We recently had the chance to talk to John C. Goudie, the president of the Paralegal Association of Wisconsin. In this interview we discussed some of the activities involved in working as a litigation paralegal, the paralegal job market, and advice for getting started in the paralegal field.
Can you describe your career path to your current position?
I started my career in 1987 working for a small personal injury firm. I was hired primarily because I had a medical background and could read and interpret medical records. Prior to the days of HIPAA, you could go to a hospital and review medical charts without an authorization. My attorney would have me review the records of prospective clients to determine whether we were interested in handling the injury claim. While with that firm I began assisting the attorney who did the Workers Compensation cases. When she left, I went through the process of becoming licensed to appear before the Workers Compensation Division and then continued to represent injured workers with that firm for the next 14 years. When I left that firm, I worked for the staff counsel office in liability and injury insurance defense for approximately three years, then went back to a plaintiff’s firm and worked in the area of nursing home negligence and abuse for approximately three years. I then went to work for a health insurer in the area of Privacy and Regulatory Compliance, working as the paralegal for the group that would work with development projects for compliance with privacy and regulatory issues, as well as working on investigations dealing with foreign assets issues. My present position in health care law and corporate compliance is a composite of skills and experience obtained in all of the above.
Can you describe some of the job activities that you spend a lot of your time on at work?
I am responsible for gathering, organizing and reviewing new case documents that are obtained when a new investigation is started by a State or Federal agency. Our area defends health care corporations that may be subject to investigations by the State and Federal government for Medicare and Medicaid compliance. We also represent individuals who hold health care licenses or other licenses issued by the State Regulatory body. My work may involve meetings with the individuals and corporate representatives in fact gathering meetings. I also perform research to determine similar claims to evaluate potential penalties from prosecution. I assist in drafting Discovery and evidentiary pleadings as well as communications to the Courts regarding special permissions.
Can you share any experiences in your career that you have really enjoyed or found most rewarding?
I have always found it rewarding when client’s express their thanks for the outcome of their cases and recognize that we have worked to obtain the best results. Specifically, the case I recall as most rewarding involved a workers compensation matter I handled many years ago. A young woman working in a factory setting became entangled in strapping material that resulted in her being pulled into a rolling press machine. She suffered significant injuries, as one might expect, however medically she had a remarkable recovery. Psychologically, not so well. She suffered such severe PTSD that she could no longer even live in the town where the injury occurred without suffering flashbacks. I was successful in obtaining relocation benefits for her to move, education benefits so that she could obtain schooling for a rewarding career and went on to watch her have children and settle in to her new life. She was very grateful for the assistance.
What are your observations of the job market for paralegals in Wisconsin and are there any specific skills or specialties that are frequently sought after by law firms?
As has been the case for most of the country, the paralegal market in Wisconsin was very tight for the past four years or so. Many firms were laying off attorneys and paralegals in downsizing. There seems to now be a steadier growth again for the profession in the area. Firms have recognized the value of paralegals and the tasks they can perform and are choosing to hire and/or retain paralegals over attorneys. Most firms in Wisconsin are now requiring candidates with a college degree in some discipline, in addition to formal paralegal education. There seems to be less evidence of a willingness to “train the right person” for the position. Additionally, many firms, and corporations, are utilizing the Paralegal Association of Wisconsin to advertise their job openings, which are posted to our Association website and sent out to our members in an e-blast when new positions are announced. The majority of employers, I have found, are looking for individuals who have strong organization skills, good communication skills and a willingness to learn. I often advise people who are entering the profession to focus on skills they have learned in their previous jobs, and look at how those skills can be applied to the expectations of a paralegal’s duties.
How can pursuing paralegal education and/or certifications help paralegals to be successful and do you have any specific recommendations for students in Wisconsin?
As previously noted, most employers are now requiring a college degree and some form of formal paralegal education as a hiring criteria. I believe this is in large part due to the abundance of paralegal graduates in the past few years. I am a firm supporter of formal regulation of the profession. Wisconsin has long been a proponent of mandatory regulation and continues to work with the State Bar and Department of Justice on this issue. The primary purpose of regulation is to assure a minimum standard of paralegal education to enter the profession and just as importantly a requirement of continuing legal education in order to maintain the credential, in order that paralegals stay current in their knowledge of legal issues and trends.
What are the benefits of joining or volunteering for a leadership position with your local paralegal association?
The benefits of being a member of our the PAW are multiple, including education opportunities, peer to peer networking, access to open job positions and access to legal information at the click of a button. As a Board member or committee member, there is great satisfaction in providing leadership to a large, diverse group of individuals who reside throughout the state and representing their interests before national organizations, educators, the Wisconsin State Bar and judiciary.
What are some of the best things new paralegals can do to increase their opportunities for getting hired?
Take stock of their “skills” learned from non-legal employment. Consider the extent of their requirements to be organized, their ability to communicate with people, their willingness to learn new skills. Many of these skills learned in service industry, health care or food service positions are easily transferrable to the work that a paralegal performs, just in a different setting.
What advice can you give to new paralegals who would like to be successful in this field?
My advice is always the same. Never be afraid to ask for assistance if you are unclear about what is required of you. Never stop learning new skills and educating yourself throughout your career, as this can only increase your self-worth. Lastly, do not be afraid to consider new opportunities in other areas of law that may interest you.
We sincerely thank President Goudie for being so generous with his time and sharing valuable advice with our readers. Visit our paralegal career center for additional resources and interviews.
Interview conducted by Charles Sipe on September 6, 2012.