Paralegals and paralegal students often have difficulty developing their writing skills to the level expected from legal industry. The legal professionals rely heavily on both verbal and written communication, and writing is an essential necessity for both lawyers and legal secretaries. Because the other employees in a law firm will not tolerate inadequate writing skills,...
Virginia Koerselman Newman Esq. graduated from the Creighton University School of Law and practiced for many years in banking...
The Paralegal Voice covers the latest issues and trends in the world of paralegals and legal assistants. Host Vicki...
Paralegals and paralegal students often have difficulty developing their writing skills to the level expected from legal industry. The legal professionals rely heavily on both verbal and written communication, and writing is an essential necessity for both lawyers and legal secretaries. Because the other employees in a law firm will not tolerate inadequate writing skills, all paralegals need to learn to write in a concise and precise manner with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But how should they get started?
In this episode of The Paralegal Voice, Vicki Voisin interviews Virginia Koerselman Newman, lawyer and paralegal teacher, about why proper legal writing is important for paralegals and how they can get started on improving their skills. Newman suggests that paralegals and legal assistants start by writing down everything they can think of regarding the case then choose only the important facts later to adapt to a legal framework. She suggests taking classes on structure, grammar, and punctuation, buying the book The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and simply practicing. Use a practice textbook, edit mistakes in a magazine, and keep a daily journal. She concedes that learning to write is particularly difficult, especially because technology has made us complacent, but it is better to improve your ability now than struggle through your paralegal career. Newman finishes the podcast by mentioning how to show off writing skills through a resume, cover letter, and a developed portfolio.
Virginia Koerselman Newman, Esq. graduated from the Creighton University School of Law and practiced for many years in banking and commercial litigation in Omaha, Nebraska before she “attempted” to retire in South Carolina. Before Law School, she worked as a paralegal for a number of years and was the first CLA in the state of Nebraska. Koerselman Newman is a frequent speaker at seminars and workshops and has authored, co-authored, and edited several other paralegal texts, study guides, and instructor manuals. She teaches communications, legal research, estates, and legal analysis at NALA school for paralegals.
Special thanks to our sponsors, NALA and Serve Now.
Paralegal Voice: Why Writing Skills are Necessary for Paralegals – 1/19/2015
Advertiser: Welcome to the Paralegal Voice, where you hear the latest issues and trends in the world of paralegals and legal assistance by one of the best known paralegals in the industry, Vicki Voisin. A paralegal for more than twenty years, Vicki is dedicated to helping legal professionals reach their goals. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Vicki Voisin: Hello everyone, welcome to the Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I’m Vicki Voisin, the paralegal mentor and host of the Paralegal Voice. I’m a now advanced, certified paralegal. I publish e-newsletter titled Paralegal Strategies and I’m also the co-author of the professional paralegal, a guide to finding a job and career success. You’ll find more information at ParalegalMentor.com. My guest today is Virginia Koerselman Newman, Esq., someone who’s been been a longtime friend of mine, so she said that I can call her Jenny today.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Thank you Vicki, it’s an honor to be here.
