“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
The beauty of the law is that it is dynamic – it changes as society changes. The law adapts to technological developments, to shifts in social values, and to the problems of modern society. The key to succeeding in this dynamic legal environment is that we too must learn to adapt-to adjust our sails.
As I look at all of you today, I cannot help but see myself ten years ago, a new graduate of this highly respected program. Back in 1993, I was working part-time in a law office while teaching nursing full time, with a few weekends of hospital work thrown in the mix to keep in touch with the “real world.” The rest of my “free time” was spent with studying and attending classes here. In anticipation of graduation, and a move out of state to Texas…I sent resumes to quite a few law firms looking for the perfect place to begin my new career. I interviewed with several. The first firm I spoke with kept their paralegals in a quansit hut near the back parking lot, isolating them from the main activity of the firm, I did not feel that would be a good place to work, and learn…so I continued interviewing and searching. One firm stood out in my job search. This firm was over 100 years old, and had attorneys with very different backgrounds and experiences. The combined experience of these five attorneys spanned nearly 75 years practicing law. Often the partners and their secretaries would share stores of their challenges, clients and, and even failures. Although I did not realize it at the time, working for this firm would be a life-changing and career developing experience for me.
I worked with five different attorneys, each with his own style and personality. Very early I learned that part of my job was to adapt to their differing approaches and preferences. I was often “adjusting my sails” to accommodate them. I was asked to work in areas of law that were unfamiliar to me. I had to learn to listen, to ask questions, to think creatively, to accept criticism, and to adjust my sails.
Some of the most important lessons I have learned over the years were not ones from a textbook. And today I will share them with you. Among these “real world” lessons were:
Most law offices are not like the ones depicted on shows like The Practice or Ally McBeal, and most attorneys are not going to look or act like Dylan McDermott or Calista Flockhart.
Do not assume, always verify the facts.
Pay attention to detail. No one ever lost a case by knowing the facts too well.
If you don’t know the answer, know the resources you can use to find it. Knowing the resource is half the battle.
Proofread all work. One mistake can compromise your case. Even though I didn’t like it, I learned this lesson-sometimes the hard way-but I learned it.
Respect your attorney and their client by meeting or exceeding deadlines. No one has ever been fired for finishing a project early.
Networking is invaluable. You can never know too many knowledgeable people.
Treat legal secretaries with respect. You will find that they actually know more about some things than you do.
Listen and learn. Everyone has something to offer. You can learn from the most experienced of veterans and the most inexperienced “greenhorns.” Great ideas sometimes come from the most unexpected sources.
Document, document, document…each task completed, each client communication, each conference with an attorney and all deadlines.
Do not participate in office gossip, in the end it serves no purpose and is a distraction from your assigned tasks.
Do not lose sight of who you are really working for: the client. You may have twenty files On your desk, but to each client, their file is the only one that is important to them.
Join and participate in local, state and national professional organizations, and take advantage of continuing education programs offered to their members. Through these activities you can exchange ideas, learn new resources, and develop a valuable network of peers.
I believe all of these “real world” lessons are important, but the most important lesson I have learned is that success can only be achieved on your terms. Everyone has his or her own idea of what a successful career is. Ultimately, true success is how each of us chooses to define it. When I started this program, my friends and family asked me why? I had an education, and a career, was I crazy? When I left a 10-year career in nursing education to work for attorneys, my nursing colleagues thought I was crazy. When I changed careers again to be an independent medical legal consultant, they again said I was crazy. But I am not crazy. I am happy. I am successful on my own terms. Don’t let someone else decide what your success should be. If your success is not on your own terms-if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart-it is not success at all.
The wind changed many times in my life and each time I adjusted my sails. My career has been an incredible journey. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined in 1993 that I would be standing here ten years later, before a graduation class of my peers, and telling of my experiences and life lessons, much less giving career advice.
Each class, each job, each life experience along the journey was a foundation for the next step. Today you take a step toward your careers as a paralegal. Learn from each case you assist with. Learn from each attorney you work with. Let each of these lessons be a foundation for your next experience. And, most importantly, when the wind changes adjust your sails. An incredible journey awaits you.