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"Freelance, Independent, Contract" Paralegals - all are essentially the same: individuals who are self-employed and offer their services to attorneys on a short-term or long-term basis.

When the workload temporarily exceeds the capabilities of a firm, freelance paralegals are called in to pick up the slack until the project is completed. Firms covering professionals away on vacation or maternity leave seek independent paralegals to step in and provide coverage.

Often, experienced paralegals contract out their services to a variety of individuals and create a thriving business where they set their own hours and income according to their needs.

We sat down with Denise Martin, an independent paralegal and 1984 graduate of the USD Paralegal Program, to gain her insight.

Denise Martin

USD: When you enrolled in the USD Paralegal Program, paralegals were a "novelty." Why did you decide to take the USD Paralegal Program and what were your expectations of the profession?

DM: I worked part time as a document management clerk in a large law office in Phoenix, Arizona while I was attending college there. I observed the paralegals who were intricately involved in every aspect of these very large civil litigation cases, and it inspired me to want to pursue a career in the legal profession.

I moved to San Diego after I graduated from Arizona State University with a music degree and began working as a legal secretary in a small law office in North County. The attorneys I supported practiced in the areas of probate and estate planning, and while I didn't have any experience in these areas prior to my move to San Diego, I learned quickly about this area of law and enjoyed this work tremendously.

Although law school was an option for me, at this point in my career this seemed a bit overwhelming. I decided to enroll in the University of San Diego paralegal program instead so I could learn more about law while contemplating law school, and have the ability and training to take on additional responsibilities and more challenging assignments within the trust and estates practice.

The education and training I received at the University of San Diego was incredible and provided me with all of the practical and legal basis I needed to take my career where it is today.

USD: Tell us about your employment history after taking the program:

DM: While I was finishing up my studies at University of San Diego, a classmate was retiring from her current job as an estate planning and probate paralegal at a small firm in La Jolla, California. She recommended me to the partner at that firm, and I began working there. A few years later I applied for and was offered a paralegal position at the prestigious firm of Gray Cary Ames & Frye where I continued to be employed until 1995.

In 1996 one of the senior trust & estate partners decided to leave Gray Cary and start his own firm. Several associates were joining him, and he asked me to join also. I accepted his offer and we all made the move to start the new firm of Beamer Lauth & Steinley (now Beamer, Lauth, Steinley & Bond).

USD: When did you decide to work as an independent paralegal and how did you make the transition?

DM: During my employment with this firm my life changed dramatically. I became a single mother and was struggling with the responsibilities of a full-time career and taking care of my children. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my children and be available for all of their activities, but I was not in a financial position to give up my career.

Forced with a difficult dilemma, I decided to venture out on my own and see if I could obtain assignments from other law firms on a contract basis doing the same type of work. This was quite risky but I was hoping to earn a similar income and have more flexibility with my hours and be able to devote some of my daytime hours to my children. I put the word out to numerous attorneys and other professional contacts in December of 1997, and I began receiving assignments independently in January of 1998. Within my first month out on my own I found myself as busy as I wanted to be and earning as much, if not more, income than I had anticipated.

USD: Describe your business and what you do:

DM: I manage trust administration, probate, guardianship, and conservatorship cases for attorneys on a contract basis. This assistance includes estate tax and income tax preparation for these clients. I am also a private professional fiduciary and serve as administrator, trustee, conservator and/or guardian whenever it is appropriate.

USD: What kinds of professional development/continuing education have you pursued since completing the program?

DM: I have attended numerous California State Bar continuing education seminars; I attend numerous San Diego County Bar Association Probate Section luncheon meetings.

In September I will be taking the Internal Revenue Service Enrolled Agents Examination to obtain my credential to practice before the IRS on tax matters.

In October I will begin studying law at an online university with the hopes of obtaining my Juris Doctor degree and taking the California State Bar Examination in February 2010.

USD: What is your advice for people interested in pursuing this career?

DM: Study hard and learn everything you can while attending classes at the university. After you get hired, your employers will give you as much responsibility for your cases as they think you can handle. Take your assignments to the next step and do more than you are asked to do, ask a lot of questions, and make yourself the "expert" on all cases you are assigned to work on.

We thank Denise for her time and contributions to the San Diego legal community over the past 20 years!

Denise Martin was nominated as a Distinguished Graduate. She is a freelance paralegal in San Diego with Trust & Estate Services of San Diego. E-mail her at DLMartin@trustandestates.com, or call (858) 874-2332.

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