In my interview of BASF Paralegal Section’s Education Coordinator Dennis Hanshew, he discussed his unique path to becoming a paralegal, the most important skills paralegal need, and how to avoid burnout.
My first paralegal job was at a large law firm in Hawaii. After it imploded, I did everything as the office manager. Two years later, I joined a solo family law practice and have worked in family law ever since.
After moving back to San Francisco, I worked closely with an internationally recognized family law attorney. I accompanied her to trials, hearings, mediations, private judging matters at AAA and JAMS and conferences in Europe. She included me in conference calls with attorneys, clients and judges. I got to know the family law community in the Bay Area. That’s how I met my current employer.
I am an intermediary between attorneys and everybody outside the office – clients, potential clients, courts, and other offices. I do client intake, screening and conflicts checks; coordinate consultations with the attorneys; handle electronic filing; and draft and proofread routine docs. At case status meetings, we talk about strategy, updates and what needs to be done. I oversee calendaring for the office, both legal and personal, and do filing, indexing or even making coffee.
Advice to someone interested in a paralegal career
I encourage working in small firms because you have more say over what you do. And you get to know everyone intimately, unlike a large firm, where you’re one paralegal in a sea of attorneys, tossed around and possibly assigned to two or three or sent to work with someone you don’t know.
The #1 skill that paralegals need
Your greatest asset is organizational skills. Multitasking is an illusion. If you are able to finish the task at hand, stay focused and organized and make sense out of a disorganized mess, you can write your own ticket.
What to avoid
Legal professionals get too emotionally involved and invested in their clients and their clients’ position. That’s a mistake. Getting pulled into personal drama doesn’t help your client and will result in burnout. You must keep a professional distance.
My father worked for the state parks, and I spent much of my youth alone in nature. Growing up in isolation, I became introspective. When we lived in Big Sur, I met Henry Miller, Joan Baez and other creative visionaries who instilled a deep appreciation of the arts in me. I developed a credo to live in the present moment, day to day. That ability to “be here, now” has guided me throughout my life.
Later in Hawaii, I worked as an aide in a psychiatric hospital for four years and learned how to relate to people in psychological states of crisis. I would not have survived that job if I had not learned how to deal with stress from day to day. That lesson helped me in every other job since.
Recipe for sanity
I am an artist. I negotiated a 9-to-5, four-day work week and try not to work after hours, weekends or Fridays. Work is stressful, black and white, clearly defined. Painting provides balance, feeds my soul, and allows me to just let it all go.
About the author
Ana Fatima Costa, RPR, CSR, is Marketing & Publicity Coordinator for the Executive Committee of BASF’s Paralegal Section. As a consultant and coach, she utilizes the experience gained in her 35-year court reporting career to inform the legal community and general public about the vital role that court reporters have as guardians of the record. Contact Ana at www.anafatimacosta.com and follow her on Twitter at @AnaFatimaCosta1.