Volume 28, Number 2

Six Things I Learned About the Law While Earning My Paralegal Degree

Fred Schepartz

My sixteen-month, four-semester journey is over, and now I hold a degree from the Madison College Post Baccalaureate Paralegal program. It was an exhausting, albeit fascinating and rewarding journey to earn a second college degree at the age of 55. I learned a lot about myself, mainly that with tenacity and drive, one can accomplish a great deal. I also confirmed something I already knew, that an older student like myself has a very definite advantage, which includes the previous experience of having gone to college, along with a great deal of life experience. And, of course, being motivated enough to not screw around and get the work done helped as well. The secret to success, I found, is not really a secret at all. It is merely a question of doing the work and trying to do the work well. No single task was necessarily all that difficult, but the workload sometimes could feel overwhelming, like the absolute bear of a knot I just untied on my bootlace. The knot itself made me want to grab a scissors and be done with it, but instead I teased it out bit by bit, thus utilizing patience and tenacity to accomplish my task.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I feel I made a sound decision by enrolling in this program. The quality of instruction was generally solid, if not excellent. The classes were small, and the teachers were very good. More importantly, the teachers clearly care a great deal about the students.

I feel that I received legitimate professional training. I learned a lot about a great many subjects of the law. I also benefitted from not one, but two excellent internships, which are a required component of the program. It is worth mentioning that Norma Kropp, who is the director of the paralegal program, takes an active role to ensure that each student has a quality internship experience.

It would be impossible to cover everything I learned in this short space, but here’s some general but important lessons about the law that I learned.

Paralegals Cannot Give Legal Advice*
(*In the State of Wisconsin, paralegals can give legal advice if and only if they are under the supervision of a licensed attorney.)

This was drilled into us from day one and all throughout my time in the program. Frankly, in the very beginning I was taken a little aback. I remember during an early ethics exercise, I felt it was illogical that a paralegal could not give out basic information about, for instance, how to deal with a problem landlord. After all, if I have certain knowledge, perhaps obtained through personal experience, why should I not be able to share that knowledge?

Attorneys, as well as paralegals, are bound by a code of ethics. In Wisconsin, such ethics are outlined by the Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules. The WI SCR clearly states that only licensed attorneys can give legal advice unless the one giving the advice is under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

This ethics rule in fact serves an important purpose. It protects all parties, the client, the paralegal, and the attorney. A paralegal who gives bad legal advice cannot be held accountable. However, the attorney who employs (or employed) the paralegal can be held accountable for the paralegal’s action. A client who used bad advice given by a paralegal may not have any legal recourse if harm results from the bad advice.

After all, if one sees a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner, would one feel okay about that medical professional writing a prescription without a physician’s supervision? Perhaps much of the time the PA or NP would have the knowledge to make a correct diagnosis and thus prescribe the necessary medications, but if the diagnosis is complicated, I would want it made by one with as much training and experience as possible.

It also should be noted that paralegals are not licensed in Wisconsin; paralegals actually aren’t licensed in most states. The simple fact of the matter is that there is a large variance of professionalism within the profession because anyone can be called a paralegal, regardless of the degree of training, knowledge and expertise they possess.

Given my experience in a professional paralegal program, I would favor licensing for paralegals, and I do think such licensing should perhaps grant limited abilities for paralegals to dispense some basic forms of legal advice.

For Me, I Found That Even the Boring Stuff Was Interesting.

Okay, I admit it. I’m weird. Obviously, everyone is different. Everyone has different interests. Not everyone is interested in the same things. Hell, that would be pretty boring.

I have always found the law fascinating. And after digging deep into it, I find the law even more fascinating.

Even the boring stuff.

For instance, what could be drier than legal citations? By that, I mean the format for how state or federal statutes or state or federal court decisions are cited. And it should be noted that the format is exacting, down to whether or not there is a space between elements of a citation.

It’s pretty arcane stuff, but in reality, it’s a code to a treasure trove of knowledge that is locked away and hidden from the general public. In general, and especially in the legal profession, knowledge is power. Legal research is a big part of what I did in my training, and that research is a lot more difficult without knowing legal citation rules.

Another example, I got very excited when I found out there was an international treaty regarding notaries. At my internship, my supervising attorney needed to know how a client could get Wisconsin legal papers notarized in a foreign country. It was pretty thrilling to find the answer.

Legal research can be pretty dry sometimes. Statutes are not always written in the most clear manner. Some judges speak in circles when writing decisions. And most of the time, X does not mark the spot because often there is not any legal decision that answers the specific question at hand. But for me, I enjoyed the challenge posed by a question of legal research. That eureka moment more than makes up for the tedium involved with a knot that doesn’t want to be untied.

Sometimes the law is utterly concrete, like a filling out of a form, a filing of a set of corporate articles. And sometimes, the law is about abstract concepts that are fluid and mercurial. Such concepts can be hard to grasp, but such concepts may be the building blocks of a legal theory that perhaps had not been thought of before or utilized in a particular matter.

Now that’s fun stuff.

Often the Answer to a Legal Question is “Depends”

To be fair, I’m quoting my intellectual properties teacher. That was one of her favorite expressions. But it is quite, quite true about the law.

There are rules, and there are standards. Rules are hard and fast means to make determinations. For instance, murder is against the law, period. Standards are fluid and involve a weighing of facts, issues and circumstance in order to make a decision. Standards usually are determined by legal precedent and tend to evolve or refine themselves over time.

All circumstances are different. Generally, a situation is not going to be entirely black and white. If it’s a matter of liability there may not be 100-percent liability for one party and absolutely no liability for the other party.

