.  On one side, students and aspiring paralegals clamor. They are ready to make use of the knowledge they are taught at their local college or university and eager to enter the paralegal realm to learn all the career skills, practical information, processes and systems necessary to be “a paralegal.” Lastly, they are excited to meet and network with savvy and experienced paralegals who they hope will educate, assist, guide and mentor them as they embark upon their careers. They know they have much to learn. You can typically find them lurking in the online paralegal forums, ready to soak up every last tidbit of legal knowledge that comes their way.

On the other side of the paralegal sandbox stand the experienced paralegals, such as myself. We have so much to offer. We possess extensive legal knowledge, career skills and practical, hands-on, real world experience. We find ourselves frequently offering up tips from the “School of Reality” and the “University of Been There –  Done That.” Both very esteemed institutions, indeed. 

Yet, the two sides of the paralegal sandbox don’t always cross that invisible barrier in the middle to converge, share, network and mingle. I find myself asking: “Why is that?” Perhaps you do, too. Regardless of which category of “paralegal” you fall into, this is a call to action…and it was written just for you. 

Paralegal Students & Aspiring Paralegals:

Start to become the paralegal you want to be today. Perhaps you think that if you sit in a classroom or remain perched in an online paralegal forum (under a cloak of invisibility – from afar) that you have already immersed yourself in the profession.  While that may be true, in part, you need to do more to actively cultivate your inner paralegal. Your paralegal journey begins today — right now!  I would suggest the following:

1.        Cultivate Your Inner Paralegal.  You need to venture outside the doors of your local college or university and beyond that silent perch in a paralegal forum.  You need to purchase interesting paralegal books, peruse articles and publications, read the trial rules in your area, and familiarize yourself with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. You can find many of these resources online for free, so there is no excuse! School is not going to teach you everything you need to know. You must cultivate your inner paralegal. Go to Google and pick yourself out something nice…and educational!

2.       Align, Profile and Network.  Your paralegal degree is a 2-4 year pilgrimage.  That’s a lot of time, right? So use that time to find people that can potentially help you in 2 to 4 years when you’re ready to officially begin your career! Don’t simply introduce yourself to people that could hire you. Do not bombard them with details of your paralegal studies and how eager you are to find a job. You need to interact with the legal community, at large, in a meaningful way. After all, they are your future colleagues, right? True story. The way I see it, you’ve got 2-4 years to build a professional profile, join paralegal forums on LinkedIn, mingle with experienced paralegals and your fellow newbies, join associations, and build yourself a full-blown paralegal network.

Or you could wait until you graduate. Who do you think will have better odds…the procrastinator who starts in 2-4 years or the person who starts today? It’s your choice. Who are you going to be? You need to align, profile and network today!

3.       Become Involved.  Start to act like a paralegal! Join your local paralegal association and one or more of the national groups, such as the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)® and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)®. Attend local association meetings, do pro bono work and get to know your local paralegal peers. Participate in events. Mingle. It is absolutely imperative that you become involved and start to make connections which will benefit you throughout your career. In 2-4 years, you’ll already be a contributing member! They’ll know exactly who you are! Great concept, right? You need to become involved. The time to start is now.

4.       Subscribe, subscribe, subscribe. When I was new to the field, these things either (1) didn’t exist; or (2) I didn’t know about them. I’m not sure which, but there are many terrific resources available to you, as a new paralegal, at this moment. You need to peruse your options and subscribe!  Conduct an internet search or ask the paralegals you know what they read and subscribe away! Here are some recommendations:

KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegalshttp://www.paralegalknowledge.com/
(We love this one!)

Paralegal Today

The Paralegal Journal

Note: If you join NFPA® or NALA® (the national associations), you will also receive the magazine published by each respective association. In my opinion, the price of membership is worth the magazine alone – and as an added bonus, you’ll have access to other membership benefits, including free or discounted access to continuing legal education seminars and webinars, some pretty cool people, and as an added bonus, you’ll get to list your association memberships on your resume! 

Another tremendous resource is the paralegal blogs. There are plenty of good ones out there to educate, guide and entertain you on your paralegal journey. This is the stuff “real” paralegals read. The knowledge and information is well worth the asking price — they’re free — so subscribe away! Be sure to check out the “blogroll” at the bottom of TPS to see the ones we like…and check them out.      

