The Blog Formerly Known As Practical Paralegalism
by Diana Smith, Managing Editor, Carolina Paralegal News
Paralegals are paragons of service, yet efforts sometimes go unnoticed
When the American Bar Association’s annual Law Week took place earlier this month, headlines popped in both Carolinas with stories and photos showing lawyers accomplishing good deeds for their communities.
On May 2, The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina published an article recounting the tale of 50 lawyers and judges from Cumberland County and Fort Bragg who dropped their case books and gavels for a day in order to help repair a resident’s aging home.
And the May 4 issue of South Carolina Lawyers Weekly (a sister publication of Carolina Paralegal News) detailed the variety of service projects Bar members completed during that same period speaking at schools, conducting food drives and renovating a playroom for the state Department of Social Services, among others.
Without a doubt, all were laudable and newsworthy efforts.
But what often goes unpublicized are the vast amount of community service projects completed by N.C. and S.C. paralegals not only during Law Week, but all year long.
“It doesn’t get recognized. That’s why I blog about it,” said Winston-Salem, N.C., paralegal Lynne DeVenny, who operates http://www.practicalparalegalism.com/.
Regularly, DeVenny posts “Primo Paralegal Shoutouts” to applaud paralegals’ accomplishments, both in the Carolinas and nationally.
She also monitors social networking sites and media outlets for any praise for paralegals.
“Legal professionals are using Twitter a great deal and every single time a lawyer tweets a compliment about his paralegal staff, I re-tweet it so that hundreds of other paralegals can see it,” she said. “I think it’s important.”
Indeed, paralegals are crucial worker bees for attorneys and clients, but they also buzz energetically in their local communities to provide outreach for agencies with little or no law-related needs.
In 2006, the National Federation of Paralegal Association delegates amended Canon 1.4 of its Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility and Guidelines for Enforcement to create an “aspirational goal” for paralegals to complete at least 24 hours of community service each year.
The guideline further defines community service as volunteer activities that do not meet the criteria for pro bono work.
And as Carolina Paralegal News discovered, paralegal associations in the Carolinas are putting in plenty of hours to participate in volunteer activities of both kinds.
For example, stuffing school supplies in backpacks for A Child’s Haven in Greenville, S.C., is one of the most popular projects for the S.C. Upstate Paralegal Association as summer winds down, said Dorothy Huskey, who chairs the association’s Charity and Pro Bono Committee.
“It’s one of the most anticipated events of the year,” said Huskey. “I have people in July asking, ‘When’s the school supply drive going to start? I’m already saving.'”
SCUPA also just completed its annual March of Dimes campaign, raising $2,077 and manning a mile-marker station to provide water to participants during the charity’s walk/run.
Similarly, 20 members of the Raleigh-Wake Paralegal Association turned out in staggered shifts to help with the Triangle Heart Ball for the American Heart Association in February, said Jennifer Nelson and Donna Wall, co-chairs of the group’s Civic and Community Events Committee.
In celebration of its 30th anniversary this year, RWPA has committed to serving more charities than it has before, Nelson said.
Members are collecting donations for Dress for Success, a program that provides clothing to women who need outfits for job interviews. This summer, they’ll move on to help the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
Pro bono paralegals
Paralegals can also play a huge role in the pro bono realm by volunteering in Wills for Heroes, elder clinics, Legal Aid and guardian ad litem programs, DeVenny said.
That’s the direction the N.C. Paralegal Association wants to take this year, said Patti Clapper, the organization’s president.
Clapper is working with the N.C. Equal Access to Justice Commission to determine how its members might be able to assist in disability hearings, a job that doesn’t require an attorneys’ supervision.
“That’s what being a paralegal is all about,” said Huskey. “It is the ability to help provide legal services within the community and help keep the costs low.”
Last year, NCPA also joined the Research Triangle Paralegal Association’s fundraising effort to benefit Interact, a nonprofit that provides assistance and shelter for battered women.
RWPA and the Paralegal Division of the N.C. Bar Association added to the joint effort.
Ultimately, the groups raised $8,500 for Interact and received a plaque in the women’s shelter dedicated to North Carolina paralegals, said Lillian Glenn, RTPA president.
In an e-mail to Carolina Paralegal News, Glenn said paralegals, by virtue of their own job descriptions, are perfect candidates to achieve that kind of success.
“I don’t mean to imply that paralegals are more generous than other professions or groups,” she wrote. “It seems like the closer to the poverty line you are, the more you recognize the need.
“That’s not to say paralegals are impoverished, but they (and other staff-level employees) do have a different perspective from, say, doctors, lawyers, etc.
“In these troublesome times, economically speaking, I think we are all a little more cognizant of need.”
What goes around comes around
Plus, the benefits of volunteerism can show up in unexpected ways.
In 2003, DeVenny of Winston-Salem began volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and was paired with a young girl with sickle cell disease, a child DeVenny later adopted when she was removed from her caregivers.
“I’m quick to remind people BBBS is an incredible mentoring organization, but definitely not an adoption service,” DeVenny said. “I like to say God is like UPS. Sometimes he delivers your children to the wrong address.”
But there are less-unusual examples of how charitable work can be an asset, experts say.
Paralegals may not realize they can reap professional benefits by helping with pro bono work skills that have become increasingly important given the economic collapse and increasingly competitive job market.
Certain programs, like guardian ad litem, directly draw on a paralegal’s knowledge of the courts and court procedure to provide a much-needed service while simultaneously furthering a paralegal’s professional experience, DeVenny told Carolina Paralegal News.
“You have to use your investigative and interviewing skills. You have to write a report, and then you have to attend the hearing and then a lot of times you have to testify,” she explained. “It’s brilliant volunteer work for paralegals.”
And non-legal outreach, such as participating in food or clothing drives, has also supported paralegals in these tough times, DeVenny noted.
“There have been national stories about paralegals being laid off and entering food banks for the first time,” she said. “It’s an important social issue and there are all kinds of ways paralegals can continue to give back using their training and skills.”
Exactly, Huskey said.
“I think that volunteerism is important no matter what you do for a living. Helping somebody else always benefits more than just the person you’re helping.”
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