Jamie Collins generously agreed to participate in a paralegal career interview with us to share her experiences working as a paralegal at a personal injury law firm and her advice for being successful in this field. Jamie Collins is a litigation paralegal in Indiana with 14 years of experience and writes a column for the paralegal magazine KNOW. She is also the founder of The Paralegal Society, a mentorship and community site for paralegals.
Can you tell us why you chose to become a paralegal?
It was luck or fate, I’m not sure which. I interviewed at a small law firm on my birthday 14 years ago and landed my first legal job working as a part-time receptionist. They eventually offered to pay for a portion of my paralegal degree, so I took classes at a local college and worked three days per week. I continued to hone my paralegal skills and eventually, I was hired on full-time. I worked at that firm for 6 years and learned so much from the attorneys for whom I worked. It was an ideal fit for me.
I really enjoyed working in the paralegal realm and offering my expertise and skills to help people in their time of need. I really love what I do! I’m now fourteen years into my career and I still find it to be a challenging and extremely rewarding on a daily basis. Although luck or fate brought me into the legal profession, it is my passion for the paralegal field that keeps me here. I absolutely love it.
What was your experience like when attending college as a paralegal student?
I put the cart before the horse in the work/educational realm. I worked in a law firm for nearly two years prior to attending college to obtain my paralegal degree, so for me, it was a unique experience. I already knew much of what was being taught. It definitely made me a lot more confident as a paralegal student to already have a legal job and daily access to the “smart” attorneys I worked around if I had a question or needed to learn something new. I was more interested in learning all of the nuances of law because I knew the paralegal field was where I wanted to be. I enjoyed learning additional areas of law during my paralegal studies, but ultimately, realized I was already working in the area of law best suited for me: personal injury and wrongful death law.
Are there any specific requirements to become a paralegal in Indiana or specific things that law firms in Indiana look for in a strong candidate for a paralegal position?
Unfortunately, at this juncture, the State of Indiana (and nearly the entire United States) does not have any specific requirements for paralegals. This makes it difficult for employers to assess candidates who market themselves as “paralegals” because there is no assurance of their actual on-the-job experience, educational background and former training in the paralegal field. This also presents many issues for other paralegals that wish to be acknowledged as working professionals who possess specialized knowledge and a specific skill set. I believe in time, things will begin to change and licensure and/or certification will become more prevalent.
I feel that most firms look for paralegal candidates that are high-energy individuals who work well independently, are detail-oriented, possess critical thinking skills, are excellent writers, personable communicators, have a professional demeanor, and are intimately familiar with legal terminology, processes and systems, as well as the trial rules. These traits are absolutely essential for a paralegal candidate to succeed in my opinion.
What tasks or projects do you enjoy working on the most at your law firm?
I enjoy the thrill of a good trial. While it can be exhausting to prepare for a jury trial, it is also very fulfilling and exhilarating. When you prepare for a trial, the case has a way of consuming you. You find yourself going without lunch, without dinner, without sleep because you become so immersed in the work or deep in thought about the case– and not because you “have to,” but because your thoughts are simply overriding your innate desires to eat and sleep as you normally would. It’s very difficult to watch television or read a book when your mind is moving a million miles an hour as you think about a case or strategy. It is very inspiring to know that you are playing a vital role to help prepare a client’s case for trial, their one day in court and one ultimate outcome. It feels great to know that you and your team gave the client everything you had to help them reach a final outcome. I thrive in the litigation and trial realm. It is my favorite part of working as a litigation paralegal.
Can you tell us about an interesting case that you worked on and what your role was?
I would say one of my most interesting cases was one that my firm took to trial. The case stemmed from personal injuries a lady had sustained in a motor vehicle collision with a semi. I was extremely involved in all aspects of trial preparation for her case. I knew the details of the case inside and out. In fact, I spent nearly six hours of my life driving this particular client around town to obtain new glasses and clothing that was suitable for trial. I really got to know her well during that time. She seemed to trust me more than the attorneys because of the time we had spent together.
At trial, during our opening statement, she walked out of the courtroom and didn’t return. About thirty minutes later, I went to search for her in the restroom and hallways, but to no avail. Eventually, during the break for lunch, I found her sitting outside on a bench. She appeared to be in a daze (completely checked out from reality). She kept stating that she wanted to leave and couldn’t go back in. Obviously, not having a client sitting in the courtroom was going to present a major problem. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to talk her back up, so I had to go notify our lead attorney of the issue. We both walked back down to talk with her, but she remained in a dazed and confused state. Eventually, it was determined that she was unfit to return to trial, so she left. The lead attorney on this particular case is a trial legend and in his more than 40 years of practicing law, he had never had a client walk out during their own trial. This was a first. We had no idea if she would return for trial the next day, but we certainly hoped she would. We proceeded forward with trial that day without our client present in the court room.
