The National Association of Legal Assistants 40th Annual Convention featured a three-day Essential Skills Institute for paralegals. The institute focused on effective legal research, written communication, and judgement and legal analysis. Any paralegal is likely to further his or her career, become essential in their firm, and improve future job prospects by cultivating these abilities. But where can paralegals learn these skills?
On this episode of The Paralegal Voice, Vicki Voisin, interviews Virginia Koerselman Newman, a faculty member on the Essential Skills Institute, about specific ways paralegals can improve their writing and legal research as well as learn to analyze legal cases and increase their own personal value.
- Lexis Nexis and Westlaw vs courthouse research
- Research search parameters and search terms
- Legal judgement and analysis: connecting facts to the rules
- Using logic, not emotion, to solve problems
- Analogical reasoning and inductive reasoning
- Using (or not using) legalese in writing
- Dos and don’ts in legal writing
- How to effectively proofread your own work
- Using terminology when representing the plaintiff versus the defendant
Virginia Koerselman Newman has been working in the legal profession since about 1970. She started as a legal secretary and then worked as a paralegal for nearly ten years. She was the first Nebraska paralegal to be certified by NALA. Newman then went to law school and practiced law for 26 years and has been teaching and writing about the legal profession ever since. She published the CP review manual, was on the CP certifying board, and then served as a consultant to the board.
Special thanks to our sponsors, Boston University, NALA, and ServeNow.
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 NALA Advanced Certified paralegal. I publish a weekly 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. Virginia is an attorney and she is in Hemingway, South Carolina. But before we begin I want to recognize our sponsors and thank them. That would be Boston University, offering online certificates in the paralegal studies. So if you’re seeking a professional credential or you just want to further develop your skills, Boston University provides an affordable, high quality, 14-week program. Visit ParalegalOnline.bu.edu for more information. Another sponsor is NALA, a professional association of paralegals providing continuing education and professional certification programs for paralegals at NALA.org. NALA is a force in the promotion and advancement of the paralegal profession and has been a sponsor of the Paralegal Voice since the beginning. And also Serve-Now, a national network of trusted, prescreened process servers. When you work with Serve-Now, you work with the most professional process servers who have experience with high-volume serves, embrace technology, and understand the litigation process. Visit Serve-Now.com to learn more. The goal of the Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics important to the paralegal industry and to share with you leading trends, significant developments and resources you’ll find helpful in your career and your everyday job. Guests are usually included to help explore all of these timely topics. For that reason, I’ve invited Virginia Koerselman Newman to be with me today. Jenny, welcome.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Thank you, thank you for having me here.
Vicki Voisin: What I’d like for you to do first is to tell our listeners a bit about you because you have quite an interesting journey. So let’s hear.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: I have been working in the legal profession since about 1970. I started as a legal secretary and then I worked as a paralegal for nearly 10 years. I was the first paralegal to be certified by NALA from the state of Nebraska. I went to law school following that and then practiced law for 26 years, during which time I also was teaching part time; but I found that teaching is what I like the most and so I’ve been teaching, writing, doing all sorts of articles of whatever I can do to promote the prayer of legal profession.
Vicki Voisin: You’ve been a long supporter of the paralegal professional and also NALA. You’ve written the CLA Study Guide.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Yes, the study guide and mock exam which was our first review course, and also the CP Review Manual which is been published since 1992 and is still used widely for people to prepare for certification.
Vicki Voisin: You’ve done wonderful things, you were on the Certifying Board.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Yes, I was, and I then served as a consultant to the Certifying Board. I also still serve as a consultant to the Advanced Paralegal Certification Board.
Vicki Voisin: Well, we thank you for all of the time that you have given to NALA. Recently at the NALA Convention, which was their 40th conversion, you were on the faculty of the three day Institute for Essential Skills. Just tell me briefly what that covered.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: There are three arms of that particular track. One is legal research, one is written communication, and one is judgement and legal analysis.
Vicki Voisin: When I became a paralegal, everything was done in the books. And actually when I got certified, I studied in the law library. And some paralegals do more research than others, depending on where they are and everything and what their firm does. But is legal research done mostly online now?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: I don’t know if that’s necessarily true if it’s correct that the majority of lawyers are practicing either as solo practitioners or as very small firms. Those individuals would not be able to research online routinely, say using Westlaw or Lexis because of the cost that’s involved. So they would maintain a small library in their offices, maybe do some internet searching. But it’s still predominantly down at the county law library or maybe subletting someone else’s Westlaw account.