We don’t have a one-size-fits-all legal system, and we are for the better for it. Circumstances change over time. Our values change, and hopefully our legal system reflects our values. A court may rule one way on an issue and then reverse course some years down the road because society has evolved.

Legal questions often are complex and unique. There’s lots of moving parts. It is nearly impossible to predict a certain result in a legal matter. For instance, if an artist designs an album cover for a musician, does the artist hold the copyright or does the musician hold the copyright?

It depends. Generally, independent contractors are more likely to hold a copyright for their work rather than an employee creating a work during the scope of their employment. However, circumstances could dictate a result finding in favor of the artist or in favor of the musician. In such a case, the only way for the parties to be certain of the outcome would be to draw up a contract.

My teacher’s use of those two words would sometimes elicit groans. It is human nature to crave certainty. I for one am grateful that our legal system features the flexibility.

Our legal system has often been an agent of change, thus allowing our society to evolve. Without flexibility, change is not possible.

Thus, I am far okay with “it depends.”

Administrative Rules Really Matter

To the average person, administrative rules are pretty arcane stuff, but they are really, really important. In a nutshell, administrative rules are rules created by governmental agencies both on the state and federal level. The authority to write these rules is granted by statute. It should be noted that these agencies are also created by acts of legislature. Administrative rules essentially hold the force of law.

In some respects, administrative rules occupy a parallel legal space as statutes and even the court system. Administrative rules are compiled in the same manner as statutes. There are even administrative judges that hear disputes involving administrative rules. Such decisions may be appealed to a state or federal court.

Again, this rule-making authority comes with the consent of the legislature, and allows agencies to utilize specialized expertise to create rules that allow government to protect and serve the citizenry.

Courts have been willing to give sometimes a great deal of deference to an agency because of this perception of expertise, especially if the intent of the statute in question is not entirely clear.

So what does this actually mean? For instance, within the Wisconsin Administrative Rules, there’s an entire chapter devoted to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), which includes very specific guidelines regarding the spreading of manure.

This is very important. CAFOs have been in the news a great deal lately over allegations of contamination of ground water and nearby rivers and streams. Manure poses serious health risks when it gets into the water supply, so it is extremely important that regulations exist to try to reduce potential health hazards.

Yes, regulations. Administrative rules are those pesky, job-killing regulations you hear politicians bloviating about. Trump wants to eliminate one existing regulation for every new regulation that gets created. In Wisconsin, there is a bill being considered that would replace periodic legislative review of administrative rules with a sunset clause for each rule where the agency would have to take affirmative steps to renew each rule.

Frankly, this would mean chaos. If you’re one of those libertarians that firmly believes government can’t do anything right, so be it. But if you believe government can and does play a significant role in serving and protecting the public then you must understand that administrative rules are necessary for government to function properly.

I Don’t Care. I Hate the Oxford Comma

My apologies to Jody Cooper who was my teacher for several of my paralegal classes and who will forever be sitting on my shoulder making sure I dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.

I hate the Oxford Comma.

The law profession is very exacting about many points of style in legal writing. One rule is that the Oxford Comma is mandatory. I use the Oxford Comma in legal writing, but I draw the line there.

I understand the utility of the Oxford Comma, but I find it aesthetically displeasing. To my eye, it’s fussy and redundant. Unless it is needed for clarity, an Oxford Comma will never* appear in my own writing or within the pages of Mobius.

*NB: The poetry editor, who is also the proofreader and webmaster, has a passing fondness for the Oxford comma—when correctly used—and has doubtless made unwitting insertions of it here and there within the pages of Mobius. Regrettably, it’s not the sort of thing one can do a search for.

Sorry, Jody. You taught me a great many things. An appreciation for the Oxford Comma was not one of them.

The Law is Just, but Often Justice is Not Served.

I hope to not fetishize the law, but I feel that the legal system is really a marvel. It is the product of thousands of years of legal tradition, based on British Common law, which was based on Roman law, which was at least partially based on Jewish law.

The law allows us to function as a society, be it through conflict resolution, redress for wrongs committed by one party against another, protection of our natural resources and even as means to pass property to descendants after we die.

I grew to admire the logic and common sense found in much of the rules and statutes I came across. After all, lawmakers are in the business of doing exactly that. In the best of circumstances, statutes are written, debated and passed after a thorough process involving a great deal of thought and consideration.

I like to think the same is true about our court system. When there is a need, there are three levels where hopefully a wise and just final decision may be rendered that considers all relevant facts and circumstances, follows established precedent without being arbitrary or capricious.

Of course, that’s not to say that bad laws don’t get passed because they do. That’s not to say that bad court decisions are rendered, because they certainly are.

More importantly, the law always has to be viewed within the prism of existing within the capitalist system. Justice is supposed to be blind, but all too often money will tip the scales in favor of one side at the expense of the other side.

Citizens United has allowed big money to warp our political system. Lawmakers collect checks from the lobbyists who actually write the legislation in a system of legalized bribery. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sets agendas in statehouses all over the country. And the Supreme Court remains tilted to the right because Republican senators refused to fulfill their constitutional duties of bringing Obama’s nominee to a vote.

But the potential is there. As I said earlier, the law can be an agent of change. Of course, that is why the rich and powerful seek to buy and warp the law whenever they can get away with it.

At the very least, I believe the law can serve as a crucial tool to fight for the rights we hold so dear. I’ve waxed optimistically many a time in this space, and I’ll do so again. I have often said that I sought this degree in order to get a bigger and better stick with which to fight the man. I would not have gone in this direction if I did not believe that the law could be just.

And after learning much more about the law, I maybe believe that truth even more strongly.