Previous month:
April 2014
Next month:
June 2014

Coming soon to a law firm near you: Paralegals giving limited legal advice?

Do you believe in licensing paralegals?

I have been following Barbara Liss, a senior paralegal and president of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association (California) regarding limited licensure. Recently, I received a very interesting email from her regarding the California State Bar Civil Justice Strategies Task Force on limited licensure. While the entire email is just too long to reprint here, (she sure can write!) Barbara has made some very interesting and forward thinking thoughts.

Paralegals: here is a possible view of the future:

Today's Guest Blogger:

LissBarbaraBarbara Liss
Sr. Paralegal

California is unique!  It is the only state in the union to have codified a definition of “paralegal” and created minimum educational standards to qualify.  Unless California paralegals meet these standards, attorney fee reimbursement orders may not include paralegal fee awards.  (See: CRC, Rule 7.703(e); additionally I have cases available on request.)  Therefore, the task force has a starting point that isn’t from “the beginning.”  It needs to be aware of it.

Just as not every nurse is qualified to be a nurse practitioner and must obtain higher training, education and skills; just as not every accountant is qualified to become a CPA but sits for a test to acquire that designation after years of preparation and work, so too might a lay advocate achieve such a designation, after meeting specific, predetermined requirements which might include a certain number of years of experience in an immersed law environment, level of education or alternatives similar to those contained in the Professional Fiduciary Act and the other materials referenced above. 

The testing, licensing, monitoring and disciplining of lay advocates whose advanced skills are demonstrated through the new system established, should be independent too – to avoid the inherent conflict of interest that would exist if under the auspices of the State Bar, whose role it is to protect attorney interests, among other things.  The California Department of Consumer Affairs, the Judicial Council or another arm of the AOC would be a more appropriate administrator for this new license’s oversight.

That too would help in determining other interrelated questions, such as would limited license lay advocates be bonded or would they be required to carry malpractice insurance?  Would the prohibition against lawyers and non-lawyers, (such as the limited license lay advocates) owning law business ventures together be relaxed?  (It would be beneficial to the public if lay advocates had easy access to refer cases beyond the scope of their expertise to lawyers in whom they had vested confidence and with whom they had a business relationship.) Avoiding conflicts (or even the appearance of them) by maintaining separation of interests when facing these issues will make them far less complicated to sort out.

As well, there are areas of the law where at present, it is not economically feasible for lawyers to provide services profitably but where lay advocates might if UPL statutes were relaxed or rescinded.  For example:

  •         Personal injury matters valued under $10,000
  •         Small claims court consultations
  •         Advance health care directives [many hospice social workers are involved in assisting/advising in this arena but paralegals in the estate planning area may not do so at present]
  •         Landlord/Tenant (tenants often have difficulty obtaining advice if they don’t qualify for Legal Aid assistance)
  •         Harassment/Restraining Orders
  •         Records expungement
  •         Bankruptcy
  •         Worker’s compensation

        and more.

While not every lay advocate might be appropriately trained in each of these areas, objective testing could be developed so that if one is determined to be qualified, one could be permitted to act in those areas in which testing demonstrates sufficient capability.

Perhaps least understood by most bar members is the degree of education received by paralegals and LDAs [Legal Document Assistants] today.  In many ways, a paralegal certificate or degree emulates the education obtained in law school.  Unfortunately, paralegal education, like law school education, also fails to adequately prepare the graduate for real life and it takes time and actual employment in the work to evolve into a fully operational professional.

Once a journeyman, however, a full-fledged paralegal may often be as able as a lawyer in many aspects to provide considerably beneficial direct services to the public and has great potential to significantly diminish the existing gap in access to justice in California.  I look forward myself to being soon able to contribute my own services in that way when I am able to test and obtain a limited license as a California Lay Advocate.

 Readers? Time to comment. (This is the risk taking portion of the program.)

 

 


Don't give me the same old, same old for stress. Fix it for me!

Stress3 Stress doesn't really scare me. It is part and parcel of our lives. Why, might you ask, would anyone say that?  Probably because in the second half of my work life, I have found the secrets to a relatively stress free career.

