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Interview with Kerry Spence, a Pioneer and Leader in the Paralegal Field

We recently had the great fortune to interview leading paralegal and legal document assistant (LDA), Kerry Spence, who has a private practice in Marin County. Kerry has been a paralegal for more than 36 years, and is the daughter of renowned trial attorney, Gerry Spence.

Kerry provides legal documents to the consumer through People’s Legal Docs, and to attorneys through the Paralegal Offices of Kerry Spence. She also mentors paralegals and LDAs about how to successfully operate a freelance and/or LDA business through Spence Consulting (in California, by statute, a paralegal works directly under attorney supervision and an LDA works directly for the public consumer). On her blog, Paralegal World – Kerry Spence’s Notes from the Trenches, she shares her paralegal business philosophy and stories from her practice.

kerry-spenceFirst of all, thank you for taking time to talk with us, Kerry. Could you please tell us about your background?

I was raised in the law. As a very small child my father, attorney Gerry Spence, took me to court. I remember sitting on the big polished wood benches and watching my father in court. I was about eight years old.

There is a social justice advocacy need that runs in my family’s blood, a need to help the people. My social justice advocacy contribution is to help facilitate a more compassionate and efficient legal system through promotion of paralegals working directly with consumers to access the legal system. Today’s need for access to the legal system in a cost-effective way is at an all-time high. In California, recent testimony to the California State Bar indicates that, in Family Law alone, 80% of the parties are self-represented at the time of the filing of the first paper and up to 90% by the time of completion of a divorce. Those numbers indicate that the need is no longer that of the low income legal consumer but has risen to the middle class.

Much of the cost of doing legal work is the preparation of the legal documents, something paralegals are trained to do for attorneys. A trained paralegal can transfer that same knowledge to working with the consumer preparing legal documents. If the need for legal advice arises, the consumer can hire an attorney as a consultant on an hourly basis and the paralegal can prepare the attorney ahead of time, under the paralegal’s lower rate.

I attended the University of Wyoming, the same school my father attended where he graduated with a law degree and was valedictorian of his law school. I received my American Bar Association (ABA) paralegal certificate in 1977 from the University of San Diego’s graduate program. It was one of five schools in the country offering this new career training. That makes me one of the first paralegals on the planet (laughing).

I have been a paralegal for over 36 years. That’s over half my life.

I started working as a paralegal at my father’s firm in Wyoming, Spence, Moriarity and Schuster. In the beginning, no one really knew how to utilize a paralegal and so I was put to work on investigating potential cases.

I worked with other notable trial attorneys, specializing in medical malpractice for the plaintiff. I soon went into private practice as a freelance paralegal where I worked in complex litigation and trial assistance for 20 years.

During my years as a freelance paralegal, I saw the need for simple legal documents for the public consumer that could not afford an attorney. As a result, I added a legal document preparation section to my business.

You are the daughter of well-known trial attorney, Gerry Spence. What lessons from your father have most helped you in your career?

My father is literally a world-class lawyer. He has never lost a jury case in 60 years of practice and he has won more multi-million dollar verdicts than any attorney in the history of the United States. He is the author of 17 books, including OJ, The Last Word, the true story of what he saw when he was the NBC consultant for the OJ trial. He made significant new case law in the Karen Silkwood case. This case law that is now taught in law schools. He has defended the “poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned” from corporate and government oppression. He founded and teaches at a trial lawyer college for plaintiff attorneys and public defenders (no insurance defense or prosecutors allowed).

You can just imagine what it was like to grow up in that household!

The most important thing my father told me was to trust in myself and find my own path. He also taught me to:

  • Stand up for truth
  • Fight for the underdog
  • Do whatever is necessary to get the job done right
  • Get up early
  • Believe in myself
  • Smile

With my father’s resources and reputation, I realized I could go to any law school I wanted, but I didn’t want to spend my life competing with my father. I needed to find my own path.

