Paralegal pioneers profession's role in real estate transactions
When she landed the legal secretary position at a general-practice firm in Arkansas, Libby Roleson had no idea that it would serve as the starting point of a thirty-year legal field career.
Today's potential paralegals have many educational options to choose from, Mrs. Roleson received in-house legal assistant/paralegal training. She eventually pursued formal training, and in 1989 received her paralegal studies certificate from the National Academy for Paralegal Studies (no longer in operation). She achieved both the CLA and CLAS designations in 1995.
Mrs. Roleson's role as a paralegal in the commercial real estate department of a law practice in Memphis led to her status as the first paralegal real estate specialist in the state of Tennessee and to 18 years and counting in the specialty.
Active in local, regional and national paralegal professional organizations, she joined the Memphis Chapter of the Tennessee Paralegal Association (http://www.tnparalegal.org) in 1989. She was one of four charter committee members for the formation of Greater Memphis Paralegal Alliance Inc. in 1992, and has held every office and committee chair position, including two terms as president and seven years as CLA Study Group Chair and course moderator. At the national level, she is an active member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). She represents NALA at paralegal conferences, is a frequent conference presenter on the topics of real estate and paralegal ethics, was the 2002 NALA Credentials Chair, the 2002-2003 NALA Ethics Chair is currently serving her second two-year term as NALA's Region III Director.
She credits her professional leadership activities with shoring up her self-esteem and professional polish. “When I first started in the leadership roles at the local level, if you told me I would get up and give speeches in front of people, I would have told you that you were crazy,” she laughs.
Mrs. Roleson has additionally written articles for NALA's quarterly journal Facts and Findings and the independent professional journal Legal Assistant Today. It's all part of her goal to continue to help the profession move forward. “Part of our goal (at NALA) is the continuing education mission. We're educating the attorneys and the public at large about how we can help render legal services to the public: under the supervision of an attorney, we deliver legal services at reduced cost.”
Libby Roleson & Her Career
Tell us about your career as a paralegal. What led to your interest in building on your legal secretary/assistant experience to attain paralegal training certification?
Back in 1975 I began my first job as a legal secretary. I didn't intentionally make the move into paralegal status, it just sort of evolved. That's the way it happened way back when and it still is that way in rural areas. I was in Arkansas, in a suburb of Memphis in an area that is still kind of rural. I was a at general practice firm, so you pretty much learned everything, which is a good basis for certification tests, such as the NALA CLA, the advanced specialty, or even the Registered Paralegal (RP) exam.
I got on the job training; I took my CLA exam in 1995. In 1988 I graduated from the National Academy for Paralegal Studies. I live in Arkansas, and my husband saw an ad in the Memphis paper, I didn't know anything about certification at the time, the difference between getting a certificate and going to the right program. It was not an American Bar Association-approved program, so I spent good money for a worthless piece of paper. The ironic thing is the test I messed up the most on was in real estate, and that's what I do now.
I came to work in Memphis in 1988 for an attorney that solely practiced real estate. I had some basic working knowledge, but when I came over here, it started getting really specialized, dealing with environmental studies, development impact on communities and so forth. It really gets detailed, as every area of the law is getting very, very specialized. I got on the job training as far as real estate goes. I'm still with the same lawyer for 18 years.
You specialize in commercial real estate. What differences and similarities do you find in the paralegal work in this field vs. the general practice paralegal career paths?
Every field is a learning opportunity. I have found that in commercial real estate you have deadlines and pressures, of course, but not like in the litigation field. I would never, ever go back to litigation, there is too much stress.
What factors were in play in your decision to go into commercial real estate rather than remain at a private law practice?
I am in the private law firm, in the real estate practice group. It just happened to be the specialty of the attorney I went to work for.
Who (or what) were the biggest inspirations for your career?
One of the things is the attorney I work for. He was very patient with me when he was teaching me and he's just the best person in the world to work for.
As far as external inspiration, especially now with my involvement with NALA, is the ability and opportunity to work with people who are very proficient in their field and seeing their leadership ability and how they handle themselves. It's helped me become comfortable with myself. When I first started in the leadership roles at the local level, if you told me I would get up and give speeches in front of people, I would have told you that you were crazy. I was not the outgoing one. The whole experience has really strengthened my self-esteem. I'm not afraid to get up now. Experience and maturity goes hand in hand.
