How To Survive (and Thrive) at Paralegal School

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Some things, you have to learn the hard way. Or learn from others’ hard-earned experience.

As new students settle in to their accelerated education, or get set for next fall’s intake, here is some friendly, blunt advice on making the most of your time in school. No matter where you choose to study, these pointers won’t hurt, and just may help.

Decide: Do you want a diploma, or an education?
    If you just want a diploma, stop reading now. But if you chose paralegal training because you want to work in the legal field, carry on.

    In every paralegal class, there are a few students with unclear or unstated goals. For the rest of you, once you have decided to get a paralegal education — do it. No matter the quality of your instructors, or the challenges life brings, find a way to use this time to get the training you need and deserve.

    Create your own education. Go to court as often as you can. Which court is not as important as simply being there, observing and absorbing. If you are interested in small claims work, visit Superior Court, Civil. Then go to small claims. If you want tribunal work, go to a hearing. Any hearing. See top-notch advocacy. Write down cases to read later. Make notes. Ask lawyers and judges for correct citations, why are they using certain cases. Write the cases down, look them up and mention them next time. Repeat. Often.

Use your instructors
    You’re paying for their time and expertise, so make the most of it. Ask questions and use both classroom time and office hours to make sure you have a clear understanding of legal concepts, principles and procedures. Let them get to know you. Ask for advice – not just about how to get good marks, but how to be a competent paralegal, how to find work, or how to start your own practice.
Find like-minded students and help each other
    Beware of “time vampires” and leaches. Choose wisely for group projects. Some will seek-out the more dedicated students and latch onto them, rather than put in the hard work it takes to succeed academically. Classmates have been known to exploit the fact that someone with straight-As is unlikely to let their grades plummet because of one group member’s indifference.

    Spend time with those who share your work ethic and goals, to avoid being brought down, or used.

Focus more on learning, and less on grades
    Getting high marks is a fleeting pleasure at best. After you graduate, no one will ever ask you what mark you got on an assignment, no matter how much effort you put in.

    Here’s an important thing: the pressure to maintain perfect marks can keep you from more-important stuff. Things like understanding concepts, enjoying time with friends, family, work, court visits. Employers, placement hosts and clients care more about whether you are capable and well-rounded, than whether you got a B+ on one assignment.

Rise above the pressure to be mediocre
    Effective advocates are not afraid to stand up and stand out. Yet, too many young people feel pressure to “blend in,” rather than shine. It is not uncommon for the best and brightest to become the targets of resentful classmates. Women in particular are pressured into not “standing out from the crowd.”

    Resist the pressure to give less than your best. Stand out. Speak up. Lead. Be your own advocate and behave the way you would want your legal representative to behave in court or in front of a tribunal.

If You are Strapped for Time:
    • The perfect is the enemy of the good. Now and then, it is more important to meet a deadline and move on, than to try to have a perfect paper that is handed in late.
    • Choose your time battles wisely. Do the most-difficult tasks first, or those that do not come easily, to make the most of the time you have available. Those easier tasks will be your reward, after you cross the less-pleasant items off your to-do list.
    • Just keep moving. Do something. Every day. Do any small thing that moves you closer to your goal. It is better to break tasks down into small increments, than tell yourself that you don’t have time to complete that entire assignment, or summarize an entire chapter.
    • Use the 20-minute rule. When you have trouble with equipment, or cannot understand some instructions, or a piece of information eludes you — give it 20 minutes to resolve, and then stop. Just stop. Let it go. Move on. You will be amazed how often a solution presents itself once your mind is occupied with something else. And if not, well, you have managed to get some other task done, rather than spinning your wheels for pointless hours.
If You are Strapped for Cash:
    • Wait before you buy. Hold off buying books until after the first two or three classes of a course. Gauge whether the text is worth a long-term investment, or if it would be better to use the library copy, or ask a classmate if you can borrow their copy to write your own synopsis, based on the syllabus.
    • Cut back on discretionary spending. Bringing your own coffee, lunch and snacks really adds up; you can almost certainly save $20-$30 a week. Get DVDs from the library, rather than go to the theatre. Have friends over for a dinner-and-games night, rather than go to a club. Get a student transit pass, instead of paying for gas and parking. It all adds up.
Plug-in to the legal community
    Start or join a club at your school, or form a study group. Volunteer at a legal clinic. Take part in events — at your college, your local law association, MPP’s and councillor’s activities. Ask to shadow a paralegal. Read SCOPE, to learn about the Law Society and its resources, and find events to attend.

    A word of caution: Take a good look at your current media profile, before signing up for online paralegal groups. Make sure your photos, comments, posts and information present the image of someone who is about to enter the legal profession. No naughty pics, no illegal activity, no bad language.

    If you create, or join, a social media group — beware. It is too easy to get sucked-in to senseless online battles and arguments. Some professionals and students, and mischief-makers from outside the profession, troll paralegal groups, making comments in hopes of drawing in fresh blood. Look for groups that enforce rules about civility, leave those that are time-wasters, and remember potential clients and employers will be able to see every comment you make.

Keep your eyes on the prize
    Remember why you wanted to go to paralegal school in the first place. Don’t let minor setbacks, an occasional poor mark, the competitive environment and other distractions keep you from fulfilling your goals. It is your education, your time, your investment.

    If you never did know why you wanted a paralegal education, you have options: pretend that you do have a goal and act as if you are working toward that; talk to counsellors, your instructors and co-ordinators, to nail-down your career goals and weigh your options. Or leave, so that others are not brought down by your disinterest.

2 comments

  1. Very good advice.

  2. Jashen S · · Reply

    Great tips! I want to underscore a theme here: if you put in more effort, you will get more out of it. For example, it’s great if you decide to organize a study group. It’s even better if you think carefully through the legal concepts and come up with some fact situations to work through. Ask your professors for discussion questions. You’ll not only have a good study group, but you’ll be able to refine your understanding and improve your ability to express your analysis.

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