There was a new development in our legal system – an emerging second tier that was developing out of a need of the people who could not afford attorneys. I was raised to believe in legal justice for all and I saw that that was not the reality. I saw that my paralegal training could be used to help people access the legal system in a cost-effective and super simple way by utilizing the paralegal to prepare documents and the attorney consultant to provide legal advice and strategy. I also thought it would be cool to be at the beginning of a profession that was just starting.

In 1977, the paralegal profession was just starting with only five schools in the country. Ten years later it was the fastest growing profession in the United States. The next 25 years has seen the emergence of a new tier in the legal system – a natural development of a young legal system.  There are traditional examples of older legal systems that have evolved into two tiers – Great Britain with the barrister and solicitor, Central America with the abogado and notorio, and South America with the abogado and escribano.

You have established a successful practice, delivered keynote speeches, and are widely known as being a leader in the field. What advice would you give to paralegals that will soon be starting their careers?

I remember beginning as a paralegal. The beginning was so hard. I went to an employment agency and told them I was a paralegal. The woman said, “What is that?”

I would say to paralegals that are just beginning their careers:

You will be afraid of everything.  You will be afraid that you will say something stupid. You will be afraid that what you read in that researched case does not really say what you think it says, or has the implication you think it has. You will be afraid of attorneys and their power. You will not have a clue on how to handle a project. You will sometimes feel inadequate, like having to answer that question again, “why didn’t you go all the way and become an attorney?”

The way to address that fear is to:

  1. Remember who you are
  2. Reduce it to simple.
  3. Trust your intuition and training.

1) Remember who you are: Remember that you are a paralegal, a completely different creature than an attorney. A paralegal is trained in adjective law (procedural law and a little substantive law) while an attorney is taught in substantive law (applying the law to a specific set of facts and coming up with a conclusion). The paralegal is a procedural creature and the attorney is an advice creature.

Paralegals were trained to help attorneys help their clients and thereby reduce the legal fees.  Your contribution is to provide procedural context so the attorney can do what she/he is trained to do (legal advice and strategy) and at the same time reduce the legal fees to the legal consumer.  What a significant platform to operate from!

2) Reduce it to simple:  Reduce your projects to their most simple parts and build a detailed task list to accomplish your goals. When writing documents, you should use the simplest language possible. Always reduce “legalese” to “simplese.”

3) Trust your intuition and training.  Your “gut feelings” can be trusted. They are telling you something – something missing, something overlooked, or another angle to pursue. Follow the threads of thoughts and organization and then listen for the click. There is a “done” click that you can feel intuitively if you listen closely that will tell you your project is complete. Do not doubt yourself. Trust yourself.

What do you most enjoy about working as a paralegal?

What I enjoy most about working as a paralegal is forming compassionate connections with my clients. I recognize that they are in a stressful situation; they are confused about their legal options and are concerned about the expense. I manage the legal process to maximize the power of their legal dollars.

Can you give us an example of an interesting case or project that you have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?

Recently, I had a client that was retired and on a limited income and going through a divorce. His wife hired an attorney who began sending ridiculous amounts of discovery either to make money before the signing of the settlement agreement or to frustrate my client into spending money, forcing him to compromise a fair settlement just to make it stop. I played the “pro bono” card and worked for my client for free. That felt very powerful to me and my client because it defused the money game and restored my client’s dignity. I heard my Daddy’s voice whispering “Do whatever is necessary to get the job done right.”

My client was grieving the loss of his marriage and in his grief had lost faith in the world. To engage with life he had to move forward with dignity and it was my privilege to help him achieve his goal. This was my act of compassion.

The next time I saw my client his demeanor had completely changed – he had lost weight, was taking care of himself, dressing nicely and was fully engaged in his life. I achieved my ultimate goal to restore my client to wholeness.

We thank Kerry for sharing her sage and sincere wisdom. To learn more about her, visit her website People’s Legal Docs or her blog, Paralegal World – Kerry Spence’s Notes from the Trenches. You can also connect with Kerry via Twitter @kerryspence5616.