Interview with Barbara Liss, President of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association

We recently interviewed Barbara Liss, the president of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association. She shared some great insights into the variety of tasks that a paralegal career may involve, what it is like to work on a trial, and advice for new paralegals looking for their first position.

How did you get started in the paralegal field?

Santa Barbara paralegal presidentWhen I first moved to California in 1972, I managed the apartment building in which I lived. The owner liked me and hired me to work in his office; after reorganizing it in short order, he ran out of work to give me, so introduced me to a friend, who was an attorney, just starting up a general solo practice after having made a mid-life career change. We learned procedural work together. When he left solo practice to accept a position with a large, downtown Los Angeles firm, I accompanied him — it was the mid-1970's and my title was then “legal secretary,” although much of what I did was paralegal work. Eventually, I took my first position as a paralegal, where the title was “pseudo-paralegal” because the firm was afraid to use the actual title.

After bouncing between legal secretary and legal assistant/paralegal jobs, I took the UCSB extension legal assistant program classes at night and acquired my certificate. When I started working in complex business trial litigation, I took the title “trial paralegal.” By the mid-1980's word processing and secretarial work were more specifically the realm of legal secretaries and word processors while working with evidence, discovery and witnesses in preparation for and attending trial were more clearly defined as paralegal work assignments, the field in which I worked. After 35 years of prepping for and attending complex civil litigation trials in state and federal courts, I changed the direction of my career and transitioned into Wills, Trusts, Probate and Estate Administration work, where I currently practice and have done so for the past five years.

What do you like the most about working as a paralegal?

I have always been slightly obsessive/compulsive and paying attention to the nuance and detail of procedural work is satisfying for me. I often compare the job of a paralegal to that of a stage manager of a play — we are the folks who make sure that everything goes forward without a hitch, knowing where the props are supposed to be and when, giving cues and lowering the curtain at the appropriate time. Always dressed in black, working behind the scenes, hardly ever noticed, we ensure the smooth running of the machinery of the production; filled with the myriad details in a way that few are ever truely aware. We affect the outcome in an extremely significant way. We work in stealth, in often unrecognized contributions that may appear small when taken individually, but which have enormous ripple effect in the aggregate. I gain intrinsic satisfaction from the knowledge that my work produces this benefit.

Can you describe some of the main activities that you spend a lot of time on at work?

I currently work for a solo practitioner whose main focus is Wills, Trusts, Estate Administration, Conservatorships and Real Property. Because of this, my work is quite varied. In addition to paralegal work, I am the office administrator. I have a great deal of direct client contact and will be involved in reassuring clients who are stressed and in need of explanations about what to expect during the time we are working on a matter for them. I review, edit and finalize estate plan documents and prepare them for signing appointments. I am also a notary public and act in that capacity often. I prepare probate pleadings for court filing and communicate with court personnel directly quite often. I solve problems and more often, give attention to details to prevent them from occuring in the first place.

When dealing with trust and estate disputes for clients, I am often asked to draft pleadings, conduct legal research and prepare memoranda on various factual and legal subjects. I prepare much of the correspondence that goes out of our office as well.

I supervise our assistant who handles our files, telephone, reception and court run duties.

I communicate with and problem solve for our vendors, our bookkeeping staff and the tenants who rent space in our offices.

I also handle some internal administrative duties, including inputting of monthly costs and charges, keeping the computer system up to date and creating pre-bills and client billing statements. When clients have questions with regard to their bills, I answer them.

Previously, as a complex business litigation paralegal, my duties were similarly weighty. I was often the person who met with potential new clients to interview and gather facts, analyze them and then prepare memoranda to suggest whether sufficient liability and damages existed to justify taking on a case. Working for a boutique office that specialized in complex business litigation, established case parameters made determining the type of cases accepted by the office understood and easy to recommend or suggest to be declined.

Assigned as a member of a litigation team to each case, I was on most from inception, although I was sometimes brought onto special cases within the 100 days prior to trial, to ready them. If involved in early stages of litigation, I would participate in fact investigation, evidence gathering, drafting of pleadings, interviewing witnesses, preparing discovery, discovery responses, motion practice, meet and confer correspondence, disclosures required by federal practice rules, calendar supervision and deadline tracking, and supporting pre-trial motion practice, such as summary judgment motions and their oppositions. I was given legal research assignments and participated in drafting various pleadings.

I often attended depositions, summarized transcripts and served as a case manager charged with establishing document management systems for cases involving enormous volumes of documents. In the early days of doing this work, this was done with manual systems, but later as computerized systems and software were developed, we shifted to using those instead and I was trained in many of them.

I coordinated trial preparations, witness subpoena service and tracking, trial book preparations, preparing trial evidence for introduction at trial and readying the files for transport to the courtroom. I coordinated with courtroom personnel, IT support and vendors for the preparation and presentation of demonstrative evidence. I sat at counsel table with the attorneys and participated in voir dire of potential jurors. I hung out in courthouse restrooms to overhear juror conversations. I dragged boxes of exhibits and binders back and forth between courthouses and cars and cars and rented spaces during trials. I stayed up nights and marked deposition transcripts, called witnesses by phone; photocopied at Kinko's at 3 in the morning. I sewed lawyers' pants when they split and arranged for food deliveries. I memorized facts and rules of evidence and deposition testimony, calling details to the attention of my attorneys and pointing to page and line references constantly.

