Thursday, October 30, 2008

Yoga Ain't For Sissies (or One Paralegal's Search for Inner Peace)

I am on a long overdue vacation, enjoying a school fall break with my youngest daughter. Our plan is to sleep late, read novels and eat bonbons. So I thought I would give my blog an injection of humor today. The paralegal profession is by nature high stress. Learning to laugh at myself helps me offset the perfectionist meets obsessive compulsive disorder aspect of my personality. (One attorney I worked for nicknamed me “PH” for “Perfectionist from Hell”).

I have been exploring ways to relieve stress, hoping to become a better person and a more relaxed paralegal. I like to exhaust my job stress by running or taking Zumba classes. Trust me, my family will tell you that I am much nicer after these activities, full of warm fuzzy endorphins.

Recently, I tried yoga, hoping to find that inner peace that seems to be missing in a fast-paced litigation practice. I will admit that I am 45 years old and have never taken a yoga class. I never even watched yoga on TV.

All I knew about yoga was that TMZ made fun of Vince Vaughn when Jennifer Aniston dragged him to yoga classes. I decided to go to BEGINNING YOGA because it was the only class offered at the Y after work that I thought would fit my BEGINNING BODY schedule.

Listen, people, yoga may look peaceful, but honestly, it requires a lot of silent screaming to get to inner peace. I did not know the names of any of the positions and was therefore quite flummoxed when asked to assume something called the "Peaceful Puppy" or maybe it was the "Bad Dog." I did love the "Happy Baby" and anything that allowed me to writhe around on the floor in pain.

I even came up with a few position names of my own, including:

Quivering Jello
Crooked Yard Art Flamingo
Uncooked Pretzel
Body Part Screaming That Was Always Silent Before
My Body Don't Play Dat
Flattened Roadkill
Why Am I the Only One Giggling?
Clipped Turkey Wing
Praying for Mercy
Oops T-Shirt Too Low-cut for Yoga
Just Kill Me Now

At the end of the class, I lay flat on my mat, in touch with parts of my body I had never experienced before, including some wickedly painful teeny little muscles right behind my ankle bones. But I felt oddly serene and weirdly happy, flashing back to memories of those refreshing mat naps in kindergarten.

So I am going back, determined to straighten up my flamingo and dress more appropriately. If Vince can do it, so can I.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"The Bigger Picture" (Legal Team Column Re-Printed with Permission of Legal Assistant Today, September/October 2008)

The Bigger Picture
Tenacity helps this team improve the lives of injured workers.

Paralegal: Lynne J. DeVenny
Attorney: J. Griffin Morgan
Firm: Elliot Pishko Morgan; Winston-Salem, N.C.
Practice Areas: Workers’ compensation, employment, civil rights, personal injury.
Years as a team: 14
Number of attorneys in firm: 4
Number of paralegals in firm: 2
Web site:

How did you and your attorney come to work together?

DeVenny: I had known Griff and other members of the firm since the late ’80s, through the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers and the local community college paralegal program. They were terrific speakers and great mentors — always willing to answer my questions when I first was learning workers’ compensation law. In 1994, when I found out Griff was looking for a paralegal, I jumped at the chance to apply for a job at a firm where I already had so many role models and that also handles employment and civil rights cases. I was so excited about the interview, I forgot to bring my résumé, but Griff hired me without seeing it!

What are the strengths your paralegal brings to the team?

Morgan: The strengths of our team are Lynne’s professionalism and independence. She takes ownership of a case as soon as the client retains our firm. She immediately obtains, reviews and summarizes five to 10 years of medical records so that we understand our client’s medical condition prior to and after the workplace injury or disease. She reads case law and attends continuing legal education seminars so that she understands the various legal theories that can benefit our clients. She frequently develops close working
relationships with clients and is able to place the clients’ legal claims within the context of their emotional needs and family considerations. Lynne is an excellent and quick writer. She is meticulous about details and follow-up. As a result, very few of the many balls we are trying to keep in the air are dropped.

Lynne’s considerable skills allow me to focus on work I enjoy the most — developing the legal theories of our cases, drafting pleadings, writing briefs, mediation, trial preparation, trial work and appellate work. Her efficiency and attention to detail allow the firm to represent more clients competently and zealously than we otherwise could.

What have been some of the most challenging cases your team has worked on and why were they challenging?

