Saturday, March 10, 2012

My Reasons for Writing:
The Professional Paralegal: A Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success

I specialize in technical communication, so why did I write a book for paralegals?

Graduate training in professional communication is not just about the study of communication, but communication in context. My masters project was a qualitative study about law firm culture and communication, written under the guidance of John M. Lannon (author of Technical Communication). Lannon helped me connect my work as a paralegal with the work I was doing with intellectual property disputes. When I work on legal disputes, I feel like I’m in the midst of a study in communication problems, so my work in law and technical communication go hand-in-hand. Writing for paralegals flows naturally from that. I have subject-matter expertise in these areas.

Law firms rarely get a great rap for work-day culture. Lawyers are expected to be perfect and to make things possible when situations seem impossible. To support this impossible mission, they hire people equally intent on perfection. I’ve met an office manager who purchased only one brand of packing tape because she considered other brands to be a little flimsy. Then there are the problems paralegals solve every day: How, for instance, to respond to a partner’s demand that a 7’ rental van be parked in a garage with 6’ 9” clearance. “It doesn’t fit,” would never be the right answer. Law firm culture is tricky. When you put people who pay attention to things like how “fast” pens write and which font a judge will find easier to read, you get a wee bit of stress when things do not go as planned.

One of the books I read while doing my masters thesis was Gender Trials: Emotional Lives in Contemporary Law Firms by Jennifer Pierce, Ph.D. (California University Press, 1995). Pierce’s book places gender issues into this mix: what does it mean to be a woman lawyer? What is it like for female paralegals who are expected to do good work and be nurturers who take care of people? These are tough questions, to be sure. I believe law firms have come a long way with regard to gender issues since Pierce published her book in 1995, but we expect our legal services to be top notch, and that expectation leads to law firms that hire overachievers who expect perfection from themselves. Anything less would be akin to hiring a surgeon who performs appendectomies “mostly” right.  (By the way, I recommend Pierce’s book. It’s important work on paralegal issues, but read it with an eye toward what is possible, rather than the snapshot of law firm life in the mid-1990s, when she published it.)

Some people think a person can only understand this culture by living the experience. But I believe that we can we convey this culture in a way that is productive. That was the purpose behind my research as a masters student. Some law firm cultures are so rotten they keep the lawyer jokes going (thank you because I enjoy the humor), but most of the time, a firm’s culture is what employees make of it for themselves. In other words, employees need to understand it and learn how to thrive within it.

After I finished my thesis, I received one offer for publication, but the attorney who reviewed the contracts said that the deal was so awful that I would be crazy to sign the contract. Being one of those perfectionist control-freak paralegals, I took the attorney’s advice. I was worried that the manuscript would be chopped into a complaint rather than a healthy text for students. But a lot of paralegals and attorneys and secretaries participated in my research, and I always regretted not publishing this work.

A few years ago, I revisited this work. This time, I set out to publish it in a way that made sense to my control-freak nature. I teamed up with Vicki Voisin, ACP, and we conducted a survey to see how much of my research still stood. Some did, but we learned some new things, too. And we set out to write a book that paralegals could use to start their careers and could use to develop their careers.

The book has features that I am glad we were able to achieve. First, the book is loaded with Vicki’s wisdom. If you have heard Vicki speak, you know she is motivational and a positive influence on the paralegal profession. I wanted very much to report some research about resume writing that I’ve been doing over the last couple of years, and we were able to do that. If you want a fresh way to look at writing a resume, you can find it in this book. We also wanted to include strategies for time management and organization--advice that could follow a paralegal during career development. We also take time to address what to do when you are right-brained and the office is set up organizationally for the left-brained thinker. Vicki provided excellent advice about recording time and setting up good billing practices as paralegals. We tried to consider how a paralegal career unfolds and provide career development advice as well. A paralegal career is an amazing thing; you really can write your own future. Of course, one of my most favorite features is that we include profiles from paralegals throughout the book. As much as possible, we tried to focus on new paralegals, including people changing careers and coming into the profession, but we also included an HR specialist, a seasoned paralegal with the cleanest desk I’ve ever seen (can you guess who that is?), a technology specialist, a virtual paralegal, and a paralegal trainer. They give great advice.

And last, one of the achievements that our reviewers mentioned is the voice of the book. We wrote in a casual, yet professional, tone. Yes, this is a textbook, but it is also a conversation we want to have with new paralegals. Textbooks are often didactic (and should be), and we want paralegals to consider, and to contemplate ethical issues, professional issues, and career issues, allowing us to mentor—but not dictate—the path. We remained true to the voices we use as writers and in the end, managed to find a voice that reviewers liked.

When I get a question about whether this book falls within my field of technical communication, I understand where the question comes from. The answer is it is about professional communication in the context of the paralegal profession. Some of it is grounded in research; all of it is grounded in experience. The chapters focus on communication at work, in writing, and in professional development.

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