Vicki Voisin: I’m so pleased you could join us. Before we begin our sponsors should be recognized and thanked, and that would be now; on a professional association for paralegals providing continuing education and also professional certification programs for paralegals at Now.org. Now is a force in the promotion and advancement of the paralegal profession, and also I’m really pleased that Now has been a sponsor of the paralegal voice since our very first show, I’m grateful for that. Our other sponsor is ServeNow; a nationwide network of trusted pre-screened process servers. When you are looking for a process server you should work with the most professional process servers who have experience with high-volume servers who embrace technology and also understand the litigation process. Visit ServeNow.com to learn more. The goal of the Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics that are important to the paralegal industry; and also to share with you leading trends, significant developments and resources that you’re going to find very helpful in your career and also your everyday job. Guests are usually included to help explore timely topics and for that reason I’ve invited Jenny Koerselman to join me today but before we get started I have to tell you a bit about her. I have to tell you the list is long. Virginia Koerselman Newman, Esq. practiced for many years in banking and commercial litigation in Omaha, Nebraska; before she “attempted,” as she says, to retire in South Carolina. And I have to tell you, “attempted” is the right word, I think that paralegals just won’t let Jenny retire, we still need her. She’s a graduate of the Creighton University School of Law. Before law school Jenny worked as a paralegal for a number of years and was the first CLA in the state of Nebraska. She was a professor in and the director of the paralegal program at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha from 1987 to 2008. Virginia is the author of the Certified Paralegal Review Manual, First Edition, and created the original CLACP Study Guide. Both of those are published by Cengage Publishing Company. She’s a frequent speaker at seminars and workshops, she’s authored, co-authored, and edited several other paralegal texts, study guides and instructor manuals. Virginia developed the content and is the principal author of the courses at www.NALAcampus.com. She teaches communications, legal research, estates, and legal analysis for NALA Campus Live. As a regular communist for facts and findings, she served on the NALA advanced paralegal certifying board since its inception, and on the NALA certifying board for many years. Virginia was a consultant to the board from 1995-2012, she was a longtime faculty member for the CLACP short course, and most recently, she partnered with NALA to create digital practice exams for CP candidates. She has spent the last 40 – and yes I said 40, she started young, – years working as, with, and for paralegals. She continues to teach and write about paralegal topics at VKN Law Publications and at VirginiaKoerselman.com, and her last name is spelled, K-O-E-R-S-E-L-M-A-N; VirginiaKoerselman.com. Jenny, after I’ve gotten through that, I am still delighted to have you with me today, this is going to be fun.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Thank you, I think so too.
Vicki Voisin: Well that’s a really impressive bio and I’m going to thank you upfront for all you’ve done for paralegals and all you’ve done to promote the paralegal profession and when Charlsye Diaz Smith and I co-authored The Paralegal professional, we value your contributions to this career field so much that we dedicated the book to you and we refer to you as the mentor extraordinaire to paralegals worldwide and I tell you that fits.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well that was so nice and what a surprise. It means all the more to me because you and Charlsye always worked so hard to make sure that excellence was pursued in the development in this career field.
Vicki Voisin: Thank you, Charlsye is amazing also and what’s interesting about Charlsye is that she started out as a paralegal and went on to get her doctorate in technical writing, so using her paralegal skills in a different way; but that brings us to paralegal writing skills. You’ve spent a lot of years teaching and writing for paralegals, so I’m wondering what you found to be the biggest challenge or challenges for students in a paralegal program.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well I certainly don’t have to think about that one, it clearly is writing skills. They have a great deal of trouble rising to the level that’s necessary for this field.
Vicki Voisin: Why is that?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: I don’t have any studies but I think in talking to them and working with them that they just don’t’ get the basics or enough of the basics in elementary school and secondary schools. They either have low expectations set for them, or in some instances, it appears that they haven’t learned very much at all.
Vicki Voisin: Well sometimes schools let students kind of skip on by and I think sometimes students are able to fool the teachers about how much they really do know. But I’m positive that teaching methods have changed since I was in elementary school. We had Phonix, and there was lots of emphasis on spelling and memorization. Of course, the hate that I hate to admit, but I loved diagraming sentences and things like that. But when my daughter reached that level, she was told to just write, and it didn’t matter how it was spelled or how she put together the sentences, it was to just write to get them going; and I don’t know if that’s really a good thing.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well I don’t think it is. Just writing causes the person to meander, not have a plan for what it is that they want to say. And it’s very difficult to get something on paper that can be interpreted the way the writer meant for it to be interpreted. I think about Mark Twain; I think it was he who said that, “If I had more time, I would’ve written a shorter letter,” and that really says it all because of the meandering that occurs. And I’ve done the same thing myself. I just start writing, let the free-flow of information come out of my head, if it will, and then go back later and pull from it, those things that I could use. But that’s not acceptable as a writing style. We still have to put it within the framework that’s required in the law office, and that’s a pretty high bar to meet. It’s kind of like trying to build a house without a good foundation or a solid frame that’s in square, so that whatever we put on the house is going to fall right down if we don’t have the underpinnings that’s necessary.
