Have you ever stepped away from your professional self and wondered, “How did I get here?”
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut. I begged and pleaded with my parents to send me to NASA’s summer space camp but was repeatedly denied because my mother couldn’t fathom my being hurled through the air in a zero-gravity, child-killing apparatus. So I became a paralegal instead.
OK, it didn’t happen quite like that. I had a few life experiences during my reckless, youth-inspired days and held more than my fair share of meaningless, going-nowhere jobs. Becoming a paralegal changed all of that.
The very first week I worked as a paralegal, I was asked by my attorney to read a record on appeal and find the appropriate designations within a certain deposition. Wanting to impress, I carefully highlighted, flagged, circled and starred each and every place a mention of the needed cite was referenced.
Late in the afternoon, after what I thought was creatively making an informative index to my citations, I presented him with my masterpiece and he quietly began to read.
My hands were sweating as he flipped hastily through my flagged points of interest. Finally, he looked up.
“What is this?” he asked. The butterflies that were fluttering excitedly through my heart only moments before suddenly stood eerily still.
In the blink of an eye, I saw the attorney’s hand throw something into the air. It was my masterpiece! The pages fell silently, scattering across the conference room table. I had failed – miserably.
I held back tears through a hearty dose of “Who hired this girl?” and a humiliating rant about my capabilities as a functioning human being in general.
“Don’t cry in front of him,” I screamed to myself over and over again.
After being thoroughly embarrassed and sent to the file room to re-create my magnum opus, the flood gates opened. How would I ever make it as a paralegal? Do attorneys really act like this? What was his problem?
Confused, frustrated and angry at myself and my new boss, I made a decision. Back to the conference room I marched, where I somehow managed to hold back tears while explaining the logic of what I had set out to do. The record’s citations weren’t clear cut. The sentence had stated that John Doe knew about the illegal transaction.
Naturally, I made every effort to find every excerpt that illustrated that fact and noted that throwing my work product was not appreciated.
With a heavy sigh, I waited for his response, instinctively sensing that I was about to know what being fired felt like. He stared at me blankly for a few moments.
“Here it comes,” I thought to myself.
Then he spoke. “Let’s do it again,” he said.
That was a muggy July afternoon in 2005 and, like most summer evenings in South Carolina, the evening sky began to rumble with distant thunder. Just as it began to storm outside, we set to work.
Five hours, two pizzas and countless citations later, I had mastered the art of deposition designations.
I never thought I would survive that first week of being a paralegal, let alone the soul-crushing hour when my perfectly indexed masterpiece went sailing through the air. But storms have a way of washing the slate clean. That hot July evening marked the beginning of what is now my passion and washed away any childhood fantasies of exploring the galaxies in a pink, sequined rocket ship.
Three years later, I was invited to inspire other children to find their dream jobs. My mother, a middle-school teacher, asked me to speak at her career day. I don’t know which was worse – the fear of messing up my first record on appeal or inspiring a room of hormone-ravaged 12-year-olds. My competition consisted of the fire department, a brain surgeon and a team of Alaskan sled dogs.
“This is going to go real well,” I thought. What could I possibly tell these children about being a paralegal that would make them want to learn about the profession and maybe even pursue it?
“Who likes to rearrange their rooms a lot?” I asked. Surprisingly, several hands shot excitedly into the air.
On the surface, you may think children like those have an attention disorder. Not so.
You see, I sympathize with kids who move their bedrooms around every other week because I was – and frankly, still am – one of them. The reason: I get bored really, really easily.
Being a paralegal allows me to constantly change my room around. One day, I may be learning about corporate oppression and the next I’m learning how much 200-year-old oak trees are worth thanks to the electric company not marking their lines properly.
For three years now, I’ve been
speaking at my mom’s career day. I tell the students that my goal in my professional and personal life is to learn something new every day.
Each case that walks in your attorney’s door is an opportunity to learn something new and a clean slate upon which a paralegal can create his or her masterpiece. Just when I think I’ve learned everything about minority shareholders, a new case pops up and I’m learning the physics of a car wreck.
The paralegal profession is not for everyone. More often than not it is a selfless, pride-swallowing experiment in Insanity Land through which we navigate the needs and wants of everyone but ourselves. Having that attorney question how I managed to dress myself every morning was not what I would call one of my finer moments.
However, paralegals do have certain privileges. They possess the rare
perspective of knowing the most intimate and personal aspects of our clients’ lives. The documents we code, index, collate and copy are not simply pieces of paper, but pieces of someone’s life. It is a tremendous responsibility, yet one that gives paralegals everywhere, in every area of law, a unique perspective with which to face the world.
The first time I touched on a record on appeal I was terrified that I would fail and, frankly speaking, I did – miserably.
The first time I spoke at career day I was petrified that next to a surgeon, a SWAT team and an Alaskan husky dog, my seemingly “secretarial” position wouldn’t stand up.
Fear can find you in any profession. It does not play favorites. Every case for a paralegal is a new, clean slate, but also one that has fear, opposition and obstacles standing in the way. This job I’ve come to love is one that allows me to maneuver the furniture around my fear. Pushing and shoving, I research, analyze, organize and learn, navigating my own special sort of pink, sequined rocket ship – cleverly disguised a database of documents – towards the stars.
Editor’s note: Lindsay Valek is a paralegal and writer based in Columbia, S.C.