DeVenny: Several of our workers’ compensation cases come to mind because of the challenge of obtaining some unusual workers’ compensation benefits for catastrophically injured workers. In one case, the North Carolina Industrial Commission set aside a prior pro se compromise settlement agreement for our client who, due to her inability to read, had accepted a lump sum settlement that didn’t compensate her for lifetime disability benefits. She also had lost her Social Security disability income for years due to failure to
include offset language in the original agreement. Approved settlement agreements rarely are set aside in our state, so this extraordinary result took extensive factual investigation to obtain, plus we had the additional challenge of working with an illiterate client and the Social Security Administration.

In another case involving a client who became a quadriplegic due to a fall at work, we persuaded the defendants to purchase an electric “standing” wheelchair for her, in addition to her basic wheelchairs, and to pay for an elevator and other disability modifications in her new home. In a case involving a young forearm amputee in her twenties, after several years of litigation, the defendants were ordered to pay for a myoelectric prosthesis requested by the treating physician. The defendants originally had refused to pay for it, arguing that the body-powered prosthesis they had provided was adequate.

These types of cases take a tremendous amount of factual, medical and legal research from a variety of sources, as well as persuasive and well-supported written arguments to the defendants and the Commission to convince them to provide nontraditional, and usually much more expensive, durable medical equipment. But the
rewards are priceless when you see your paralyzed client standing for the first time in years, or watch a vivacious young woman using her much more realistic looking and powerful prosthetic arm to reach over her head or pick up a single sheet of paper.

What were your paralegal’s contributions to the previously mentioned cases?

Morgan: Lynne is an advocate for our clients with the opposing parties, the medical providers and within our own firm. In the first case mentioned, Lynne not only worked zealously to set aside the settlement agreement, but she successfully encouraged our client to enroll in literacy classes, open her own bank accounts and obtain the assistance of a psychologist for issues outside the scope of our legal representation. Her advocacy for our client within and outside the parameters of our legal representation resulted in a dramatic improvement to our client’s life.

Similarly, she became a close confidant and advocate for our paralyzed client. She not only helped the client obtain the best adaptive equipment available to enable her to live as independently as possible, but she worked with the client to assist her in understanding the need to bring a third-party claim against her husband and mother-in-law because they owned the building where she was injured. It was a difficult decision to bring a claim against her husband, who was her primary care provider and upon whom she had become very dependent. However, with Lynne’s assistance that decision ultimately benefited the client and her family.

In the third case,Lynne was instrumental in researching and learning about the best possible medical devices for our seriously injured client. She then assisted in developing the factual and legal arguments necessary to win the claim. At the same time, she encouraged our client to remain strong and not give up through the lengthy litigation process.

What have you learned from this experience?

DeVenny: Never give up, keep advocating for your clients and don’t accept “no” for an answer. Do the research and obtain the documentation to prove the medical necessity for the treatment or equipment that your clients need, even if it’s atypical. Then keep presenting the employers and insurance companies with well-stated written facts and the evidence to convince them to do the right thing — to give injured workers the best quality of life possible, even after catastrophic injuries.

Working in Griff’s practice also greatly has increased my knowledge of employment law and workers’ rights. I have had the opportunity to work on a number of different employment and labor law cases, including sexual harassment, wage and hour, and Americans with Disabilities Act claims. Griff and his partners’ willingness to advocate for the “little guy” has made me much more aware of the importance of developing existing case law to offer workers greater protection. Sometimes it isn’t about a monetary recovery. The opportunity to help someone who otherwise might have a hard time finding legal representation, and to make and apply good case law also is important and really satisfying. Griff also is an extremely effective legal writer and editor, and has encouraged me to develop my own legal writing skills by allowing me to help draft briefs and manuscripts. His skillful editing is one of our strengths as a writing team and has improved my writing skills.

What advice would you give paralegals to help them gain more responsibility and work more effectively with attorneys?

Morgan: My recommendation is to view the job as a profession with the opportunity and honor to make a real difference in clients’ lives. Possibly the most important quality a paralegal can have to gain more responsibility is for the paralegal to take ownership of the case and the client, and not simply depend on the attorney to provide instructions each step of the way. A paralegal that can help identify the routine information, correspondence, discovery and issues in most cases, and develop a consistent system for obtaining the information, drafting the correspondence and discovery, following up on the responses and identifying the issues will be invaluable to a firm.

What advice do you have for other paralegal-attorney teams?

