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“Just” a paralegal?

By Christopher Beck

Christopher BeckOn the very first day of my law school career, I sat down in my first class – civil procedure – according to the seating chart. Unfortunately for me, the seating chart placed me immediately in front of the professor. Having read the recommended “One L” during the summer leading into law school, I was appropriately terrified not only of the Socratic method, but also of the very prospect of a professor calling on and then berating me for my lack of understanding before an audience of my peers.

I recall the events of this day very distinctly. My college friend and fellow 1L, who by luck of having a last name close enough in the alphabet to mine, was seated immediately next to me. The professor walked in, took her place at the podium in front of me, looked down over her glasses at me and said, “Mr. Beck? You and I are going to be good friends this semester.” My college friend leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Do you need a Xanax now?” Having recently been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I was confident saying that I was fine. I wasn’t, and moments later I actually did pull my prescription from my bag and take a Xanax. It did nothing. My anxiety raged, but I pulled through the day.

After this, something I still consider a tragic event; the seating assignment, not the panic attack, I remember something very intelligent and profound that my professor said during this first day: “One day you’ll be out in the world working at a law office, big or small, government or private. And on that first day you will have absolutely no idea what you are doing. To make it worse, no other associate will help you. The best advice I can give you is this: Be nice to the paralegals. They know more than you think, often as much as the lawyers, and they have been at the firm longer. If you want to survive, befriend them.”

Now, I didn’t have a stenographer during this class so the previous is written to the best of my recollection, but that was the gist of what my professor said.

Eight years later I’m having breakfast in the cafeteria at the Ventura County Superior Court, which, for the record, is the best courthouse breakfast I’ve ever had. I’m eating the same thing with the same early bird group in the cafeteria. I’m talking to an older man with a long beard dressed in a nice suit topped off with some cowboy boots. We talk for a bit and I finally ask him what his practice area is. He answered, “Oh, I’m just a paralegal.”

For anyone who has had a paralegal or worked with one, you know there are two significant differences between an attorney and a paralegal; a paralegal can’t appear in court, and a paralegal can’t provide legal advice. Aside from that, they operate in a similar professional capacity to that of a lawyer. Now, for most of us, our childhood ideals of what a lawyer does, (catching witnesses in lies, creating the perfect “AH HA!” moment at a trial, or uncovering the truth about a toxic waste dump) has been brutally interrupted by the reality of what a lawyer does: research and write.

I’m a firm believer that the role of the paralegal is essential to that practice of law. I may make a lot of enemies with this statement, but let’s be honest, a paralegal can perform many of the functions of an attorney, sans the aforementioned attorney specific tasks. Likewise, doing so provides a greater service to the client by controlling and limiting costs based on a paralegals lower hourly rate.

I remember being at a firm where the senior partner was unexpectedly hospitalized for two weeks. It wasn’t other staff attorneys who stepped in and guided the direction of generous attorneys who offered to fill the gap while the senior was gone; it was a paralegal. Full disclosure, she was the senior paralegal, but she knew better than any other staff attorney the calendar, the cases, the clients and the expectations. Having a senior partner out for that period of time could have been devastating to our firm, particularly a small firm, but with the guidance of the senior paralegal there was no loss in production.

Maverick to Goose, the Skipper to Gilligan, Mario to Luigi, Phillip Rivers to the Broncos defense; one isn’t greater than the other, but they are great because they work together. Imagine Skipper without Gilligan? He would just be an angry old man who can’t admit he should hang up his captain’s hat and become an accountant like his mother wanted. Mario without Luigi would be a plumber who has high cholesterol. Phillip Rivers without the Broncos defense would probably result in a Super Bowl ring (last one, I promise). My point is, who we are and what we do is the result of the valuable folks who work with us, not for us. We may craft case strategy and we may provide direction, but the ability to consider our relationship as an equal plain of learned professionals will allow us to truly value the talent on our staff. No one is “just a paralegal.”

Christopher Beck is general counsel for the Housing Authority of the City of San Buenaventura and counsel for the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara. This article is dedicated to the two most impressive, learned, and professional paralegals I know: Kim Martinez Sheppard and Nini DeWitt.