Vicki Voisin: I agree because I think you were going to tell me also about how much written communications are required in the law office.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Oh yes, absolutely. Honestly, this is a profession that relies so heavily on communication, both verbal and written, so that writing is essential; it’s a basic for both lawyers as well as for paralegals and legal secretaries. We have to be able to write a simple declarative sentence and do it correctly. Otherwise, it will be a problem; and it’s such a problem that the rest of the law firm is not going to tolerate poor writing skills for very long.
Vicki Voisin: One thing I wanted to ask you is that I have run into my paralegal career, attorneys who had poor writing skills. It was okay for them because we were expected to make them look good. Either they were poor spellers – I had one years and years and years ago, who I will not identify, but he almost couldn’t write a complete sentence – and so we always had to polish his work. Some of them don’t appreciate that and don’t believe you when you tell them what they’ve done is not right, some of them love it. But that’s another reason isn’t it? That we need to have those good writing skills, even though we’re not the attorney.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Absolutely. I’ve already believed – because this has been true for myself – that if I’m able to write well so that I can put things together in a proper manner, those thoughts that a lawyer has and puts on paper, then I can clean it up as it were to make it sound more tightly written, a little more concise, try a different word that’s more precise. If I can do that for a lawyer, I’m worth my weight in gold, and that’s a lot of gold, let me tell you.
Vicki Voisin: Right.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: And I think that’s still true for everyone. Paralegals, and all of those who supervise them must benefit from what the paralegal does, otherwise why would she be there? And writing is critical. I have to tell you that the difference in law school between an A student and a C student is their writing ability. It’s not the journalism majors who do well, it’s the English majors and the writers, and that’s true for paralegals as well.
Vicki Voisin: Interesting. I have another question for you and maybe this is kind of off the wall, but how has technology impacted on our writing skills?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well it hasn’t helped them, that’s for sure. There are lots of good things about technology, it’s so nice to be able to send emails, to attach files and send it by email instead of sending everything by FedEx the way we used to, but the problem with it is that we get sloppier and sloppier about the way we write. We’re not concise in the things that we say; in other words, we don’t plan as well, we don’t give it as much thought. And I know that brevity will be more and more of an issue as technology advances. But with that brevity, we still need to make sure that our subjects and verbs agree and that we spell correctly and that we punctuate correctly. We had a case in Omaha where there was a comma misplaced in a sentence and there was a $100,000 lawsuit over it because it changed the meaning entirely. And to all the drafting, somehow it got changed and then missed, so it was a huge problem. So even punctuation can make all the difference in the world.
Vicki Voisin: Well as for sloppier, I think the problem is is that we don’t always proofread as well as we should. Then I was going to tell you that for this changingness, the lack of the comma, or the comma was in the wrong place or whatever, that’s when I always say to please have your work reviewed by the attorney, which they’re supposed to do – I mean, that’s an ethical duty of the attorney – because they tend to trust the experienced paralegal to get everything right and we don’t always. Not everybody gets everything right. So at least two people are looking at it I hope, and it is important and I think that something needs to be done. I’ll tell you what, Jenny, we’re going to take a short break right now for a word from our sponsor, NALA, the association of legal assistance paralegals, and ServeNow, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. And when we come back, we’re going to continue our discussion with Virginia Koerselman Newman, Esq.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. I’m Vicki Voisin and my guest today is Virginia Koerselman Newman, Esq., whom I call Jenny. Jenny and I were discussing the importance of good writing skills for paralegals, both when they’re in school and also when they’re on the job. Jenny, if they have issues with their writing skills, how can they improve or even learn the basic skills in the first place?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well of course it depends on how many issues they’re having, but it’s always a good idea to be assessed, and most colleges will do that assessment for you. But if it’s necessary, take a class, even a developmental class. It’s better to get it right now than to stumble along for half of your career. And if necessary, take another class. You can take them in traditional classrooms, you can take them online; just be sure that the emphasis of the class will be structure of writing, grammar, punctuation, and that sort of thing rather than some creative writing course that’s included in an English program. Because we have to focus on structure and the vocabulary and such will come, but if the structure isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how many fancy words you know. So classes are very helpful. We can get a style book to use and honestly, the very best one for law firms would be Strunk and White – that’s two different names – and the title of the book is Elements of Style. I love this book; in fact, I have used it for so long and so much that the pages of my personal book has fallen out of the binding. And I’m very careful with it because I’ve got notes on it, highlighted, I mean it has seen many days of use.
