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By: Lindsay Valek

Greetings, TPS readers! Welcome back to the paralegal playground. Today, Lindsay is stepping up onto the TPS stage to share what could accurately be described as a “vivid” opinion piece regarding the educating of paralegals. (For those of you who follow Lindsay’s candid column, you probably aren’t the slightest bit surprised!) Peruse the article, see what she has to say, then scroll on down to that lonely comment section to share your thoughts. Yes, you! Now take a sip of that fabulous beverage sitting desk-side, and keep reading.

I’ve hemmed and hawed here at Guts & Glory for over a year now. If you’re an avid reader, you know my style: I’m raw, honest and real. I put pen to paper knowing that I will undoubtedly annoy the dickens out of someone. I draw inspiration from personal experience, gossip whispered on street corners between vendors, and an ever present ear in the break rooms of law firms far and wide. I am listening to you – all of you – all the time. To protect my job (and my life), names remain hidden to protect the innocent. But make no mistake, I do play favorites. I’ve jumped up and down, screamed, degraded and likely abused nearly every facet of law firm politics, except this one: paralegal school.

A few months ago I was riding the elevator when a sweet young thing from accounting announced she was considering obtaining her paralegal certification. I politely encouraged her, but couldn’t resist the temptation to ask why. Her response was one I hear all too often: “I really enjoy writing…” Other words followed, but I didn’t hear them. I smiled, recalled a fond memory of my own paralegal school days and got off at my floor.

I should have hit the emergency button, slammed her against the wall and asked her if she had lost her mind.

This conversation haunts me.

I often think about people just beginning their paralegal education and the future employers who blindly accept that the curriculum is up to par with the responsibilities that will soon be placed upon the hapless soul who doesn’t know any better.

My own paralegal education consisted of torts, business law, ethics, a very lame introductory 101 course, legal research and writing. Virtually every mind-numbing class I sat through was a complete and utter waste of time. The only two exceptions, a class on ethics and another on research, were both taught by a pit-bull attorney of small stature yet enormous wrath who frightened the hell out of me every Monday and Wednesday night. She was my constant terror, yet the one professor who taught me skills I actually use in paralegal-land.

So what do the paralegal-wannabes need to know?

For starters, the structure of the state court system. Where do cases begin? What’s the difference between Common Pleas and General Sessions and, perhaps most important, who the hell is a clerk of court, what do they do and how do you turn his or her staff into a paralegal’s best friend? For the love of God, please tell them how to find the judicial department website. Make sure they know that they can access forms, contacts, and the circuit court judge assignments from one central location. Better yet, just make sure they know that the website exists.

Teach them how to check rosters, which will govern these bright-eyed pupils’ lives from now to eternity. They should know what they are, why they’re important, and how to check them properly. Translation: When a case is set on the Edgefield County motions roster for a Tuesday at 10:45 and the attorney doesn’t show up because the roster was never checked or calendared, your paralegal student will likely lose his or her job (and possibly their life depending on their boss). Save them, fair instructors. Save them!

Make sure your students know that a career in paralegal-land does not translate into endless swan dives into case law or the construction of highly analytical legal arguments. That is not their job. It has never been their job. It will never be their job. Their job is to format the attorney’s argument, correct any spelling and grammatical errors, attach a signature, convert it to PDF and file it electronically.

In regards to federal court, I fully support the notion that an entire course should be centered on federal court filings and PACER. Any experienced paralegal can attest that the federal filing system seems to change on the hour, every hour. One day you file a motion to substitute counsel under “Motions.” Do it that way the next day and you’ll get error message requiring that it be filed as a “consent motion for substitution.”  They’re toying with us, I tell you. Toying! Newbies need to know what a docket report is, the concept of redacting Social Security and account numbers (but leave the last four!) and how to file documents under seal.

Can we discuss captioning for a moment? I realize that the world is going to hell in a handbag with all of our twittering, emoticon-ing and texting. It’s no wonder our children can’t write in cursive when cover letters are received asking “Y dnt U cal me ltr 2 set up a view.” Hell, these people can’t write a coherent sentence, let alone be asked to caption a legal pleading or discovery accurately. I’ve seen a shift in captioning in recent years and it’s not pretty. Paralegals are getting lazy. Instead of two distinct headers, it is increasingly common to see just one, and you can forget expecting margins to be justified, captions to be centered or the line break under the county to be underlined. Pitiful, just pitiful.

Which brings me full circle to writing. People go to law school to learn how to craft a deep, insightful legal argument. Proper grammar, spelling and the use of the comma and semicolon are essential skills any good paralegal must have. Know the difference.

It would also be helpful to educate students on some of the more widely used agencies and resources. I recently met a young paralegal who didn’t know what the South Carolina Secretary of State does — and she worked for a litigation firm. How is that possible? Trust me when I tell you I consumed an entire bottle of red wine attempting to figure it out. I got nothing.

Want more? How about teaching a basic grasp of logistical planning (yes, hotels do indeed require credit card authorization forms), CLE management, the standard folders one would expect to see in an expando, the creation of a pleadings index, the importance of sealed deposition transcripts, when to cc opposing counsel, and what to take to court. Why these seemingly critical subjects are not broached in an introductory course is beyond me. I’ve even gone so far as to write the program coordinator offering to speak for free one night, but to no avail. Perhaps it’s a cruel twist of fate these attorneys are instilling – teaching future paralegals which causes of action are applicable under certain circumstances – something which they will never, ever do.

I am mystified at this phenomenon and shamed that my education was lacking in so many ways. Six months into this warped sense of reality I should have demanded my money back, but I was working 70 hours a week indexing documents and preparing deposition designations.

Newbies beware – your fantasy of playing Erin Brokovich is bull. Paralegal professors – do the world some justice and integrate practical paralegal skills into your curriculum. And on the off chance you don’t know what those are, I’m available to speak anytime, anywhere. You know where to find me.

Lindsay Valek is a litigation support specialist and paralegal in Columbia, South Carolina. She can be reached at lindsayvalek@hotmail.com

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Vivid? We think so! After reading that, we’re pretty sure you’re clear on Lindsay’s opinion! We’d like to hear your opinion, too. Share it, if you dare.

Experienced paralegals – it would also be helpful if you could list out any additional things you think would be helpful for the newbies to learn/know or extra tips and resources! Let’s help ’em to make their way around that first bend in the twisty road.

Make it an absolutely brilliant work week, paralegals. BRILLIANT! (Just like the advice you’re about to go leave in the comments section…)