by J. Brooks Terry
They prepare and proof documents, keep in close contact with clients, attend court proceedings and they’re... not attorneys. They’re paralegals and, thanks to them, Jacksonville’s legal community doesn’t have to think quite as hard when case loads get heavy.
“I think it’s safe to say,” said Angelo Patacca, an attorney specializing in personal injury and wrongful death, “that without them, our jobs would be a lot harder.”
If there’s one thing that paralegals — who, nowadays, are as specialized as the attorneys they assist — can agree upon, is that it’s up to them to keep lawyers organized and, ultimately working in a timely manner.
“That’s right,” said Susan Bonteski, a paralegal at Holland & Knight who specializes in defense litigations. “I like to think of myself as a readier for an attorney. When they need something, I need to know what they’re talking about and where to get it. Paralegals are, essentially, making it look seamless to everyone else. It’s all about details, details, details.”
Bonteski likened the legal arena to that of a stage production. The attorney is the star performer, while the paralegal looks after all that happens backstage.
“I really enjoy working behind the scenes,” she said.
Robin Theriault is a plaintiff paralegal who works with medical malpractice cases at Margol & Pennington. She says one of her favorite parts about paralegal work is that she’s able to get involved in a case on so many levels. From reviewing important documents and records to keeping in close contact with clients, Theriault asserts that it’s this degree of involvement that keeps her coming back for more.
“There’s never a dull moment around here,” she said. “Sometimes it can get kind of emotional when I’m working closely with a client who has had something really tragic happen to them, but I love digging into cases and learning from each one. Sometimes I know details about the case that an attorney wouldn’t”
As the legal field has evolved, so has the role of the paralegal. Many times, they can find themselves doing the filing work of a secretary while also engaging in the heavy research of a young associate.
“I don’t think a paralegal’s job is nearly as defined as attorneys would have thought 20 years ago,” said Kim Starbuck, a paralegal at Smith, Hulsey & Busey. “When I was getting my undergraduate in criminology, it was a new and up and coming profession.”
Starbuck, who specializes in medical malpractice and foreclosure on the defense end, said that even from firm to firm, a paralegal’s job may vary somewhat.
“At some firms, secretaries even call themselves paralegals,” she said. Starbuck admitted, however, that the duties of the two jobs can overlap. “A lot of people just don’t know what we do.”
Theriault said she is currently working on 25 different cases. Starbuck has her hands full with 35. Kim Ward, another paralegal at Smith, Hulsey said she, typically, has anywhere between 30 to 35 cases coming across her desk at one time.
“It’s all about staying organized,” said Ward. “Over time it gets easier to mentally index things. It’s almost like second nature, but we always joke that we should have gotten our degree in mind reading instead.”
Long hours is another aspect of a paralegal’s work day. Ward estimated that on days when a case goes to court, she can be on the clock for nearly 14 hours.
“With this job,” Theriault added, “it doesn’t pay to take time off.”
While she has a week of vacation time coming to her, Theriault estimated that it would take twice that long to play catch up when she returns to the firm.
“It can be hard,” said Bonteski. “You want to spend more time with your family, but I really love my job.”
Bonteski got her first taste of the law while working as a legal secretary over 15 years ago. Ward and Theriault also previously worked as legal secretaries before making the switch into paralegal work. It is a move that is becoming more and more common in local firms.
“Working as a legal secretary was a great stepping stone into this career,” said Bonteski. “It provided me with a lot of the tools that I employ in this role today.”
Theriault agreed that actually working in the field proved more valuable than schooling, though most firms require a four-year degree and a paralegal certificate.
“It’s important to be educated,” she said, “but experience is essential.”
While acknowledging the difficulties of the job, all four paralegals commented that, for the most part, men stay away.
“I’d say that less than five percent of paralegals are men,” said Starbuck. “I guess it’s for the same reason that you don’t see more male secretaries. There’s a stigma attached.”
“I think more men should definitely get involved,” said Bonteski. “It’s a great job and it should not be exclusive to women. If you enjoy doing research and are dedicated, the career is here.”