DeVenny: Communicate — schedule regular team meetings to create and update plans of actions in your cases. Be creative problem solvers. Treat clients like you would want to be treated if you were seriously hurt and needed help during a devastating and confusing period in your life.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Paralegal Practice Tips: Medical Records

Well-qualified paralegals who are responsible for obtaining and reviewing medical records in workers’ compensation practices should:

Know the relevant state statutes, case law and/or state agency rules regarding obtaining and disclosure of medical records, as well as contact with medical providers.

Know how frequently contacted medical providers accept medical record requests.

Keep medical record release forms or authorizations for frequently contacted medical providers in a form file (paper or digital image).

Obtain an itemized billing statement from each medical provider to compare with the medical records and verify that no records are missing.

Have a working knowledge of basic medical abbreviations used by many medical providers.

Prepare a medical record summary for each client.

Know where to look up CPT and ICD-9 diagnosis and billing codes.

Contact medical providers regarding the injured worker’s unpaid medical expenses.

Prepare a medical expense summary when medical expenses have been paid by group health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, or the injured worker.

Know if state statutes and/or state agency rules prohibit medical providers from dunning or pursuing collection actions against patients who have workers’ compensation claims pending.

Know if the state agency requires that an itemized statement of medical expenses be attached to any clincher or settlement agreement submitted for approval.

Excerpt from Workers’ Compensation Practice for Paralegals (Carolina Academic Press 2008)
Addendum: Most of these practice tips apply to handling medical records in other types of civil injury cases as well. An itemized statement of medical expenses should be included in settlement packages for personal injury, wrongful death and medical malpractice claims, and may be attached to plaintiff’s responses to defendants’ discovery requests for the amount of medical damages and/or “specials”. A good habit to develop when managing injury cases is to prepare an initial itemization of medical expenses when the firm accepts the case for representation and then continue to update it until the patient reaches maximum medical improvement (“MMI”) or is discharged from ongoing care.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Say What? (Or Proofread All Business Correspondence Very Carefully)

I recently started collecting written professional “bloopers”, partly because it is crucial for legal professionals have excellent writing skills. Much like that intense wild-haired guy on the beach with his metal detector (sorry, Dad), who carefully sweeps the sand for buried Rolex watches but ends up unearthing mostly pop can tabs, I feel a bit of a (dorky) thrill when I stumble across the occasional unintended and sometimes alarming business communication.

For example, one of our workers’ compensation clients with an accepted claim was very upset about a letter he received from a medical provider’s patient billing office. The letter bluntly stated, “The administrator refuses to pay this account because it says the client is terminated.”

Our client’s first impression was that he had been fired from his job of many years with no notice from his employer. Then he wondered if someone was implying that he was dead. Either way, the letter understandably scared him.

In reality, the employer had terminated its relationship with the third party administrator. An added bonus for my blooper collection was that the letter author (first name changed for many reasons) had signed the letter: “Mary Collections.” Trust me, I called about the account, and that was not her last name.

Another recent piece of correspondence requested that the recipient “please bare with us” while the request was processed. On its face, that seemed to be a polite, if overly intimate request.

I also get a lot of correspondence which confirms that my requests have been “dually noted.” Does that mean that they have been noted twice?

And I bet I cannot find anyone in the legal profession who has not received written notice alleging that a “statue has expired.” Not to “beat a dead horse” but it was never alive. (I know. I can hear your collective groaning!)

If you have a favorite written professional “blooper” that you would like to share (without identifying or embarrassing the sender of course), please E-mail it to me. I will happily (and gleefully) update this post and give you credit for sharing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life is An English Class

The first time I found myself in front of a class of 32 new students to teach their very first paralegal class, aptly titled “Introduction to Paralegalism”, I was quite frankly almost paralyzed by both the size of the class and the breadth of the subject matter. In one semester, I was supposed to teach everything from basic paralegal ethics to how to find that first paralegal job.

Plus, it was a night class, and most of us had already worked all day. My greatest challenge was going to be keeping all of us interested and awake for almost two hours. I was also more than a little taken aback by the thirty-odd mini-recorders sitting on the students’ desks to record my every word and blooper.

I thought I should start the class by learning the expectations my students had from the paralegal profession, so I asked them to complete an anonymous questionnaire with five simple questions, including question number one: “What is the average salary that an entry-level paralegal can expect to earn?” Keep in mind this was in the early 90s.

I knew I was facing a challenge when I received one questionnaire stating that an entry-level paralegal could expect to earn $65,000.00 per year. Another question asked whether paralegals need good keyboarding skills, to which I received many “no” answers. A few even helpfully added that paralegals have secretaries to type for them.