Vicki Voisin: I think I always did it on LexisNexis and that kind of thing. So you don’t do Google, right?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: No. Google is probably not quite enough.
Vicki Voisin: I would think that. You shouldn’t jeopardize on Google, right?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Absolutely not.
Vicki Voisin: For sure. What are some tips for legal research? And let me tell you, one of my problems when I was doing legal research was the fear that I was missing something. So what are your tips for that?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: The first thing you want to do is to have a good understanding of what the problem is, the facts of the case, and then come up with your search parameters. Even if you’re not using a computerized system, you still have to have those search parameters, search words. Then you want to look through if you’re looking for cases then it would be through digest, and if you’re looking for statutes, then you would look through the indexes for the statutes. It could be as wide as West’s Federal Practice Digest for case law throughout the federal system, or something as similar as of one particular state. But the concept is it that you know what you need to find and where it ought to be found and then be thorough as you’re going through in your search words. And if you’re finding the same cases over and over again using your various search terms, then you probably have found just about everything that’s there.
Vicki Voisin: That’s good advice. Now you also do a judgement and legal analysis. I know that that is one of the most – I don’t want to say the most difficult things to get certified, to know all of that. But I think it’s the most difficult thing for paralegals only just to have the whole concept and to understand that. But you can learn that right?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Absolutely! Lawyers learn it and lawyers are not born thinking the way they do, they learn to think that way. And if you work for lawyers – whether you realize it or not – you’re probably thinking that way through by a large part in being able to analyze something to get the right data together in order to be able to analyze it and then to analyze it according to the rules. It must relate. You have to connect the fact to the rule and explain why, always, to get to your points.
Vicki Voisin: So is there an analytical process that you follow?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Yes. I usually will skim the facts and the rules that I think are applicable and then just come up with all the legal questions that you can related that might apply, and then go through and analyze them using the rules that you’ve determined apply, the facts, and answer every single question until you’re finished with all of them. And somewhere in that process, you’ll go, “Yes, this is the right legal issue. This is the one that solves the case in the quickest, fastest way for our client.”
Vicki Voisin: That’s all good advice, I like that. And also what I’d like to know is if you have tips for paralegals who want to learn more about that. Are there books? Do you take courses? How do you learn that?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Critical thinking courses are somewhat helpful, but what I found was the most helpful for me – and I like to get in the right mindset- is to notice what’s going on in the office, what lawyers are doing. And then go get the practice books that they used for the LSATs, the Lawyers Scholastic Aptitude Test. If you look at that, there will be in there story problems. And if you go through the story problems and try to understand how they got to the answer that they got to – and it isn’t what’s right or what’s wrong, it’s what is logical. And keep it logical, not what you feel.
Vicki Voisin: So some common sense is involved with this?
Virginia Koerselman Newman:
Common sense and an absence of emotional thinking.
Vicki Voisin: Okay, well that’s good. Now it’s time to take a short break for a word from our sponsors, Boston University, NALA, the association of legal assistance paralegals, and Serve-Now, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. And when we come back, we’ll continue our discussion with Virginia Koerselman Newman, JD and talk with her more about the Institute for Essential Skills that was at NALA’s 40th Convention in Tulsa in July.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. I’m Vicki Voisin, and my guest today is Virginia Koerselman Newman. I consider Jenny the expert on just about everything paralegal. She is an attorney who has long supported the paralegal profession. I think so much of her that when I co-wrote the Professional Paralegal, A Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success, that the book was then dedicated to Jenny as the mentor extraordinaire. So we’ve been longtime friends and I’m so pleased to have her with me today so that we could talk about some of the essential skills that paralegals need. So far we’ve talked about a legal research, we talked about judgement and legal analysis, and now I want to talk about communication. Before I do that though, I want to talk to Jenny about some of the types of reasoning because I know about deductive reasoning. So tell us another two more kinds and so I’d like to hear about that.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: There is analogical reasoning, reasoning by analogy or by comparing something to something else to see whether it’s similar, more similar or not similar. And we use that for case law. We do that for case analysis; you’ll see that in judicial opinions quite a bit where they compare to say this is like that but not like something else. That’s analogical reasoning, you’ll see that in the case law area of law. Another one is inductive reasoning where you start with a whole bunch of facts and it’s an inverted pyramid so that you drain it down to the nth degree. So let’s say that you have half a bushel of apples and you take one out and it’s green, how logical is it that all the apples are green? You keep taking more out and building, then it becomes more and more reasonable to conclude that all of the apples are green. It’s that kind of a thing.