 Article after article has been written about stress.  It’s the same old, same old:  manage your stress, have a plan, stay positive, visualize your last trip to Hawaii in the sun-soaked terrain, exercise daily and get regular hot rock massages.   That, or have a glass of good merlot, get in the bathtub with lots of Evelyn & Crabtree and listen to old Doris Day songs. I don’t know where some of these authors get this stuff, except to say that they must live in  Dreamland, somewhere east of here.  Have they ever worked in a law firm?    

 I used to be the most stressed-out person I knew.  I averaged 90 hour weeks in the legal field as an executive in a $5 billion corporation, traveled three weeks out of four, answered to some big shots who thought they owned the planet, and managed hundreds of people.  It wasn’t much different when I was a paralegal manager. 


There were critical deadlines to meet, difficult attorneys to juggle, anxious clients to handle and something called a “minimum billable hours” requirement, now referred to as “suggested” hours in a more politically correct and less actionable environment.  

I recently looked at a picture of myself during that era.  I was holding my new-born niece, Cristina, a joy to behold and I looked like I just escaped from a train wreck and stopped by to say howdy.

 Several years ago, California Lawyer magazine published an article by Richard Carlton, author of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” that cited: “Among members of the medical community, there is a growing acceptance that stress from long working hours, such as 70 hours a week or more, may contribute to the onset of clinical depression. A study of 10,000 adults by a team from Johns Hopkins University discovered that among all the occupational groups represented, attorneys had the highest prevalence of signs and symptoms of clinical depression. 

In fact, the rate of depression among the attorneys studied was 3.6 times the norm for all occupations.”  The article further stated that, “Psychologists observe that attorneys, who are trained to be impersonal and objective, often apply the same approach to their personal problems and are reluctant to focus on their inner emotional lives.”

     Wow.  Examining the state of mind of those around you in relation to why your atmosphere seems stressful is very revealing, indeed.  

 First, let’s debunk some myths about workplace stress. 

                                       Stress is not cured by working fewer hours.

               Myth #1:  Stress is normal for anyone working in the legal community.  The stakes are high and when the stakes are high, so is the stress.  Anything can go wrong at any time.  Stress is even good for you because it pushes you to perform.                 

 

Some people think that if you’re not too busy, you’re not really crucial to the organization, particularly when you are rewarded for high billable hours.  But stress does not mean you matter. It either means that something is wrong at work or that you’re not doing a good enough job of matching your tasks to your time. Worse, it also means that you get less work done, because stressed people are less efficient, worse communicators and worse at making good decisions.

 

To accept stress as a normal condition of work is bad for people and bad for business. There are also certain delusions we create for ourselves.  Declaring that you thrive under stress is a justification for procrastination. Sure, there are people who can’t figure out how to deliver anything until the last minute. But this is a crisis in confidence (fear of starting for fear of failing) as opposed to stunning brilliance unlocked by stress.


            Myth #2: Stress is caused by working too much.   But then, why do some people work 80 hours a week and feel great, while some people work 30 hours and get seriously stressed?  Here’s why: stress has nothing to do with the number of hours you work, and everything to do with how you feel during those hours. If you work 100 hours a week feeling great, having fun and taking pride in what you do, you won’t be stressed. If you work 30 hours a week feeling inadequate, bullied or unappreciated you will be stressed.  Stress at the workplace does not always cause unhappiness. Your workplace happiness hinges more on whether or not you like your work than on whether or not your work is stressful, according to Alan Krueger, professor at Princeton University.


            Myth #3: Stress is cured by working fewer hours.  Most workplaces react to stress by reducing employees’ workloads, responsibilities or working hours and in serious cases by giving people long sick leaves. According to Danish medical researcher Bo Netterstrom who has studied workplace stress for 30 years, this is a mistake.


            Netterstrom claims people hit by stress need to increase their confidence at work. While time off can be necessary to treat the immediate symptoms of stress, a long absence from the workplace does exactly the opposite. When people return, they’re even more vulnerable. Worse, some never return to work at all. Reducing work or leaving work temporarily doesn’t fix any underlying problems. When employees return to work or to “normal” work conditions, nothing has changed and the stress returns quickly.

