Tuesday, March 12, 2019

No, I'm Not an Attorney -- And That's What I Prefer!

When people hear that I work in a law firm, they immediately assume that I'm an attorney. Well, I'm not! I first began working in the law profession back in 1993 at the age of 28. I had just become a father and being a fifth grade teacher simply wasn't providing enough income. Sure, I operated my own business for 16 years (1998-2014), but law has been something that I've been around -- in one way or another -- for 26 years. I've worked in small firms, large firms, and in the legal division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. All of the work I've done in firms and at the federal level has been done as a Senior Paralegal.

Although I have a couple of B.A. degrees,  I didn't receive formal education for becoming a "paralegal." Back in the early 1990's when I started, no paralegal training, certifications or degree programs existed. The paralegal arena was something that I was tossed into and had to learn quickly. Essentially, a paralegal builds a case through legal research; document analysis; extensive writing; conducting interviews, and more, while the attorney argues the case. Now, there will be attorneys who take exception with my succinct definition, but I can tell you that it is the paralegal who is the 'puzzle builder' -- identifying and putting together the pieces of the case. The attorney communicates with the client and opposing counsel; selects supporting case law; engages in meetings, mediations and hearings; and, argues a position before a judge and jury. Truth be told, paralegals perform a large array of tasks, and each day can bring new challenges -- depending on the case and area of practice.

Yes, I could have become an attorney, but I chose not to. In 2001 (after working as a paralegal for 8 years), I was approached by a prominent local attorney who had been on the opposite side of a case that I had researched and written a successful summary judgment brief for to ultimately bring the matter to a positive conclusion for our client. He was familiar with my work and told me, "You should be an attorney." He encouraged me to obtain my Juris Doctorate degree so that I could add "Esquire" (.Esq) after my name and join the world of lawyers. I smiled... and declined, for one very good reason.

At the time, I was 36 years of age and had four children ranging from 1 to 8 years old. In the eight years I had been a paralegal up to that point, I had seen many families of attorneys suffer due to the attorney working long/late hours and not able to spend time with his or her children, or regularly attend their events. The divorce rate of attorneys is 27 percent, compared to 24 percent for doctors. At many large firms, lawyers often bill 40 or 50 hours a week even if they are actually working 60 to 70. I've worked in law offices ranging from a sole practicing lawyer, to 20+ attorneys, to the federal government level with large staffs of attorneys, paralegals, and administrative law judges. I've seen families broken apart because of the negative impact the legal profession can have on relationships. Simply stated, I wasn't willing to risk missing out on time with my children.

Sure, I don't drive a Mercedes or Lexus like some of the attorneys I currently work with, but I have a decent Buick that gets me from point A to point B. I don't own a million dollar home like some attorneys, but I do have a very nice home that is filled with love and laughter... one that I get to clock out and go to each day at 4:30 pm while I see several of the attorneys settling in to work evening and weekend hours. Yes, there are times when I have to work overtime as a case is gearing up for trial, but those times are not that common because most cases settle before trial (about 95 percent of pending civil lawsuits end in a pre-trial settlement).

Recently, an attorney who has been in practice for several years told me that he wished he had just become a paralegal, stating that the time and headaches involved with being an attorney are simply not worth it to him -- but that he does enjoy helping people with their legal matters. In the past, I've also had an attorney tell me that his job keeps him from being a father the way that he would like, and that his wife feels like a single parent. There are several professions which can negatively impact a family, but the world of law is what I've witnessed for the past 26 years and I have no regrets for not becoming an attorney.

Employment of paralegals is projected to grow 15 percent between now and 2026. Currently, there are 264,000 paralegals in the United States, compared to 1.3 million attorneys. My retirement is about 14 years away and I'll exit the legal world with the title I've always held -- Senior Paralegal.

Keep Reaching For Life's Mileposts,

Paul Staso