Vicki Voisin: I could even understand that, that’s good. I like that Jenny. So we want to talk about communication. Communication has never been difficult for me and so often when I’m writing, I just do what’s logical. You forget the rules, I have to admit that. From when I had phonics, remember phonics and diagramming sentences and all of that stuff. But it must have stuck with me somewhere because it kind of all makes sense. What I really like is the column you write and Facts and Findings, NALA’s Journal, and I find that a great learning tool and I’m always surprised when I miss the questions!
Virginia Koerselman Newman: I’m surprised too!
Vicki Voisin: No, you shouldn’t be. But I think that’s a great tool.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well thank you.
Vicki Voisin: I really do, and I think it’s a good learning tool. So tell me about why we don’t want to use “herefore” and “wherefore” and all of the other illegalities when we’re writing.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Generally speaking, unless we’re trying to conform to some kind of judicial understanding of of a phrase, we don’t want to use those sorts of words because they are legal gobbledygook. They just mess up what the thought is. There is a theory that if you don’t want people to understand what it is you’re really saying, include a lot of legalese and run-on sentences and so on and so forth, because that way they’ll lose their train of thought and they won’t know what you said. And truthfully, you can go back and look at some politicians, for instance. You go back and analyze a paragraph of something that they’ve said in a speech and you’ll see that they said nothing because it all contradicted each other.
Vicki Voisin: So it’s all filler.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: It’s all filler and it makes the writer feel good. But for the listener, the reader, it’s horrible.
Vicki Voisin: Well, when paralegals are writing, what are some of the pitfalls they should avoid?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: For one thing, copying their boss’s writing of style. Usually, a paralegal who can create simple, declarative sentences out of legal gobbledygook and not lose the meaning is going to be worth his or her weight in gold.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Get to it, say it, and say no more. Well, how is general writing – say I’m just doing a note to a friend or something like that – how is that structured differently from legal writing? And then I also know that you have to sometimes be persuasive, so explain all these differences to me.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Well, writing to a friend, at least for me, I can use some slang occasionally just to be friendly. But truthfully, I would not want to misspell words, I wouldn’t want to mispunctuate and that sort of thing because that’s just rude for the person who has to read it. If I’m trying to persuade someone, there’s a regular formula for how you have to approach it, and it’s an analogical kind of thinking. You will see of the Declaration of Independence and some of our founding documents, it’s very, very clear. It’s been around since the time of Plato. So there’s a specific formula for the argument and all good arguments follow that formula. So for the pitfalls, not being careful. Going back and checking your spelling. If you don’t understand what the word means look it up. Take the time to look it up and second guess yourself to make sure that something is absolutely correct. Because believe it or not, even I will write something and go, “What? Did I just write that? I can’t believe it!” Just because you become inattentive. You’re writing for content and not so much for punctuation and grammar, but those are critical parts of the writing for purposes of understanding on the other person’s part.
Vicki Voisin: I think one of the pitfalls to avoid is to believe that spell check can solve all your problems.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Amen.
Vicki Voisin: It’s a wonderful tool but I don’t think you can always rely on-
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Absolutely not. We all know that there are some words that sound alike but mean opposites. That’s a dangerous, dangerous thing to use as a crutch.
Vicki Voisin: It is though, very difficult, to proofread your own material. I’ve learned that the hard way and I think that technology has maybe made it even more difficult. We’re pulling up forms that we’ve used before and we’re making mistakes. So do you have any tips for proofreading your own material?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Yes, I have the same problem. When I write something and I’ve stopped, I’m finished with it, I think it’s good, otherwise I would not have stopped. But the thing we need to do is let it get cold, at least overnight, before you proofread, and then come back at it and read it as if it were written by someone you really don’t like very much and go after it with that blue pencil and take out all the unnecessary words in a pair it down to exactly what needs to be said and get rid of the fluff. You can always add fluff back in but you can’t take gobbledygook out after it’s been in there too long.