         Myth #4: Stress is cured by working more.   Falling behind at work from time- to-time is a given in this 24/7, Internet accessed, Blackburied work world. Believing that if you work really hard for a while you’ll catch up and then stress will go away is a fairy tale. It won’t “just go away” for two reasons:

1.         Workplace stress does not come from falling behind at work. It comes from how you feel about falling behind. 
2.         In most law firm environments, people will always be behind. There is simply too much work. Finishing all your assignments basically means getting more work along with the career enhancing opportunity to push your billable hours even higher.  

            A temporary push to reduce a pile of work or meet a deadline is fine. But all too often that temporary push becomes the new standard.  So the solution to stress is not to work harder to catch up because in most law firms, this is impossible. The solution is to feel good about the work you finish and not to get stressed about the work you don’t finish. It’s not that you should stop caring or not look for a solution.  It’s that you should avoid a vicious circle:  being stressed makes you less productive which means you get less work done and become more stressed.  


            Myth #5: Stress is cured by focusing on stress.  There’s a lot of the literature and training about workplace stress and the typical content is:

  • What is stress
  • Symptoms of stress
  • Health implications of stress
  • How to fight stress 

             This is often presented by stress consultants who privately garner their own list of stressors.  At this point, I have one big ho-hum for all of that.  Focusing on stress is not the way to remove it - it’s a great way to create more stress. A better strategy is to focus on what gives you peace and energy. 

The Truth About Stress 

       Work does not give you stress. Feeling bad about work gives you stress. This means that changing your work hours, responsibilities, priorities or work environment is meaningless, unless it also changes the way you feel at work. Those stress management courses will not do the trick either, unless they can achieve just that.

      Most common sources of stress for legal professionals undefined deadlines, lack of control over time, difficult clients, escalating intensity, no margin for error - are outside of a paralegal’s personal control.  What truly determines how much stress these circumstances cause paralegals is the degree to which these “givens” are perceived or interpreted as threatening. Any perceived threat - real or not - triggers our body’s “fight-or-flight response.” Over time, it is possible to modify how your body reacts by paying attention to how you perceive situations as threatening.           Ask yourself whether an issue really justifies your current reaction to it - or, whether or not it will matter at all a month later. Practiced regularly, you can keep matters in perspective so that stress is relative to the importance of the situation.

What Do I Do Now?                 

Given that I have knocked a number of standard stress articles, I do have a few suggestions that personally helped change my life around.  Everyone can find a way out of stress and some may wish to seek professional counseling. Let me share a few things that I found helpful:           

  1.         You can’t change things if you don’t acknowledge them.  Ok, so I’m quoting a TV psychologist.  But he hit it right on.  When it was first brought to my attention that I was stressed out, I was in total denial.  Because I was fearful of being accused of failing and I wanted to do a great job, I denied I was stressed-out.  To me, it was a sign that I couldn’t deal with the job.  What I really needed to change was my responses.  Acknowledge what is.  Without that acknowledgement, you cannot take action.         

2.         Learn to really laugh.  How long has it been since you laughed out loud, long and hard?  I mean a good belly-laugh.  If you’re stressed-out, it’s probably been awhile.  Laughter releases endorphins, natural pain-killers.  It boosts immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called Gamma-interferon and disease-destroying antibodies called B-cells.  In short, it’s great medicine.              

3.         Make a friend at work. When you have someone you can confide in, someone with whom you feel secure, trust, can share the ups-and-downs of the workplace, you feel better.  The environment somehow doesn’t seem all that bad.          

4.         Make a decision.  The only way to transform your life is to make a decision to change and honour that decision.  Decide how you want to live your life and then set about with complete certainty to create it.  The most critical time in my career came when I decided that I wanted to create the environment that was right for me. I no longer wanted a fancy office in a Class A building in the middle of a prestigious district.  I wanted to own my own business, work from home and call my own shots.  I haven’t looked back.  And, I’m one happy camper.

NEWS: The Paralegal Internet Association (PIA) recently formed attracting over 700 new members in just a few months. Here is an association open to paralegals worldwide. Network with the global community. Members receive networking opportunities, publications, Meet-Ups with national and international members, discounts to webinars, courses, webcasts, podcasts, access to post to the blog, and much more! Check it out and join today! www.paralegalinternet.com.

You'll be glad you did!