Q&A with Robert E. Mongue, JD, Author of the Empowered Paralegal Series
CriminalJusticePrograms.com recently spoke with Robert E. Mongue, an assistant professor in the legal studies department at the University of Mississippi. Robert E. Mongue specializes in paralegal research and runs TheEmpoweredParalegal.com, a blog for and about the paralegal profession. His books include "The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient and Professional" (which spawned the blog) and "The Empowered Paralegal: Working with the Elder Client."
Below he shares his thoughts on what it takes to be a great paralegal and the future of the field.
Q: Can you describe your current position?
I'm an assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Mississippi. My primary focus here is teaching in the bachelor's paralegal studies program. Most people outside of Mississippi know me through my Empowered Paralegal blog and the books I've written which go with that.
Q: How did you become interested in the paralegal field?
I looked at paralegals as being a solution to a problem. The American legal system still has a tremendous access to justice problem. There are plenty of lawyers, maybe even too many lawyers, for the people who can afford to pay for them. But, there are an awful lot of people who do not get the same legal services because they can't afford them. That problem can be solved by using paralegals, provided paralegals come to be regarded at the same level of professionalism as nurse practitioners or physician's assistants.
Q: What does being a paralegal entail?
Every office seems to have its own idea of what a paralegal is and even what sort of training you need to be a paralegal. The way I've used paralegals, and the way they are best used, is as a right-hand [person] for the attorney. They have a role that is supportive to the attorney but do many of the same things that the attorney does. Because they have less education, they can do some of these tasks at a lower cost. Paralegals do some of the same legal reasoning and research that lawyers do. In addition to that, they provide something that most attorneys don't provide-the ability to have direct communication in language familiar to clients. They can fulfill a specific legal role on a team and turn that team from good to excellent.
Q: Are the terms "paralegal" and "legal assistant" interchangeable?
For the most part, it's a graduated [distinction]. You might go into an office as a legal secretary. As you get more responsibility, you become a legal assistant. And, as you get [even] more responsibility, you become a paralegal. In other areas of the country, the terms are used interchangeably. That seems to be changing because "paralegal" has taken on a connotation as more professional and somehow more "up-the-ladder" than "legal assistant."
Q: What kind of training is needed?
Paralegals can come from a variety of backgrounds, but they also need to have some additional training in order to be really effective. Certainly, when I first started practicing, there were very few paralegal schools around. You took someone from another background, brought him into your office and did all the training there. That simply isn't acceptable in the legal profession anymore. [Law offices] really need to have people come in with at least some background so that they can be taught the particularities of the office.
The problem is that there is no uniformity yet in the career in the United States. Most states have no rules or regulations [for the field], so just about anybody can call themselves a "paralegal." The question is: "Can you do what paralegals actually get paid to do?" For the most part, you need unique, specific training-at the very least, an associate degree in paralegal studies. It would be better to have a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. In many cases, lawyers will accept somebody who has a bachelor's degree in another field and then a paralegal certificate.
Q: Are there specific personality traits that would be good for this career?
Paralegals have to be go-getters, people who are willing to take on additional tasks, people who are capable of dealing with stress, but mainly, people who like people. The paralegal is going to be the person on the legal team who interacts with the clients. They need to be able to be empathetic with the client. At the same time, they need to be objective, and they also need to like and be willing to think critically and analytically. A good part of their job is going to be to think.
Q: What challenges do paralegals face?
When they start, they're [often] not prepared to manage their time. They're unaware of just how heavy the work load is, and it appears to be even heavier because they just don't understand how to manage it.
The second thing [a paralegal might run into] is dealing with the way the profession is changing right now. Paralegals are professionals, but they're not always perceived that way by the public or by attorneys. They go into offices expecting more responsibility and more respect than they are going to get [at first]. They have to adjust to that and help their offices adjust, so that they are getting the respect and responsibility they deserve.
Q: What do you see for the future of the career?
First of all, it is a career that, overall, is going to develop more upward mobility. It is gaining in respect and becoming more and more of a profession. For those who get in on the bottom floor now, their prospects 10 years from now are looking very, very good. But more importantly, the profession itself is growing. Everyone-the attorneys, businesses, the court system, and society as a whole-is realizing that paralegals are our answer to access to justice issues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics continues to project that [the paralegal field] is going to be one of the fastest growing fields over the next decade. Even now when the economy is bad, certainly it is more difficult for everybody to get a job, including paralegals, but it's easier for a paralegal to get a job than it is for a lawyer to get a job.
Right now there are no states that require a license to do paralegal work. There are some states that require that you have a certificate or be registered to be called a specific kind of paralegal. I do believe that, as we go along, states are going to begin to license paralegals to do specific work so that they can have their own businesses and their own offices. It's still a ways down the road, but I see that happening.
Q: You've written a blog and book series on being an "empowered paralegal." What does that mean?
Empowerment is the same regardless of your profession. It is people's ability to take control of their careers rather than letting their careers control them. For a paralegal, it means knowing more than just about the law. It means knowing how to manage your time, workplace, workload, docket, calendar, clients and even your relationship with an attorney and to do it all in a professional way.
Q: Can you describe the Empowered Paralegal book series?
The first one deals with how to manage your time, workload, and more importantly, your client and that person you work for-your attorney.
The second one takes and applies that specifically to working with elder clients. Elder clients are different from [some of the other clients], and they pose a whole different set of problems for the paralegal. They need to be accommodated in a different way. Their files need to be documented in a different way. More importantly, we have to be careful that we don't view them stereotypically.
My third is devoted to professionalism, and it's actually written with a number of other authors. The fourth will be devoted to understanding causes of action and how they move litigation.
Q: What other resources are available for aspiring paralegals?
I think probably the biggest one is professional associations where [paralegals] are in contact with other people who are trying to raise the level of professionalism [in the field]. In addition to that, [associations] provide volunteer, networking, educational, and just plain social opportunities.
Q: Any other advice for aspiring paralegals?
If you're aspiring to be a paralegal, you're going to run into road blocks, as you will in any other profession. It does take time. It does require an education. You do want to get a degree. You're going to start at entry level and have to work your way up. In the end, though, it is one of the most rewarding careers you can have, and I urge you if you think it's for you-try it, stick with it, and get the help you need. In the end, you'll find it very rewarding.