Political Aparthy Among Paralegals

28 05 2010

The Texas House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee conducted an interim hearing on the Borg-Warner v. Flores standard of causation in mesothelioma lawsuits on Wednesday. The hearing represents a continuation of discussions regarding H.B. 1811, which never made it out of committee the last legislative sessions. If passed, the bill would relax the causation standards for mesothelioma cases in Texas.

For those of you not familiar with Texas asbestos litigation, it was once the envy of plaintiffs’ attorneys from coast to coast. However, in 2005, the Texas legislature passed an asbestos tort reform bill, SB 15, which became law in September 2005 and dramatically altered the litigation landscape. Consider these numbers from Harris County, Texas. In 2004, there were 2,797 asbestos cases, many of them multi-plaintiff matters filed in Harris County. In 2005, 3,651 asbestos cases were filed in Harris County, but starting in 2006 a sharp decline began to take shape with only 1,363 new asbestos cases filed, followed by 520 in 2007 and 358 new asbestos cases in 2008. This trend even greater in other counties across the state.

On June 8, 2007, the Texas Supreme Court released its Borg-Warner v. Flores opinion, which required numerical proof of dose as to each defendant. In effect, this decision established an insurmountable and unattainable standard of causation for mesothelioma claimants. This led Texas plaintiff attorneys scrambling to file their suits in other states, drawing the ire of the out-of-state judges along the way. Other states flat out rejected the Borg-Warner decision. Representative Craig Eilan sponsored HB 1811 as a means of eliminating the requirement of quantifiable dose.

The potential impact of this bill, and it’s companion bill, S.B. 1123, extends far beyond asbestos litigation in Texas. Indeed, if left unchallenged Borg-Warner could change the way product liability exposure cases are handled all across the country. It stands to reason that paralegals involved in asbestos litigation in Texas have an active interest in tracking these bills as they make their way through the legislative process, yet you’ll find very little chatter about these bills on blogs, Twitter or other social media outlets. It seems that this is indicative of something far more disturbing, a general sense of political apathy among many in the legal community, including paralegals.

I was raised in a political family, so following these matters seems only natural. Regardless of what area of law you work in, your job is directly affected by the decisions made by our elected officials. To show no interest in these matters, to have no opinion on the bills they pass or legislation they block makes no sense to me.


Do You Like This Job? That Wasn’t the Question, Do You Like This Gig?

26 05 2010

I love my job!

Sure, I could probably earn more money somewhere else and there are probably other firms in the city where you don’t have to park what seems like a mile and half from the office, but all things considered I cannot complain much about my employer. Obviously, as with other decisions in our life, we engage in a calculus of felicity when weighing the positives of our current employment situation with the negative aspects.

But should we weigh certain features of job more heavily than others? Absolutely! Based on my own experience, I propose the following three trademarks of a good job. Three elements that if present can make any employment situation and an enjoyable experience.

1.) Opportunity to Grow – You may have a six-figure salary, an employer funded retirement plan, make your own schedule and answer to only one person, but if your employer does not provide you the opportunity to grow, you are stuck in a bad job.  Growth can be defined a number of ways.  Promotion, added responsibility, the ability to diversify are all common ways employers provide and encourage their employees to grow.

Over the past five years with my current firm, I’ve gone from the most junior-level paralegal in the firm to a position of supervising paralegal, managing a team of other paralegals and legal assistants. I’ve gone from working on one, strictly asbestos, client to working on several diversified clients, including the opportunity to serve on national counsel and as trial team liaison for clients.  Additionally, my employer allows me the opportunity to work towards my J.D.–my ultimate goal.

To me, these opportunities were my firm’s way of saying to me, “we like the work you do, now here’s an opportunity for more…” I capitalized on these opportunities, which led to even greater chances for growth.

2.) Definable Chain of Command – An attorney friend of mine tells me horror stories from his firm. They have no HR person in their local office and partners stay out of the office as much as possible. Associates and support staff are left to work at their own pace, but no one seems to have any authority over the anyone else. The file room dictates how (and when) they file. The copy and mail rooms make their own rules for the coding and distribution of incoming documents and projects. Data entry clerks establish protocol different from the protocol decided on by the attorneys and paralegals. Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that the receptionist, one of the least experienced members on staff, serves as the de facto office manager. He jokes that his office employs an inverted pyramid of power.

While you don’t need a dictator–we’ve all had the overbearing boss and no one works well in that environment–there must be a hierarchy of power to establish accountability. I have a strong partner to whom I report. If I have a problem, I know that I can go to him and he can help me resolve whatever issue I may be facing. I don’t have to worry about answering to twenty different bosses. Instead, I answer directly to him, who in turn answers to his superiors. It’s neat, clean and effective. At the same time, I enjoy freedoms that many other paralegals I talk to do not.

3.) Ability to Change With Times – We live in the 21st Century. Some firms practice law as if it’s still 1980.  Fortunately, my firm embraces technology and take forward thinking approach to conducting business. Paperless files, learning to use social media to the firm’s advantage, virtual HR are examples of employing an forward thinking approach in a law firm, but this philosophy extends well beyond technology.  It is the firm’s mindset–the ability to think outside the box, identify the “next big thing” and to have the resources to diversify your firm’s practice to wrangle “the next big thing” in to your office.  This does not mean every firm  needs to be a plaintiffs’ firm, jumping from one thing to another–asbestos one day, Vioxx the next and then Chinese drywall when the well runs dry on everything else.  Good diversification, good change, involves bringing in sustainable business, not the latest fad.

