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Paralegals in position to improve reputation of legal profession

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Paralegals are critical to improving the reputation of lawyers in the community. The legal profession still suffers from negative stereotypes and some do indeed think we're better off "at the bottom of the sea," as the lawyer joke goes. Paralegals can pull lawyers out of this muddy, messy, pool of disrepute by displaying the following qualities.

Honesty and integrity. Lawyers are often criticized for playing fast and loose with the facts, misrepresenting what really happened and omitting from a brief the case that is on point but doesn't exactly help the argument.

But who is conducting the witness interviews, reviewing the endless boxes of documents, preparing the deposition summaries and focusing on the key details? Paralegals, of course. It is paralegals whose honesty and diligence in this process combats the stereotype of lawyers who distort, rather than support, the truth.

Professionalism. There are some who think of lawyers as being manipulative or unnecessarily aggressive. But paralegals -- who work in the law firms, company legal departments and government offices -- can make a difference in changing this negative perception through their contacts with opposing counsel, court staff and members of the public.

Professionalism, like good manners, can be contagious, and before you know it, you've got it. Paralegals who treat their colleagues and counterparts with respect also earn respect and act as role models for others.

Giving back through pro bono work and volunteering. Paralegals can pave the way for improving the reputation of lawyers by giving of themselves. Pro bono matters in which paralegals assist clients who could not otherwise afford counsel are an excellent opportunity to display this community spirit. Paralegals staff domestic violence clinics, assist in dependency cases, help HIV/AIDs patients and support litigation to vindicate the rights of poor tenants against slumlords. When the San Diego legal community comes together during Law Week, paralegals handle the in-take for clients who come to the Free Law at Kobey's event.

Paralegals also volunteer in numerous organizations that serve the at-risk population, such as the Women's Resource Fair, which assists homeless women, and the Children at Risk Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association, which provides enrichment programs for children.

Enthusiasm. Work isn't always fun. But, the more excitement shown for the endeavor, the more rewarding it becomes. Paralegals take pride in their jobs. They rise to seemingly daunting tasks with energy and determination. By doing so, they model the zeal that lawyers are expected to display in fulfilling their roles as "zealous advocates" on behalf of clients.

Enthusiasm is difficult to teach but easy to recognize and nourish. Paralegals who have it make the people they work with stay focused and optimistic. What better way to combat cynicism for our legal system?

Balfour practices white-collar defense and business litigation at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP. She is co-chair of the Women's Resource Fair and former co-chair of the San Diego County Bar Association's Children at Risk Committee. The criteria for the Distinguished Paralegals Awards are based on a speech Balfour made at the annual San Diego Paralegals' Association Luncheon in June 2006.

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