You are very active in the leadership and professional activities of paralegal organizations at the local, regional and national paralegal. In addition, you have written articles for professional journals. What drives your involvement in this area?
The networking through the organizations is absolutely incredible. A member can call NALA and say “we need someone in this state with these skills,” and NALA makes a referral. We've gotten clients that way.
My involvement goes back to being involved with individuals who are committed to the profession, who want to continue to see it go forward. There are still areas where paralegals are not utilized the way they should be. Part of our goal is the continuing education mission. We're educating the attorneys and the public at large about how we can help render legal services to the public: under the supervision of an attorney, we deliver legal services at reduced cost.
What are some favorite projects or achievements that you've completed in your career, and what makes them stand out?
I carried on the study group for the CLA exam for seven years, helping others get ready for their certification. During that time, I sort of revamped the program for the way we studied, including adding pop tests.
What are some of your professional goals for the future?
Right now I'm on the board of NALA. I do want to continue with that. I do care about the profession, I do want to make sure it continues going forward and continues as the best organization for paralegals and legal assistant. Those two terms are synonymous, by the way. Many years ago, legal assistant was the preferred term. Now, so many legal secretaries think that is their term when it is not. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged the difference; in briefs on awarding legal fees, they acknowledged our CLA exam in an opinion. The Supreme Court knows who we are as a profession.
Education Information & Advice
You received in-house, on-the-job training as well as certification from the National Academy for Paralegal Studies. Tell us about your paralegal training.
I already had a good general background before I went to the program, as I did it straight out of practice. For those without a good general legal background, it was difficult. I saw some people really floundering because the courses were so shallow. That was the only ‘formal' training that I had.
Don't get the schools confused with the certification. The analogy I like to use is you graduate with an accounting degree, but you have to take a board certified test to become a certified public accountant. The school gives you a diploma or a certificate of completion, but not the paralegal certification earned by passing exams such as the one offered by NALA.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a paralegal school or program?
One of the critical things that people who are looking to get into the field and seeking sources of education and training is that they need to make sure the school they choose to attend is ABA-approved or at least ABA-compliant. Then you'll be ready to take the test. Some schools don't have the money to become ABA compliant, because it is an expensive process. There are very strict guidelines the schools have to stand by to stay board approved. The American Bar Association has standing committee on paralegals. They have guidelines and go out and make visits to the schools that are already approved to make sure they maintain the standards, or they make on-site visits to those schools that are trying to gain accreditation.
Another thing about these schools is you need to check their clock hours and determine how long the courses are. The one I went to was two courses at night, and the course content was very shallow.
Are there schools considered top respected or prestigious schools, departments or programs that offer paralegal studies?
Not to my knowledge. It depends on your area. You're going to find more of your ABA compliant or accredited programs in major metropolitan areas. But when I went, I didn't know that. In that time, in 1988 in Memphis, I could have gone to Southwestern Tennessee Technical; it is ABA-approved. But coming from the rural area or Arkansas, I didn't know about it.
Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?
I would say most of the time, not. Generally speaking, most law firms are not very well- educated yet on our status and abilities as paralegals. If you go on a job interview, you're going to prove yourself first and foremost on your first impression that you give, and how much knowledge you appear to have during your conservation with your potential employer.
What can potential paralegal students expect from the curriculum at a certified or compliant school?
Well qualified instructors. I would get course outlines and go through them. You've got to do your research if you have several schools available to you. It's incumbent upon the student to research the course and the instructors.
We have two here in Memphis: The University of Memphis, which goes on to offer a four-year degree in paralegal studies; and Southwest, where it's a two-year applied science program. In my opinion, because of the instructors and the curriculum, the Southwest program is better.
How available are internships, clerkships and other ‘hands-on' opportunities?
The school sets that up. What we do in Memphis, and a lot of the other regional associations do as well, is have school-student liaisons in constant contact with the program coordinators at the school. Usually someone within the association will take on an intern for ‘x' number of weeks. Some get paid, some don't. But either way, they have to do an internship.
What type of ongoing educational opportunities does the paralegal field offer?