Vicki Voisin: Yeah, and that’s good advice. So I know that in your institute, you talked about the fact that communication is, of course, an essential skill that every paralegal needs to be able to do. Can that be learned or is that just an innate skill?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: It is not innate. Some people have a natural inclination to various things, but what makes the difference is the person who’s willing to practice and who will work at it constantly. That’s why they call it the practice of law, you never get perfect. Well, you never write perfectly either. It should be the practice of writing because you are constantly practicing and trying new things, see if they work. Being careful, proofreading, proofreading other people’s work, being aware that a written word is the lawyer’s stock and trade and as a paralegal, you’re there to help protect that practice and that lawyer so that you then have job security.
Vicki Voisin: And job security is something that everybody needs. Now you do teach – well I know you use “Strunk and White,” as a reference. One that I used when I studied for the Certified Paralegal Exam, I think I still have on my bookshelf, it’s a thing that I look at frequently. But you get into the parts of speech, you talk about sentence structure, and I know that you consider that a good reference. But do paralegals really go back and think about their sentence structure once they start working?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: They should. They better, otherwise it will be a problem because if my writing is poor, then everyone’s writing in the office is going to become questionable because I’m the weakest link. It’s like the chain analogy, if the weakest link determines how people will see you. So if we have people on our staff who can not write, the lawyers can get away with it a little bit because they have paralegals and legal secretaries to clean up their work. But paralegals are really on the front line when it comes to technical writing.
Vicki Voisin: During my paralegal career, I have worked with attorneys who could hardly write a complete sentence. I’ve worked with attorneys who are great communicators who used actually more difficult words than they needed to. But it’s from the whole spectrum, you’re right; we have to make them look good. So I understand why those skills are important. But what are some of your tips for writing for lawyers? Is it different?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: I don’t think it is different I have heard people say that there’s informal writing and formal writing. I don’t think there is a difference, you write correctly or you write incorrectly. And as I say, I’ll allow myself slang if I’m writing a note to a friend, but at no other time, because we want to be clear, we want to be concise, we want to be direct in what we’re saying and simple. Use simple words if simple words will convey the right meaning.
Vicki Voisin: Does it matter if you represent the complainant or the defendant, how you write?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Sometimes it can. For instance, if it’s just a typical personal injury collision, for instance, the plaintiff is going to talk about it in terms of a collision or a crash where a defendant will say an accident. So if you can accurately tell the facts and use words that will have a nuance, use it. You would do that on behalf of your client. But the more important thing is to be clear.
Vicki Voisin: Alright. Well, Jenny, I really appreciate your taking the time to join me today. I always love talking with you and what I’d like to know, though, is if our listeners want to get in touch with you, how would they do that?
Virginia Koerselman Newman: They can reach me at VirginiaKoerselman.com. I have a web page there and also [email protected]. Also they can get in touch with you, Vicki.
Vicki Voisin: Right. I know where you are, I can find you. My dream is to someday sit on your porch and write. Well, first of all, Jenny is in the South, so I would drink sweet tea and write.
Virginia Koerselman Newman: Come on down.
Vicki Voisin: We’re going to take another short break. Don’t go away because when I come back, I’m going to have news and career tips for you. Thanks again, Jenny.
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Vicki Voisin: Now is the part of the program where I give you my practice tip for today or make announcements or whatever. My practice tip for you is to be sure that you first join a paralegal association, a professional association, local, state, national, whatever is available to you, and that you be sure that you attend their events. Because when you do, you’re going to learn a lot of information that you just didn’t know was out there. Thinks that Jenny Koerselman and I have talked about today, that’s how you learn, you meet people, and you make your world large. All learning can’t be done online. It’s important to be there in person. So that’s all the time we have today for the Paralegal Voice. If you have questions about today’s show, please email them to me. That would be [email protected]. And also, don’t forget to check out my blog, that’s ParalegalMentor.com/blog. And the resources that I’ve made available to you and there at my website, which is ParalegalMentor.com, have been designed them to help you move your career in the right direction, and that’s always forward. This is Vicki Voisin, thanking you for listening to the Paralegal Voice, and reminding you to always make your paralegal voice heard.
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Thanks for listening to the Paralegal Voice, produced by the broadcast professionals at Legal Talk Network. Join Vicki Voisin for her next podcast on issues and trends affecting paralegals.
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