Vicki Voisin: I want to tell you for just a minute that I used that book when I studied for the CLA exam about 30 years ago. I still have it and I still refer to it, it’s a great book. And I think it’s something that should be in everybody’s reference library. But go ahead, I’m sorry I interrupted you.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: No, that’s fine, I agree. The reason that it’s so good and the people like it, it’s been around since the early 1900’s and the rules themselves and many of the examples have not changed. It was written by a college professor who was tired of students who couldn’t write so he put this little book together and it’s very succinct, it’s very easy to read and easy to apply his rules. And so I just love it, and I still, to this day, go back and double check and Strunk, whatever he says, I’ll go with that. Also, we want to find a way that we could practice, practice, practice. I don’t know if any skill that doesn’t improve with practice. And so we want to do that as well as just reading things. Get a textbook that has exercises and answers in them. We could get those from the public library, you can check them out. Or places like cheap books or other used book sellers, and use those books to help us improve and take from them. My rule is everything is fine as long as it doesn’t disagree with the Elements of Style. I make that the bible in my classroom and I know that the certifying board for the CPA exam does the same thing. Use workbooks, study guides, whatever you can find that will give you exercises and questions to answer; with things like quizzes and so forth. If you want to – this is really helpful, I did this for a while – is to work with a friend if you think that you might need some support to encourage you to follow through to the end of a book and rather than put it up on a shelf and never get back to it. So you can do that. Don’t rely
on grammar check, I have found errors. Microsoft doesn’t care about that, I guess. I wrote to them and they said thank you for your letter, and nothing came from it.
Vicki Voisin: You can’t rely on spellcheck either, can you?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: No, absolutely not, because they’re just spelling a word. You don’t know if it’s correct spelling for this context. So you really have to be someone who can say no, that’s wrong, and go to a dictionary and look it up yourself, or to your style book if we’re talking about grammar and punctuation. One thing that I do is to read magazines and newspapers with the idea that I’m gong to correct their punctuation and grammar and so forth. And you’d be amazed how lackadaisical they are about the way things are put together. I know it’s a speed process, but they could do a lot better job than they do. And I have to tell you that it’s always helped me to be able to find errors that they’ve made. It not only improves the strength of my knowledge, but it also helps me feel a little vindicated that I could catch it. So I still read newspapers and magazines with that idea in mind. You can keep a journal. I used to be very good at that but not so much anymore. But keeping a daily journal, and writing, just writing sentences will help you, and read; you must read. Good books, not People Magazine. Read books that are written by famous authors – Hemingway, Thoreau, Emerson, that sort of thing; and look at their writing style. I honestly believe that as you’re reading this, your writing style will improve. Not that you’re copying them, but you have your own style that will begin to come through as you read really good writing; so that’s a key thing to keep in mind. And reading is fun; if you’re doing it just for pleasure or use it this way. Find a raising mentor who will help you if you get stuck. Nobody knows everything, not me, not anyone, and so I do mentor some people – not for long because they’re able to get it themselves and they don’t need me anymore except for pleasure conversations; but if you need a mentor, find one who’s good at doing the kind of writing that you want to cultivate for yourself and let them help you. Most of them are very glad to do that. VIcki’s very good at writing so there are just all sorts of people out there, and if the mentor doesn’t have time, I’m sure they could suggest someone else who would be happy to do it. I mean, it’s a great aid for those of us who need support, and we all need that don’t we?
