Behind Every Great Lawyer Is a Paralegal

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'I’m helping someone who has suffered seek justice,' said paralegal Mary Brown. (Photo credit: Zolnierek/Shutterstock)
'I’m helping someone who has suffered seek justice,' says paralegal Mary Brown. (Credits: Zolnierek/Shutterstock)

After eight years in the business, Mary Brown has worked her way up to being a senior litigation paralegal at Brown & Barron, a law firm in Baltimore, Maryland. She credits her climb in the firm to constantly being curious. “Whether you train in-house or become formally certified, there’s always more to learn and it’s advantageous to always ask questions,” she said.

Why did you become a paralegal? Did you always want to do this?

I actually came upon this career by happenstance. At the time, I was unhappy with my job and the industry that I was in. There was an opening at a local law firm for an administrative/secretarial position. I jumped at the chance to get my foot in the door and see where it took me. Shortly after getting hired, my employer approached me about training in-house with them to become a paralegal. Eight years later, I’ve worked my way up to a senior litigation paralegal. Leaving my old industry and taking a chance on something completely new has been one of the best, most fruitful decisions I’ve ever made.

What does a typical day as a paralegal look like?

A lot of people actually don’t know what a paralegal does and often ask me what exactly I do. There are different areas of the legal field and some of these areas may not involve litigation — like medical malpractice and criminal law versus trust and estates or corporate law. Typically, attorneys and paralegals become specialized in one of these fields. My area of expertise is lawsuits concerning medical malpractice. When people ask me what I do, I often compare the paralegal vs. lawyer relationship to that of a nurse vs. doctor. As the prefix “para” suggests, paralegals work in tandem with attorneys, assisting them in many aspects of a case whether it be scheduling meetings, organizing documents, investigating the facts of a case, drafting legal correspondence or assisting with trial preparation.

What do you like most about your job?

One of the things that I love about my career is the wide array of duties it entails — it’s a role that rarely gets monotonous. As a paralegal, sometimes you play the role of secretary and assist by scheduling meetings or organizing records, sometimes you are a liaison between the attorneys and clients, sometimes you are an analyst who reviews medical records or other documents and sometimes you are a researcher who is investigating an accident, a business or medical condition.

What’s the most common misconception about being a paralegal?

A lot of people assume that attorneys and paralegals spend most of their time in the courtroom at trial. In reality, most cases never make it to trial due to the parties coming to a resolution before the trial date. If you do become a paralegal though, and get the opportunity to go to trial, jump on it! It’s a great experience that doesn’t arise that often.

What do you wish you knew about the job before you got into it?

While a paralegal’s schedule is much more consistent than an attorney’s, paralegals do not always work 9 to 5. If there is a deadline approaching or you are in trial, expect to be available when needed, for as long as you’re needed. That being said, every firm is different and there are definitely firms out there that respect the work-life boundary more so than others.

What personality traits or qualities would make someone a good fit for paralegal work?

If you have a curious mind, critical thinking skills, work well under pressure and are highly organized, I would definitely suggest this field. Also, if you are debating whether or not law school is right for you, I would suggest trying to get a job in the legal field first. Most firms are very open to hiring administrative/secretarial positions to those seeking exposure in the field.

Is there a time where you felt your job made a real impact on someone’s life?

Absolutely. Each and every day I feel that I’m helping someone who has suffered seek justice for their injuries. It’s very satisfying knowing that the work I'm doing helps to give others a voice.

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