Paralegals and law school

25 05 2010

In virtually any field, a bachelors degree will carry you only so far.  Eventually, career advancement requires some form of graduate degree.  Obviously, in the legal field, if you want to maximize your career potential, this means earning your J.D.

While I still dream of penning the “great American novel,” realistically I know I need to go to law school to advance my own career. Last summer, while searching for the proper law school for me, I attended an information  session for the part-time, evening program at the SMU Dedman School of Law, a program designed specifically for working professionals. The event organizers stressed that the program was ideal for paralegals, yet surprisingly few paralegals applied. In fact, I met only one other paralegal during the seminar. This made me wonder, in an age where almost every law school offers some form of part-time evening program, why do more paralegals not apply to law school?

As a paralegal, we have an intimate understanding of the legal field. While this certainly does not guarantee success in law school, it does make us a little more prepared for the dense subject matter to be presented in the classroom. The practical knowledge we gleaned through personal experience should help us understand the application of the material, making it easier to digest and process. We all worry about the economics of earning a law school degree, but we also understand that the degree can easily pay for itself in a few years of practice.

What other elements keep paralegals from taking that next step? Do some firms discourage their paralegals from seeking their J.D.? Has working as a paralegal pulled back the curtain too far, revealing too much of the reality of being an attorney?

Personally, I know I must take that next step.

An Introduction

23 05 2010

I landed my first job in the legal field during the early part of the Fall semester of my third year of college.  In spite of a couple of degree plan changes and one transfer, I managed to complete over 70 course hours with a healthy 3.6 GPA during my first two years, yet my career path remained an unnerving mystery.  Until that point, my resume consisted of a couple of cub-reporter stints for local newspapers and summers delivering pizza.

I enjoyed the fact-gathering and writing involved with the newspaper gigs, but always considered journalism as more of an avocation rather than a vocation. Likewise, I enjoyed certain aspects of working at a pizzeria, especially cooking, but it failed to provide much cognitive stimulation.

My sister, a law student at the the University of Texas at the time, suggested I search for a job with a local law firm. She helped me piece together my first “professional” resume and I combed the local newspaper hoping to find the perfect job.  It worked; I landed an interview off the first submission and accepted the subsequent job offer. It was a part-time “runner” position and the firm had more names on the letterhead (4) than practicing attorneys (2), but it felt great to get my foot in the door.

My job duties included “running” to courthouses to file documents, organizing the office library, and running errands for the attorneys, including washing one attorney’s car every Friday. Though the job featured many menial aspects, I chose instead to focus on the learning opportunities it presented. When the paralegal or the legal assistant (the firm had only one of each) sent me to file a document, I inquired about the purpose.  Each document I copied, I examined to understand its place in the procedural puzzle. When organizing the library, I took time to sample the literature. When asked to run errands related to the attorney’s personal business, I took note of the professionalism and fine attention to detail.  I then took all of these lessons and formulated a plan to take the next step professionally.

That next step presented itself in the form of a file clerk position with a much larger civil litigation firm. Again, the job required little of my classical education, but again I saw an abundance of learning opportunities. A few weeks prior to my start day, a fire consumed much of my new firm’s office and they had temporarily relocated to an old, three-story bank building.  The basement served as the temporary file room and I would lug a dolly stacked with boxes full of files up the three flights of stairs when a request was made. The remainder of the time I was left alone in the damp basement–no windows to allow light in, no co-workers to break up the monotony. As I filed documents, I began to carefully examine the semantics and style of the documents, discovering that the practice of law requires logic and sharp analytical skills, elements I found lacking at school. The entire process fascinated me and the juxtaposition of this world of structure and discipline with the rather philistine mindset of many of my classmates helped solidify my career path.

Another school transfer brought on my next job change, this time as a legal assistant for a solo practitioner in far Northeast Texas. This position provided my first exposure to criminal and family law, as well as my first exposure to an attorney mired in controversy. Around the same time, I began work with the local community theater, where I met several more esteemed attorneys in the community. One of them offered me a job with his civil litigation firm and even though it represented a slight demotion, it was worth it to get back to the area of law I enjoyed and to leave a bad situation. Plus, the civil litigation firm offered a more flexible schedule, which allowed me to finish my degree. This was also the first position where I felt that the attorneys and support staff took as much interest in teaching me, as I had in learning from them.

In May 2004, I finally graduated with my bachelor’s degree and continued to work at the firm. At the same time, I accepted a part-time position writing for a website and even briefly had my sports talk radio program, but I always knew that I wanted to be involved in litigation. In February 2005, an opportunity presented itself for me to move to Dallas and I landed my first official paralegal position. I left a firm of  one office, seven attorneys and an eleven member support staff and entered a firm with offices and  attorneys nationwide and over 100 support staff members in the Dallas office alone. I was truly the most junior paralegal in the office, not to mention among the ten paralegals in my section, but I knew that if I applied the lessons  I learned at my previous stops I would excel.

Within the first six months, I moved from a cubicle to an office. Within nine months, I received a promotion to supervising paralegal for the firm’s largest client. Today, I still serve as supervising paralegal for this client, as well as national counsel paralegal and trial team liaison for another Fortune 500 client. I’ve earned these things because of the experience I gained through those early job opportunities. In order to be a successful paralegal, it takes more than simply understanding local court rules and civil procedure. A good paralegal may be able to recite an entire book of codes from memory, but a great paralegal understands how law is practiced on a macro level and understands the role each member of a law firm plays in the practice on a micro-level. These lessons cannot be taught in a paralegal classroom, but can only be learned from hands-on experience.