A Speech: What Else I Learned at SFSU

This is the text of a speech I gave for the SFSU Paralegal Program Certificate Graduation on June 15, 2012. I was one of the two student speakers for the night and I received “Highest Honors” for my GPA level. Only one person out of about 150 knew who Hall McAllister was. One of the teachers had seen the statue. Now they all know who McAllister is!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Pat Medina, her staff, all the instructors, and guest lecturers for all their hard work with the Paralegal Program. Thank you for asking me to speak today as well. It is an honor to stand before you all, especially my co-graduates, and share a few words. I would especially like to thank my family, who came all the way from South Carolina to hear my speech, for all their patience, love, and support. And I would like to give a special mention to Hall McAllister, California’s first federal judge and a well-respected lawyer.

A year and a half ago, amid struggles as a starving artist, I felt a strong urge to make a change. I woke up early one morning while on a theatrical tour in Los Angeles and registered for my first two paralegal classes. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a paralegal, but I had thought about it for a few years prior to signing up. I had looked into the profession, doing my due diligence, and found several keywords about the job that stuck in my mind. One was “research”. Another was “writing”. And a third was “organized”.

I have done combinations of these three activities over the years, honing my skills researching and writing about art, history, politics, and the environment. Much of my freelance and volunteer work involves being well organized, and I am naturally good at keeping projects together and moving forward. “Why not take my knack for these three skills and work as a paralegal focused on something I care about?” I thought. I initially considered environmental litigation and eventually learned that there may be other aspects of law that fit my passions.

So I signed up for the two classes and gave the program a shot. Writing, research and organization did indeed come into play, and I began to think that maybe I could fit into the legal profession as a paralegal. With the second semester of classes, teachers began to make me and my peers give presentations in front of class. This proved daunting for some, but I was undeterred. Having experience with public speaking, I thought, “Wow, I am lucky. This paralegal course work isn’t all that bad!”

Since this program tightly focuses on getting the certificate and then getting the job, I do not want to speak too much about this. My liberal arts background has allowed me to try to frame things differently. Though I finished college years ago, I never lost the inquisitiveness that comes from being curious about new things. So, while always thinking about this program with regards to a career change, and sitting through some dry, detailed, and instructive lectures, I have also thought of all the learning points that came up in the midst of the information downloads. Having teachers that are JDs and paralegals, working within the field of the subject taught, means that the process comes alive via their advice, anecdotes, and straight shooting thoughts about the profession. So over the 10-class course load, I stayed curious about legal work. Thanks to the staff here, I have a much better idea about the career, its realities, and the system as a whole.

Don’t misunderstand me. The teeth grinding details are extremely important. I now have a shelf of materials to help me navigate my way through many tasks that will arrive on my desk as a paralegal. But what I am really excited about taking away from this program are the instructor’s personal details at the heart of the subjects I studied. I hope my co-graduates will be able to recall those moments where the instructors brought insight to the realities of the legal field. My time is short, so I’ll only mention a few of the insights that I appreciate.

My first insight is about Words. Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa wrote, “It is very important to have awareness of the power of language.” In the fast-paced digital world, where thumbs and fingers can easily be unaware, language is an extremely important thing to pay attention to. In Mark Yates’s Research and Writing class, I placed a star in my notes beside his comment, “law is language. Language is everything. You must pick language apart.” Throughout this program, I learned that simple words and devices hold huge meaning in law: “may”, “shall”, “or” and the useful word “reasonable.” And as many of you leave a trail of text via your Tweets, posts, and emails, you are leaving a path of words that can be discovered as evidence if the need arises.

I know that language is important, but now a day does not go by where I give words an extra round of scrutiny. I can read an article, a billboard, a law or case and my new best practice is to look at the words and try to see what they are not saying. During personal or business conversations, I now reflect certain words or phrases used back to the other person and sometimes ask for clarification. We live in a “skimmer” culture, where glances at text cause many misunderstandings.

If you all walk away from this program and only remember one thing, it is that words matter in our from-the-hip litigious society. Pick the language apart in your professional and social life. Be careful about how you phrase things. And always, always, keep a CYA file!

Though The Legal Process itself may be an obvious take away from this course, I am still humbled by how much I have learned about our governments, the law, the court systems, and the processes and steps that are taken to get things done in our country. Or at least TRY to get things done. I have known the basics about our systems, but I am one of those citizens that have barely experienced the law and litigation, as well as the other systems of government. Many instructors reminded me that what is portrayed on TV law shows is usually NOT reality. And Steve Weisberg quickly let me know in his Intro class that most cases settle while less than 2% make it to a post-trial verdict.

With this in mind, learning about the phases of potentially taking a case to trial, and everything that must be done to keep the case moving forward, has been an eye opening experience. Many of you already have legal experience, but those who do not now have a much clearer idea about how a paralegal will fit into the process. And now we have that shelf of materials: the notes, projects, writings, briefs, pleadings, interrogatories, hand outs, books, manuals, etc. to take along with us to aid us in remembering what is required to properly serve the client.

My last insight is about Confidence. Throughout the program, I got to reacquaint myself with writing papers, taking final exams, and giving presentations. As I learned about my relationship to my anxiety and confidence, I also got to see my classmates relate to their own. In my notes from Charlie Jenkin’s Environmental Litigation class, with regards to the oral presentation, I wrote down his remark, “be comfortable and take a position…. Tell us what you think.” To be comfortable in the Contracts class, each student briefly stood in front of the class and gave a one-sentence synopsis of their oral presentation. Right before we did this, we all had to state our name and say clearly, “I am not afraid of you!”

All of my teachers actually had great advice and kind words to give in order for us to be confident with the subject matter. So over the course of the program, as I gained invaluable knowledge about being a paralegal, I developed more confidence in regards to my opinions, my voice and presence, and in my understanding of the topics at hand. I also enjoyed seeing my classmates grow more comfortable standing at the front of the class, and this helped me improve my skills with public speaking. More than one teacher has said that the lawyer I work for will eventually ask me what I think. And whether in a brief, a presentation, or the other methods I have worked with in this program, I stand a bit straighter and talk a bit louder now that my confidence has been so kindly nurtured and supported.

Speaking of confidence with the law, how many people here have heard of Hall McAllister? When I first mentioned Judge McAllister, you may have wondered how a Savannah, GA native from the late 1800s inspired me. During this whole program, I have biked and bussed down McAllister Street to and from class. On the edge of City Hall, looking towards the courthouse is a statue of McAllister. Before taking a final or presenting I would always give the judge a nod or a hello for good luck. Over the weeks, acknowledging the judge during my commute became part of my routine. He seemed to be looking at where I was going, trying to show me something in the book he holds.

So while crafting my class presentations, I have attempted to literally include the Judge. I only managed to do it once. Since this is my final chance, I would like to read to you the text on the statue’s pedestal. The California Bar actually raised the money to make this statue and they chiseled a note to all future legal workers: “Hall McAllister… learned, able, eloquent / fearless advocate / a courteous foe.”

As we work our way into and through the legal field, we can only hope that we support fearless and courteous lawyers. And, at the most, after receiving this ABA approved certificate, we can clearly know that the tips, skills, and knowledge we received have made us more learned, able, and eloquent.

Thank you so much.