The next day, she showed up for the second day of trial. She looked great, was wearing the outfit we had purchased, and seemed to be in good spirits. It turns out she had spent the prior evening in the hospital where she received IV medications. She really nailed her testimony and things were back on track. We had a chance.
At several points during trial, our leading attorney called me up to sit at counsel’s table with him, so I could take copious notes. I would then go home in the evenings to type them up and send them to him, so he could prepare for the next day of trial. It was very fun to be so heavily involved with every aspect of the trial. Obviously, sitting next to a trial legend and assisting him is pretty cool too.
It was in that courtroom that I heard my first million dollar verdict read. The client immediately burst into tears of happiness and hugged me and the attorneys, thanking us profusely. It was a phenomenal feeling. We knew that we had forever changed her life, and in turn, the lives of her two young daughters (one of whom had special needs). It is a case I’ll never forget because of the complications we faced and the million dollar verdict we obtained in spite them.
What advice would you give to new paralegals who want to reach a high level of success in the paralegal field?
To jump right in! Don’t be timid. Don’t be shy. Work to learn as much as you can as fast as you can and surround yourself with smart and successful people. When you are new to the legal field, it can be very intimidating (especially the attorneys), but do your best to overcome any insecurities or personal apprehension. Just immerse yourself in the profession and see where your passions lead you!
It is imperative to remember that the legal world is a buffet, not a one course meal. If you try a particular area of law and feel it’s you’re not well-suited for it, try something else. If you work for a big firm and don’t like it, try a small one. If you don’t like doing defense work, try Plaintiff’s work. The legal realm should truly be looked at as a buffet. It is all there for the taking; you simply have to decide what appeals to you and go in that direction.
I would also encourage new paralegals to reach out and network with other paralegals and attorneys. Create a professional profile on LinkedIn. Be professional with all of your comments and make some friends. You won’t know anyone initially (no one does) but join a few paralegal groups, follow some paralegal blogs, join your local association and/or the National Federal of Paralegal Associations, and mingle with those around you, so you can begin to establish a paralegal network. The legal world can be very competitive, and often, unnecessarily so. You must work to build a network in order to achieve the highest level of success during your career.
So, don’t be intimidated and don’t be shy — just jump right in! You can start your paralegal network today, by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be your first LinkedIn connection too! Begin to build your paralegal network today.
What is The Paralegal Society and how can paralegals benefit from visiting the website?
The Paralegal Society™ is a social forum that I created to educate, motivate and inspire paralegals to pursue excellence for all paralegalkind. I assembled a phenomenal team of Mentors (and paralegal powerhouses) from all across the country, including: Karen George, FRP (Florida), Jennifer MacDonnell (California), Mariana Fradman, MBA (New York), Kathryn Gordon (Illinois), Ann Pettigrew (Texas), and our TPS Ambassador, Kelly Holdcraft, the Director of the Paralegal Program at Georgetown University.
Our mission at The Paralegal Society is to orchestrate a much needed change in the social aspects of education, mentorship and camaraderie for paralegals throughout the country. Heck, we like to think of it as a full blown movement. For us, it is a worthy endeavor and one we hope will perpetuate positive change for the paralegal profession. We are ready to give back. We have a strong desire to assist our fellow paralegals in the quest for excellence.
On The Paralegal Society website, you can find interesting articles, glean helpful information and career tips, ask questions and seek advice from our team of experienced paralegal mentors who will provide assistance, guidance and support.
We also have a “social club” which is hosted on LinkedIn under the same name. It is a very active and fun group of legal minds, consisting of experienced paralegals and those with paralegal aspirations, including students. We share interesting articles and discuss a variety of legal topics each day. Both of these resources (the blog and our social club) are invaluable resources for paralegals. If you work in a small firm where there aren’t many paralegals, you live in a rural area or you just want to expand your paralegal network, The Paralegal Society can be your lifeline! I really hope you’ll check out our site and join our efforts to make a positive change in the paralegal profession. We hope to see you “around!”
We thank Jamie Collins for being so generous with her time and sharing her experience and things paralegals can do to excel in their careers. To learn more, visit our paralegal career interviews and our information on a paralegal degree, which provide additional information about how to get started in the paralegal field.
Last updated on December 3, 2011.