5.        The Legal Field is a Buffet, not a one-course meal.  Do not become overly-consumed with choosing the right area of law for you. The legal field is a buffet, not a one-course meal.  You need to adjust your mindset accordingly. If you think you will like a particular practice area and after a little exposure or few bad experiences, you don’t like it, move onto the next one! Perhaps you’ll like that one better. Same with all of the other choices out there! There are so many practice areas, firm sizes, paralegal designations, associations, webinars, magazines, seminars, blogs and paralegal forums to choose from. Remember: The legal field is a buffet, not a one-course meal, so don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Just follow your interests and passions and see where they lead you. 

Experienced paralegals:

Let me ask you this: when is the last time you helped a paralegal student or aspiring paralegal — and I mean really helped them — not that you simply posted an answer to a question on LinkedIn? I mean “really” helped? When? That’s the question. When was it and what did you do? Hopefully, most of you had an answer for this very simple question. If you don’t, I hope you’ll consider this a call to action! I wish someone had called me to action long ago. As experienced paralegals, we have so much to offer the newbies. We really do. 

There comes a point in each experienced paralegal’s career when the next logical step is to give back. I finally started to give back last May, after 14 years in the legal field. What I can honestly tell you about “giving back” is that it’s actually a gift you are giving to yourself…you just don’t realize it until after you’ve helped your first paralegal. You’ll take just as much away from each experience and interaction as the paralegal you are helping. It’s powerful. Want to know something else? It’s addictive. The more people you help, the more inspired you are to keep doing it. I wish I had found this secret place of paralegal happiness many years ago.    

So, again, I ask you: “when is the last time you really helped a paralegal student out?   If you answered: “I don’t know” or “Gee, I really can’t say” or “I’m just so busy” or “I really don’t think I have the time” to that last question, perhaps it’s time for you to enter that untapped place of paralegal happiness that lies within you. Here are some indicators that it may be “time” to give back:

1.        You have mastered your job.  In fact, no one around you does it better.  You are like a paralegal ninja. However, there are days when you feel somewhat complacent. Let’s face it, you know darn near everything! Is this you? If so, this is an indication that it’s time to give back.

2.       You joined a paralegal association, but you aren’t actively involved in any “extracurricular” paralegal activities.  Is this one you? If so, what are you waiting on? It’s probably time for you to become involved in the community and give back. You could become a paralegal writer, tutor paralegal students at a local college, join a panel, do pro bono work, speak, mentor a student, teach a CLE course, and the list goes on and on. Become involved in something, anything, one thing that is paralegal–related and falls outside the scope of your desk job. Give back!      

3.       You love to teach/train others.  In fact, you have trained every new paralegal that has walked through the doors of your law firm. Is this you? Are you “the trainer?” Do you enjoy it? If so, you are the perfect person to give back! The new paralegals need all the help and guidance they can get. Volunteer to help a new newbie or give back to the profession in some capacity, and give back! You would be amazed at what a simple, well-thought e-mail response or a few solid words of candid advice and encouragement will do for a person. One person. A  few carefully selected words from you to them. So, make it a point to find your “one person.” You can make a difference. So make one!!

4.       You are ready to take your career to the next level.  Who isn’t, right? If you still love your job, but you are somewhat bored with the day-in and day-out routine, it’s time to broaden your horizons and expand your paralegal universe.  You feel like there has to be more to the paralegal kingdom. Well, there is!! You can find what you are seeking (something new, interesting and rewarding) by giving back!

5.       This article compelled you to think about giving back.  This one is a no brainer. If while reading this article, some part of you felt compelled to want to give back (or you thought to yourself, maybe it really is time, I’m fresh out of excuses) — it is! It’s time to take action and give back. Any paralegal who has given of themselves simply for the greater good will tell you that they took just as much from the experience as the other person, school, organization or association did.  Remember, giving back is really a gift you are giving to yourself…you just don’t know it yet. Giving feels fantastic and personally exhilarating – so do it!

I hope everyone in the paralegal sandbox will heed this call to action. No matter which side of the paralegal sandbox you find yourself standing on, there is work to be done for the betterment of yourself, your peers and our profession. So get out there, my paralegal friends, reach out, mingle, learn, teach, train, help, guide, speak, search, seek, subscribe, join…and just do something…anything…everything …for the glory of the paralegal sandbox and our fabulous profession. The time to act is now.  So get out there and do something!     

 “You’re alive. Do something. The directive in life, the moral imperative was so uncomplicated. It could be expressed in single words, not complete sentences. It sounded like this: Look. Listen. Choose. Act.”
– Barbara Hall

“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”
– Henry Ford

“Light the fire within.”
– Unknown