The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

7 07 2010

I test drove literally every degree program that the humanities department at my colleges offered before ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in English. Even though we were some of the brightest, most creative and unique students on campus and even though we took the most interesting classes, being able to write a paper on the role of misogyny in Hamlet or being able to thoroughly explain the difference between an Italian sonnet and a Shakespearean sonnet has yet to earn me a single job.

God knows I spent many a sleepless night in college asking myself, “what in the hell are you going to do with a degree in (depending on the semester and college: philosophy, history, religion, political science or English), but through it all, I never once considered pursuing a degree outside the field of humanities. For me, and many other liberal arts students, college was never about developing marketable skills, but rather about the pursuit of knowledge and honing our analytical skills, which in turn produces students prepared for any field.

You learn early on the importance of detail, whether it be reading in context or even the placement of a comma, in the process of formulating an argument. Likewise, you learn to identify the weaknesses of opposing arguments, whether by spotting the gross misrepresentation of facts or the use of faulty logic and reasoning by an opponent to strengthen an argument.

Obviously, this is similar to the practice of law. On behalf of the client, we aim to construct effective arguments based on the evaluation of facts.  We strengthen these arguments by integrating our knowledge and understanding of laws, statutes and codes, relying on sound logic and by exploiting the weaknesses of opposing arguments. The attorney serves as the chief architect of arguments, while paralegals and support staff work together with the attorney to make their blueprint a reality.

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.