Vicki Voisin: We Sure do.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: I recommend that.
Vicki Voisin: Well I want to also add that the colleges have tutors for people who need help like this so if they can’t find a mentor to lean on, they should at least look at a tutor, and they may have to spend some money on it but it is so worth it to learn this skill. Another thing that I have found is that some people have trouble just getting started when they’re going to write. Maybe they’re writing a brief of a draft for the attorney and they just don’t know where to start. What do you suggest they do for that?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: When I get stuck, if it’s a brief, I would go back and read the facts that our side of the case wants to bring out, as well as the facts that the other side doesn’t want to be brought out, and look at what they intend to do. And then, what points do we need to make? And you don’t need to list them in any particular order at this stage, but just write them all down. What do we need to convince the court in order to prevail in this lawsuit? And if you’ve been the paralegal on the case all along, that should be something you’ve worked with over and over, so if you can get something on the page, then other things start coming, they just do. I almost chain myself to the chair. I bring my snacks to the desk, a drink to the desk so that I have no excuse for having to get up and go do something or go do something; and the phone is off limits. Just deal with what you’re doing and it will come; then you can prioritize those points. What is the most important point, that should be at the beginning somewhere, and don’t wait for it until the end, because by that time the judge may be tired of reading. So you want to make your strongest argument first, and you would be amazed if you can just get started; write maybe a stream of consciousness if you can’t do anything else. What strikes you about the case, just write it all down; write it all down and then go back and start picking up the important points. The important points are what you need to get to, and then you can elaborate on those points as much as you need to for purposes of the brief, or any other writing; it doesn’t have to be a brief. I do the same thing when I write an article or a book, I’ve got an outline for the book, the CP Review Manual, I know what I have to write about so that makes it somewhat easier, but you’d know too if you’re writing an article – what points you want to make or need to make and then go from there.
Vicki Voisin: That’s right. Well I have to say that I’ve always preached in any time-management thing that I teach, is that we’re our worst interrupters; we’re our worst enemy. Because we don’t get those things that are dusk, all the materials we need and so forth, and we’re always jumping up and down and going for coffee or whatever. If we gather everything together right at the beginning, and I always set a timer for at least 15 minutes. I say I’m going to do this for 15 minutes, I’m not doing anything else; and usually when the timer goes off I’ll continue, and then I have permission to stop also, so those are the two good things that I like. Well Jenny, I’m going to ask you now, when a paralegal applies for a job, how do they demonstrate that they’ve mastered this writing skill so that the attorney knows that they’re getting somebody who can do what needs to be done?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well the first thing, of course, is the resume, and the cover letter of the resume. The cover letter for the resume is the very first thing that the lawyer is going to see or the hiring person within the firm will see. So be sure that it’s not too long and that everything is spelled correctly, punctuated correctly, and that we don’t have long run-on sentences, that kind of thing. So do the same, what we call “damage control,” with the cover letter that you would do with the resume, because those are the two things that will certainly be reviewed by whoever is doing the hiring. And if there’s a mistake or a misspelled word or a word used incorrectly, you’re done. So it pays to go back and check it, double check it, triple check it if you need to, have someone else check it. Maybe a second person check it after, rather than just one. Whatever it takes to get it the way you want it to be and the best that it can be. If you area person who still has ties with the college where you had your paralegal training, go there. Instructors there will help you, if you know lawyers, they will help you. I don’t feel that I have to do everything myself, I rely a lot on other people to give me feedback and I really, strongly recommend that you enlist other people as well, it’s a great asset. Secondly, as far as other writing samples, if you’ve recently graduated from a paralegal training program, the work that you did while you were there certainly can be included as part of your writing portfolio. Sometimes they want you to send things when you first apply, sometimes they don’t want you to bring until interviews are scheduled. But whatever it is, make sure that your portfolio contains your best work. Honestly, I would say – and I’ve told students this and I still believe it – if you have student work where you received a mid-B or higher grade, don’t change it. I would submit that as it is so that they can see the grade, see the corrections that were made. I’ve had lawyers say, “Well they were pretty tough about this, I don’t think that’s really necessary.” So that you actually get points for having a decent grade on your material. If the grade wasn’t so hot then go back and make the corrections before submitting it, of course. But because it’s corrected, because it has no mistakes, it also will be considered favorably. That’s one of the things that I would say. If you were working and haven’t been to school in recent years, you could use writing samples possibly from your own workplace. But the caveat here is make sure that your firm will give permission for you to do that because it is ultimately their work, not yours, because it gets incorporated. Blackout, or redact, all client information, all names, addresses, phone numbers, things like that, that are in the material that you’re going to be using, and make sure that you go through any and do that before it’s ever submitted. If the firm doesn’t want you to use something like that, then you surely could have gone to seminars and that sort of thing or maybe taken a class to prepare for the CP exam. If you have written work there that you’re proud of, use that. Find things in your background that you are able to pull from in order to get a well-rounded portfolio, even case briefs can work.