As an instructor, I have strong maternal instincts. I want to see my students succeed, and like any good parent, I am eager to take every precaution to guide them toward happy, productive lives. I state all of my expectations during the very first class and hand out a detailed written syllabus, which includes all of the assignments and due dates for the semester.

When I taught the intro classes, I included several written assignments, including a report based on an interview with a working paralegal. Towards the end of the class, I assigned an essay stating why the student wants to be a paralegal, what area of the law the student finds the most appealing, and how the student plans to achieve his or her career goals.

On my very first day as a teacher of anything ever, I was not prepared for one student to immediately stand up (as if to give an opening courtroom statement) and inquire, “Do we have to use complete sentences for these assignments?”

I thought this would be fairly simple to address. “Why, yes, you are required to use complete sentences in your written assignments.”

This student, who was starting to show some potential as a litigator, was ready for this answer and shot back, “This is not an English class. I don’t see why we have to use complete sentences.”

She did not know it, but she had just hit upon my personal professional pet peeve: the failure to use complete sentences. I am not even trying to be funny here. She had no idea how many resumes and cover letters containing terrible grammar that I had already seen from applicants for paralegal jobs. (If she had skimmed the syllabus, she would have noted one assignment was to prepare a cover letter and resume for an entry-level paralegal position).

“Life is an English Class,” I firmly announced, “and please sit down.”

Then I gave a short lecture which I repeated verbatim to almost every paralegal class I taught, no matter what the legal specialty area. “You cannot expect to go to work for attorneys who are highly educated and intelligent, and not have to write in complete sentences. As part of your essential job duties, you will more than likely be expected to draft letters and court documents for their signatures. They will expect those documents to contain complete sentences. They will also expect those documents to contain well-supported logical thoughts in actual paragraph form with excellent punctuation. Otherwise, they will look like idiots and they will not be able to sign them. You will not look smart, either.”

I went on to explain that this is true of all effective written communication in real life. Then I delivered the clincher: “All of your written assignments have to be typed,” – which led to a separate lecture about how attorneys expect their paralegals to have keyboarding skills. (The very first intro class is always terribly enlightening and exhausting for everyone).

This story has a great ending. The student who asked the initial question submitted terrific written assignments using complete sentences. And at the end of the last class, she told me what a great instructor I was, how much she had enjoyed learning about the paralegal profession and how I had helped her clarify her career goals.

She had decided to change majors to accounting.

Why Another Paralegal Weblog?...i.e., “Whyblog”?

There are some great paralegal blogs already out there, including ParalegalGateway and A Paralegal’s Blog. I visit them several times a week to feel connected to other paralegals and the paralegal profession. So why do I think the world needs one more paralegal blog? Do I not have a day job, plus a couple of other jobs to go with that one? (And do I not have a family who would like some quality time and a meal that did not come out of a box or a bag? At least my dogs are “over the moon” about food from boxes and bags. Keep an eye out for a future entry about why every paralegal should be owned by a dog.)

There are several reasons I decided to start a paralegal blog. I am a frustrated editor and sofa-based columnist. I am also a paralegal educator even when I am not standing in front of a classroom. Also, I started it for the same reason that I visit other paralegal blogs. I want to feel more connected to other paralegals and the paralegal profession. I want to share some hard-learned lessons, or even better, learn some easy lessons from someone else’s hard-earned experience. I want to comment on some good paralegal stories. I want to tell some good paralegal stories. I want some other paralegals to tell me some good stories.

Here is the disclaimer part, in not-so-fine print: If you send me something, it is mine to use as I see fit, properly credited, of course. Now, re-write that plain English sentence into Legalese, such as “If the party of the first part [hereinafter referred to as “YOU”] submits a written or electronic document or submission to the party of the second part [hereinafter referred to as “ME”], then YOU waive, release, relinquish and forever forfeit the right to object, withdraw, sue, litigate or take any adverse action against ME regarding any use of that written or electronic document or submission whatsoever, whenever, however and forever, unless the parties otherwise agree.” I have a whole Kathy Griffin inspired law-based comedy routine worked up, which I may practice in some future entries. Please feel free to sustain an objection! But one old adage which gets me through some difficult days is, “It is better to laugh than cry.” On bad days, my own mantra might be “You will not make me cry!”

So, I am hoping to share some good paralegal stories, some good paralegal lessons and some good paralegal practice tips. If we are lucky enough to share a few laughs, too, then that is definitely my idea of a good day.