I worked 14 to 18 hour days, six days a week for months on end at incredibly long trials for years. After the trials were over, I worked with the attorneys to interview jurors, courtroom personnel and witnesses to learn what could be learned about how to do it better, differently. I rested briefly, then started all over again.

Can you share an interesting case that you worked on and what your role was?

The very first jury trial I worked on was Lumbermans v. Union Bank, a case that altered bank lending practices in California. Prior to that case, lender liability virtually didn't exist and bank clientele were in an unbalanced negotiating position when seeking loans and signing documentation with banking institutions. As a result of that case, the burden shifted and financial institutions became far more accountable for disclosure of terms and resulting liability when entering into lending transactions with their banking clients.

It was the first time I was permitted to enter the well of the court and sit at counsel table — there was quite a little discussion with the judge about it during the preliminary “housekeeping” motions and discussions, but the judge determined that I'd be useful from a practical standpoint, so I was granted permission to be allowed to “pass the bar.”

I tracked potential jurors during voir dire by using post-its on a legal pad where a hand drawn chart of the jury was sketched out, pulling off post-its as peremptory challenges were exercised and scrawling new notes as replacements were seated. I watched faces, body language and reactions of the persons of whom questions were asked and those around them; I noticed what the courtroom personnel did and how they responded; I watched opposing counsel and their assistants. I took copious notes and reported everything I saw during breaks.

In 1980, documentary evidence was organized and introduced manually, in paper form. No computerized organizational systems were used. We didn't project images, we presented duplicate copies of each document to each juror, to whom we gave individual binders in which to keep them.

The chain of evidence was carefully maintained so that each document could be authenticated by source, creator and unaltered condition when presented to the court at time of trial. Duplicates were hand Bates numbered and organized chronologically, topically and by witness in binders and in loose manila files for presentation at trial. I worked with the court clerk staff and opposing counsel in marking, introducing, and tracking all evidence.

I also kept track of witness subpoena status, ran to telephone booths in the hallways (no cell phones yet) and kept witnesses apprised of scheduling changes; I communicated with the firm's office to gain assistance of associates for research assignments and staff for fact research help. I ran to the law library and made copies of cases and statutes (no laptop or internet access was then available).

I coordinated with copy services and expert witnesses, with vendors who provided enlargements of photographs and other demonstrative evidence and made sure that everything was where it needed to be when it needed to be.

In the end, I was the stage manager — the role I played for every trial in which I participated from that time forward.

What qualities or skills do you think are important for being successful as a paralegal?

  • Organization, organization, organization!
  • Learn to not take it personally — recognize that whatever it is, it's usually NOT about you (even if it seems like it is).
  • Roll with it — flexibility is a skill; learn to stretch as well as bend.
  • Take care of yourself and be self-aware; get as much sleep as you can – being sharp takes brain cells!
  • Learn to separate your office relationships from your personal life; trench mentality can muddle your thinking. Returning to the real world after a trial can be a shocker.
  • Get it in writing! Do not proceed unless any and all instructions are in writing, via letter, email or post it. If you're given verbal instructions, confirm them in writing. This will prove invaluable should any incongruity about what the assignment was arise.
  • Proofreading – Don't rely on spell check to do the work–it doesn't catch everything! Print it out and read it out loud. If it's legalese or a legal description, have a second set of eye on it besides your own.
  • Know your client – You can't protect/defend what you don't know/understand.
  • Check/double check your deadlines. The last thing you need or want is a missed deadline. When in doubt, be conservative.
  • Always have a backup plan (especially for really important projects). No one wants to hear excuses, they only want to hear your solution to the problem.
  • Find a mentor from within your own ranks – we are invaluable to one another (and then once you've got your feet under you, be one to someone else! Pay it forward.)

What is the outlook for paralegal jobs in the Santa Barbara area?

Santa Barbara has a small legal community and sometimes finding employment here can be difficult because living here is so desireable and in demand. There has been expansion and contraction in step with more macro economic circumstances and at present, I think it is harder to find work here than it might be in a larger environment, such as Los Angeles or San Francisco. As well, there can be a provincial attitude among some of the more staid practices, which are reticent to offer substantive assignments to paralegals. However, my experience is that there are always those who are able to establish confidence in their skills, knowledge and talents have proven themselves able to forge a road through some of those attitudes and earn respect which translates into job satisfaction and career opportunities.

What tips would you give to new paralegals for getting hired at a job they want?

Do some inward reflection with honesty and objectivity. Usually, we are our own worst enemy and set our own limitations before anyone else does.

Quietude and patience are difficult but worth it. Sometimes what you want is worth waiting for. But it often doesn't come to you — you have to go after it.

Attention to detail, nuance and minutia can make all the difference in the world. I don't think being anal/retentive is a bad thing!

We thank President Liss for being so generous with her time and sharing her story with us. To learn more about a career in the paralegal field see our paralegal career center.