Vicki Voisin: My goodness, Jenny, I think we’ve covered just about everything that a paralegal should do – can do – to improve their writing skills. I’m very excited about the information that they’re gotten today. But if any of our listeners want to get in touch with you, how would they do that?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well you can reach me at my personal email, which is [email protected], or you can also reach me at VirginiaKoerselman.com. That’s a website that I’m trying to work on, it’s a work-in-progress for the last year for writing and developing writing skills.
Vicki Voisin: Jenny, every website is a work-in-progress. When I look at mine, I think, oh my goodness, I need to get to work on this, and then other things kind of get in the way. So I really appreciate you joining me today, I think your points about improving writing skills have been just excellent, they’re so valuable. And I’m going to ask you, will I see you at the NALA convention in Tulsa in July?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: You certainly will. I’ve been asked to teach the essential skills institute there and the topics that will be covered include written communications, it also includes judgement in legal analysis including the essay portion of the CP exam which gives everyone trouble, so I hope we can make that easier for you; and legal research.
Vicki Voisin: Terrific, and I forgot, I’m going to be at the NALA convention and doing a member exchange, and it’s going to be “speed mentoring,” which will be a lot of fun. I’m doing that with Vicki Kunz and so you know it’s going to be fun, right?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Absolutely, make sure that you’re not conflicted with one of my sessions because I want to attend.
Vicki Voisin: Okay, okay that’s a deal. So, Jenny, thanks again for joining me. We’re going to take another short break, but don’t go away; because when I come back, I’ll have news and career tips for you.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice, I hope you enjoyed my guest, Virginia Koerselman, Esq. She’s just a wonderful person, I just told someone she’s the best thing since sliced bread for paralegals; so we will not let her retire. Now my practice tip for today pertains a little bit to what Jenny just told us. The Strunk and White manual is excellent, you should all have that for your reference. It doesn’t do any good to just check it out at the library, you need that for constant reference. So I encourage you to invest in some products that will help you create the skills that you need. Also, be sure that you read the State Bar Journal if it comes across your desk. Lawyer’s Weekly is another great one to read. Blogs are great; I found that many bloggers pride themselves on being able to write quickly so they put out a lot of material. When I do my blog, which I haven’t done in a while, I have to really think about it and correct it and all that kind of stuff, so I’m much slower. But read them, you’ll see how they write and so forth. And remember that they’re writing for a different audience, which also brings up this: when I spoke with attorney Kevin Dubose, in September I believe, he was a guest on the show and we focused then about writing for the way people read today. So you might want to go back and listen to that too, another excellent guest that we’ve had. So that’s about all the time we have today for the Paralegal Voice; if you have any questions about the show, please email them to me at [email protected]. Vicki is spelled V-I-C-K-I. Also don’t forget to check out my website, ParalegalMentor.com where things have been designed to help you move your career in the right direction, which I always say, is forward. This is Vicki Voisin, thanking you for listening to the Paralegal Voice, and reminding you to make your paralegal voice heard.
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