We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Mariana Fradman who is the President of the New York City Paralegal Association Inc. and an accomplished real estate paralegal who also holds a master's in business administration. We discussed what it was like to become a paralegal after immigrating from Ukraine, what her job is like, and her advice for paralegals.
Can you tell us what inspired you to go into the legal field and how you got your first job as a paralegal?
I would disappoint many people, but I wasn’t inspired by anything or anyone to go into the legal field. The legal field “found” me. After I finished English Second Language (ESL) course at New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), I was at a crosswalk: majority of immigrants from the former U.S.S.R. entered the computer science field or medical field. None of those appealed to me. I don’t like to deal with blood, bones and muscles and anatomy was never my favorite subject (although I was an A student :-)). I also was skeptical of how many programmers the country needed (had a good vision – remember dot.com?). So, I went to Long Island University (LIU) for another semester of English. In one of the classes I met a former psychiatrist from Kiev who gave me an advise: “Buy any newspaper, open “help wanted” section, close your eyes and put your finger on the page. Open your eyes and see what you picked. Go and learn the skill for one year. In a year, you will know if the choice was right or not, but for a year, you will be busy doing something and it would give you a piece of mind.” I didn’t follow his advise step by step, but went to a college’s admission office, walked to a display with brochures of different majors that were offered at that time and, with my eyes closed, picked one. It had information about the Paralegal Studies Program. I didn’t join it at LIU due to the cost, but, with a recommendation of another student, went a few blocks down and applied for the same program at NYC Technical College, CUNY College that charged much less. “Lucky” me, I didn’t pass an entrance exam (passed math at the calculus level, but failed reading and writing). It took me additional two semesters of ESL to pass the reading portion, but I was still struggling with the writing course. At that time, I “tricked” my advisor. The Intro to Paralegal Studies required students to be proficient in Reading as a pre-requisite. The catalog didn’t say anything about writing, so, I was able to register for the class. On the first day of class, the professor asked if everyone passed all entrance exams. I kept my head low. Professor Lise Hunter was the best teacher for an intro class I could dream about. She explained everything down to the core and I had no problems with understanding her or doing my work. After midterm she called me to her office and told me that she knew that I didn’t pass the writing test and that the catalog had a typo. However, she saw my work and dedication and didn’t raise the flag. She kept me in the class that I passed with one of the highest marks. Through the program, I had great instructors. One of them, Professor Charles Coleman, became my mentor. I registered for three of his classes (some students thought that I lost my mind as he wasn’t an easy one to please). I just loved his system that, in reality, was very easy: follow the rules and be detail oriented. He gave me a taste of the profession. I worked as his paralegal on many pro bono cases at the Divorce Clinic. So, at the end of the first year in the program, I knew that I am doing something right. I told myself: the brochure I picked up at LIU said that by the year of 2000, there will be 140% increase in demand for paralegals. I don’t know about 139, but I can fit in the last 1%: I have a second language (that is actually my first), this country is a country of immigrants, so, somebody would need my skills one day. I took a bankruptcy course as extra curriculum as someone would file for bankruptcy. I took immigration and international laws as extra curriculum as well…
I got my first job as a paralegal during my last semester getting my Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies. Professor Hunter was my internship supervisor and she sent me to a small law office in Brooklyn. The internship was for 120 hours that had to be completed in 14 weeks. I made a point to finish it in six (6) weeks, so I was in the office four days a week putting in 20 hours per week. I was hired on my last day of internship as the matrimonial paralegal walked away that day. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
I wanted to be a patent and trademarks paralegal (I had a degree in engineering, didn’t I?), but couldn’t break in – didn’t have connections. My first degree connection solidified when I had almost 10 years of experience in real estate law. By that time, I didn't think about changing the practice area anymore.
As an immigrant who moved to the United States from Ukraine in 1992, what was it like for you to adjust to a new country and attend college to become a paralegal?
To say that it wasn’t easy is to say too little. I had to learn new language, new culture and became a student again. The college structure in the United States is different of what I was accustomed to. For example, I had the same classmates through most of my classes in Ukraine compared to here where in each class I had different people and by the time I knew them, I had my finals and chances that I won’t be with them in my next class were great. My classmates were students who could be my children’s friends, my age or even my parents age. In one of my classes, I had a mother and a daughter studying together. You won’t find that in Ukraine.
Some professors invited students to call them by first name. That never happened in Ukraine or any of other countries in former U.S.S.R.
I never saw a teacher sitting on a table back in Ukraine 🙂 We had a very strict discipline in school: no walking around or eating/drinking in class. Attendance was mandatory.
My biggest shock was at one of my ESL classes where a topic was something about clothing. Don’t remember exactly what happened, but one of students didn’t understand the word “undershirt” and a professor just unbuttoned his shirt and showed it. Can’t imagine what it would be if the word in question would be…”underwear”.
When I started to take paralegal classes, I tried to “fit” them into my background and engineering skills. Wasn’t easy, but, I was able to “break” them into manageable pieces. For example, the court system: what was the same and what was different? Documents drafting: any analogy? The most easiest and rewarding class was real estate and especially the part about the survey review. I felt like a fish in the water.
What do you enjoy about working in real estate law?