One thing students need to be aware of as they go through certification with either NIFBA or NALA certification is that there are ample opportunities for on-line CLE (continuing legal education). You can brush up for the CLA exam, or if you need to get CLA credit or you want to brush up on a particular topic. At NALA Campus, there are live web-based conferences, seminars, in addition to information on our annual conference every July.
The Actual Work
Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you. What exactly do you do as a paralegal specializing in commercial real estate?
What I do in the real estate end is I take the contract, I read it, see what party is responsible for what function at the closing, due diligence items, I review title work; I draft things like mutual easements, whatever the contract says, and I prepare closing documents. I work with people all over the country, because in the high-end commercial real estate, you ‘re dealing with shopping centers so you are dealing with big box stores, Wal-Mart and all of that. So I have the opportunity to work with paralegals from all over the country, which is really good.
When I first got into the legal field, there was no stress compared to now, at that time there was much less stress. Today, it's all rush, rush, FedEx, mainly working in computer on documents.
On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?
You have to be very detail oriented, organized. You have to be able to work under stress. One thing that I find that is important in every walk of life is you have to realize what another person's characteristics and personality are like and learn to work with or around those traits. That's a very good tool.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job?
A top reward is getting a really difficult project completed.
Challenges, well real estate can get complicated, and you run across things like a property has been in the family for generations, for even 100 years; or you run into situations with rural properties rural properties with a rumored, unmarked grave site. Things like that are a challenge and the puzzles of figuring out the chain of owners, who owns what, it's just like a jig saw puzzle.
What tools of the trade do you use the most? Favorite gadget?
There are various web sites that I like to use: county recorders, court web sites, secretary of state web sites, all to check corporate information. That's about it, I don't use any special gadgets; I just use the computer and the Internet.
What specialized computer programs and skills do you use?
We do use a closing software package, to compare our closing statements, and the 1099 forms. Students probably would learn about that on the job.
Job Information & Advice
What types of job tracks are available to graduating paralegal students? What hot paralegal specialties are emerging?
There are so many areas. There is private practice in all types of specialties, there are also in-house counsels at big corporations in your area in the private sector, and there's the public sector, working for the prosecutor or whatever.
What is the current job market like? How do you think it will develop over the next five years?
In Memphis, our local association always has an active job bank, so there are always openings. But the market may be getting glutted with potential employees.
What are the best ways to land a job as a paralegal?
The challenge is as you are coming out of school is to make yourself the best candidate in a law firm or private practice or government that you can. If you do that, you're going to get the better job. I'm afraid some people go into paralegal school thinking they are going to come out and automatically land a great job. You've got to apply yourself; you've got to be assertive.
Study on how to do an interview. This is going to sound so obvious and silly, but make sure your fingernails are clean, have on a nice suit; the outward appearance makes the first impression. And make sure that your English grammar is perfect.
What average salary range can a recently-certified paralegal professional expect at an entry-level position? What are people at the top of the profession paid?
Coming out of school and expecting to get a paid a whopping sum of money is not going to happen. A lot of times, which is very discouraging, a very good legal secretary is going to make more than a paralegal. Everybody has to start somewhere. Salary expectations run the gamut depending upon what part of the country you are in. Depending on where you are, especially in rural areas, you might not make a lot of money. An employment survey that Legal Assistant Today magazine did showed paralegal salaries of up to $100,000, but that is so rare. We did a similar survey here in Memphis, and the lowest was $12,000 a year, a woman who worked for her husband part-time.
Some may wonder if the salary is likely to start low, why do it?
I would say that it's very interesting. You never stop learning in this profession. It's just like the lawyers, especially if you're in litigation. If you're litigating on a certain topic, you have to research the topic. I remember back in the 1970s getting an education on fill dirt. You're always learning.
How has the popularity of the Internet affected the paralegal profession?
As far as contract negotiations, I used to think the fax was going to wear us out. With all of the word processing software, you can make multiple changes in one copy of a contract, and it's shooting back and forth between the counsel, and it just makes it so fast in a way that is going almost too fast. I know I'm aging myself, but the young people coming up today, all they know is the instant. Things move much quickly than they ever did before.
Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the law in order to be successful as a paralegal?
Passionate about the law is a little strong. I think they have to be passionate about their career in general, always learning, always be the best you can be. I sound like the Army slogan, but, it's the truth.