The Blog Formerly Known As Practical Paralegalism
The first time I found myself in front of a class of 32 new students to teach their very first paralegal class, aptly titled “Introduction to Paralegalism”, I was quite frankly almost paralyzed by both the size of the class and the breadth of the subject matter. In one semester, I was supposed to teach everything from basic paralegal ethics to how to find that first paralegal job.
Plus, it was a night class, and most of us had already worked all day. My greatest challenge was going to be keeping all of us interested and awake for almost two hours. I was also more than a little taken aback by the thirty-odd mini-recorders sitting on the students’ desks to record my every word and blooper.
I thought I should start the class by learning the expectations my students had from the paralegal profession, so I asked them to complete an anonymous questionnaire with five simple questions, including question number one: “What is the average salary that an entry-level paralegal can expect to earn?” Keep in mind this was in the early 90s.
I knew I was facing a challenge when I received one questionnaire stating that an entry-level paralegal could expect to earn $65,000.00 per year. Another question asked whether paralegals need good keyboarding skills, to which I received many “no” answers. A few even helpfully added that paralegals have secretaries to type for them.
As an instructor, I have strong maternal instincts. I want to see my students succeed, and like any good parent, I am eager to take every precaution to guide them toward happy, productive lives. I state all of my expectations during the very first class and hand out a detailed written syllabus, which includes all of the assignments and due dates for the semester.
When I taught the intro classes, I included several written assignments, including a report based on an interview with a working paralegal. Towards the end of the class, I assigned an essay stating why the student wants to be a paralegal, what area of the law the student finds the most appealing, and how the student plans to achieve his or her career goals.
On my very first day as a teacher of anything ever, I was not prepared for one student to immediately stand up (as if to give an opening courtroom statement) and inquire, “Do we have to use complete sentences for these assignments?”
I thought this would be fairly simple to address. “Why, yes, you are required to use complete sentences in your written assignments.”
This student, who was starting to show some potential as a litigator, was ready for this answer and shot back, “This is not an English class. I don’t see why we have to use complete sentences.”
She did not know it, but she had just hit upon my personal professional pet peeve: the failure to use complete sentences. I am not even trying to be funny here. She had no idea how many resumes and cover letters containing terrible grammar that I had already seen from applicants for paralegal jobs. (If she had skimmed the syllabus, she would have noted one assignment was to prepare a cover letter and resume for an entry-level paralegal position).
“Life is an English Class,” I firmly announced, “and please sit down.”
Then I gave a short lecture which I repeated verbatim to almost every paralegal class I taught, no matter what the legal specialty area. “You cannot expect to go to work for attorneys who are highly educated and intelligent, and not have to write in complete sentences. As part of your essential job duties, you will more than likely be expected to draft letters and court documents for their signatures. They will expect those documents to contain complete sentences. They will also expect those documents to contain well-supported logical thoughts in actual paragraph form with excellent punctuation. Otherwise, they will look like idiots and they will not be able to sign them. You will not look smart, either.”
I went on to explain that this is true of all effective written communication in real life. Then I delivered the clincher: “All of your written assignments have to be typed,” – which led to a separate lecture about how attorneys expect their paralegals to have keyboarding skills. (The very first intro class is always terribly enlightening and exhausting for everyone).
This story has a great ending. The student who asked the initial question submitted terrific written assignments using complete sentences. And at the end of the last class, she told me what a great instructor I was, how much she had enjoyed learning about the paralegal profession and how I had helped her clarify her career goals.
She had decided to change majors to accounting.