Paperwork 🙂 I like to organize my work. To put all parts in order and piece them together. I started as a matrimonial paralegal and, as much as I like to work with people, I was burned out by people we represented. I was getting upset that I had to smile to a client just because he is a client even if he (or she) was an abusive spouse (parent) or a cheater. Shopping malls don’t cheat and a hotel chain won't abuse anyone. The work is straight forward. I can’t say that there are no emotions involved, but they are different. I like to see the fruits of my labor: a clean title, new entities organized and documents recorded in a right order. The real estate doesn’t have a rush of excitement of winning a case in a court, but it has its own beauty of hard work involved with all preparations to closings and successful closings.
Can you describe what a typical work day looks like for you in your current position?
I really can’t 🙂 There are no two days alike. One day would start with drafts of documents for upcoming closings and another with ordering lien searches or forming entities. You can find me drafting UCCs or being on a phone with a title company “cleaning” titles or chasing a surveyor who is “out in a field” second week in a row when I need some minor changes to a survey for a closing tomorrow. Or, I can have a boring day compiling documents and preparing closing binder. On another day, I will sit in a closing room passing down documents for execution or notarizing boxes and boxes of documents and checking that we have all necessary documents executed (with a right color – yes, some counties require blue (or black) ink only or even both).
How many hours do you work in a typical week?
When we are busy (and December is one of those months), the week could be 50 hours and more. When real estate was on the top on the hill, 50-55 hours week was a norm all year around. I had some all-nighters, but I had slow weeks too. It all depends on the economy and how your office operates.
Can you give us an example of an interesting case or project that you have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?
A few years ago, I was assigned to a project where we represented a buyer of more than 150 properties in more than 20 states. In addition to buying, we had a borrowing and a leaseback components on this deal (a leaseback is when a new owner leases the property back to a seller). I assisted a team of three attorneys and a partner. Just to give you a taste of what we went through: the final closing binder was more than 70 3 inch volumes of binders with documents. Surveys that were reviewed could possibly cover all grass in the Central Park in Manhattan. I was keeping track of all searches and title and surveys revisions. The post-closing summary of UCCs had over 700 UCCs in different states and counties. The day we closed, I felt like a winner of a million dollar lottery.
Why did you decide to get your Master's in Business Administration and how has this helped you in your career?
I felt that I needed something more…I didn’t want to go to law school. After a few years of being a paralegal, I knew for sure that I want to be a paralegal, but lacked knowledge in how business run in the United States. In addition, the economy started to slide down and I wanted to have something in my hands in case my job would be in jeopardy.
I went to online school as it was the only one what fit into my schedule. I don’t regret a day of it. Where else would you be able to go to class at 2 am in the morning? I met people from across the country and across the globe. The best teachers were my classmates. They shared their practical knowledge in addition to their cultural differences. My teachers/professors were people who worked during the day. I remember an ad I saw in NYC subway a few years ago (about the different colleges and using different words, but with the same meaning): “Our teacher left his office 10 minutes ago, when did yours?” Those were my teachers.
The paralegal job is not only about the law. It is about the business. Only well educated paralegals are able to manage a day full of different assignments. You don’t need to be a corporate paralegal to know about corporate structure. I learned more about technology and how an office works. I learned about advertisement and marketing. I learned finances and how to deal with different personalities. One of the examples is that during the conference call with a client the only part that I wasn’t familiar with was when he chatted about golf with my partner while awaiting for all parties to join 🙂 . Prior to getting my MBA, I would probably be completely lost at that call.
What advice would you give to students or paralegals who would like to reach your level of success in the area of real estate law?
Never stop learning. I worked as a commercial real estate paralegal at Blank Rome LLP for over eight years. On January 9, 2012, I will start as a commercial real estate paralegal at Chadbourne & Parke LLP. Sounds the same, doesn’t it? However, the group I am joining assists with energy projects and this is something that I never did before. People who don’t know the subject matter will say that “real estate” is always a “real estate”. But it is not true. There is a huge difference between residential and commercial real estate, between representation of a lender and a borrower, a buyer and a seller, selling of a multifamily project and shopping mall, or buying an office building and a hotel chain. Yes, the basic provisions are the same, but there are many nuances that need to be taken into consideration: the title, the survey, the lien searches, zoning regulations, entities status, etc., etc.
The real estate paralegal is the one who, in addition to a real estate law, has to know corporate and lien laws, be well vested in technology, able to find information, detail oriented and organized. He or she can’t afford to miss a deadline for recording documents or forget about lien search. And, the real estate paralegal should be a people person as he or she will be dealing with many different personalities. He or she needs to be a person who attracts others and be willing to share knowledge. The more you give, the more your get.
In addition to the above, I recommend joining a local paralegal association. Membership will expand your network, introduce to new fields and help you to grow professionally and personally. Membership will make your paralegal career interesting as it provides many ways and opportunities to stay involved through CLE classes, pro bono work or leadership positions. I also highly recommend to join The Paralegal Society (TPS): a group of professional paralegals and mentors with a goal to assist students and recent graduates, “a forum created to educate, motivate and inspire paralegals to engage in the pursuit of excellence for all paralegalkind”.
You will become a professional only if you combine your knowledge, professionalism and personal traits together.