By: Caren Mansfield, CLA
I will tell you right now that I am one of the biggest cheerleaders for being a member of a professional organization. Regardless of your profession, you should be a member of a professional organization. For paralegals, that means being a member of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations [“NFPA”] or the National Association of Legal Assistants [“NALA”]. Yes, there are other associations for paralegals. By all means be a member of those associations which include NALS, the Association for Legal Professionals, The American Alliance for Paralegals, local and state paralegal associations, student/alumni associations for paralegals, the American Bar Association, local bar associations, etc. But in my opinion, NFPA and NALA are the primary professional organizations for paralegals. Each of those associations have thousands of members. As a disclaimer, I note that I am a member of the Illinois Paralegal Association, NFPA, NALA and a former member of NALS.
Let me give you some reasons for being a member of a professional organization and a bit of background. I began my employment as a paralegal in central Illinois in 1987 before cell phones, fax machines and the Internet. I was very green and immediately tried to find out who could help me become a better paralegal. There were no paralegal organizations in central Illinois at the time. So I joined a local chapter of NALS. With that membership, I became a member not only of the local chapter but also of the Illinois Association of Legal Secretaries and NALS. Wow, was that a great investment. I attended chapter meetings during which every meeting there was some type of continuing legal education. I met local attorneys, court staff, other paralegals and legal secretaries. I became active on the state level and even attended NALS annual meetings. At each meeting, I attended the CLE offerings. To make myself smarter and credible as a paralegal. I took the PLS test offered back then by NALS and passed. Membership in this organization (national, state and local) introduced me to individuals who were bright and dedicated. Many were paralegals like me. I made friends and contacts across the United States. When I had issues come up and needed help in other states (this is before the Internet was available to everyone) I could call other NALS/IALS members.
But I felt something was lacking. So along with other interested paralegals, I helped form the Sangamon County Geographic Section of the Illinois Paralegal Association [“IPA”] in central Illinois which was devoted almost exclusively to paralegals. Again, this was another great investment. I became a member of the Sangamon County Section, of the IPA and NFPA for one low sum! The Sangamon Section met regularly and discussed topics of interest in the paralegal profession, offered CLE and provided an opportunity to network. I became a board member of the IPA and eventually was president for two terms. Through my membership with the IPA I met more bright and dedicated paralegals, both men and women. I watched and learned. I attended NFPA meetings. I found that while I never had an official mentor, I had many “unofficial” or what I call “indirect” mentors. There were paralegals who presented CLE at educational conferences who were so intelligent and funny it made learning effortless. I eventually worked up enough courage to speak as a CLE presenter at conferences. Some paralegals were so organized and I asked their secrets. Other paralegals were well spoken and thoughtful and I practiced thinking before blurting out my opinions. I learned that first impressions do count so I made an effort to insure that I was always presentable. At the educational conferences and annual meetings I met with vendors who provided products which made life easier as a paralegal. I learned about technology. Networking was no longer some word that was thrown about. I lived it and used it. When a topic came up at work for which more information was required, I was often able to call another paralegal or an attorney to gain a greater understanding of it. My indirect mentors did not know how much they helped me become a better paralegal. Today, most state and local paralegal associations have some sort of mentoring program. If you are a newly minted paralegal, take advantage of your membership and ask for a mentor. If you are a seasoned paralegal, use your membership and become a mentor.
Prior to the time NFPA offered the PACE exam I once again wondered if I was presenting myself as a competent paralegal. So in early 1996 I took the CLA credentialing exam offered by NALA. I passed and was offered a free membership in NALA and I have my membership to this day.
Paralegals tell me they don’t become members of a professional organization because they don’t have time to participate. What!! All it takes nowadays is signing up online. A paralegal can participate as much or as little as time allows. If you want to participate just ask. I can tell you that the board members of most paralegal organizations would be thrilled if you said you wanted to help. Don’t wait to be asked. Remember, board members of paralegal associations are volunteers just like you would be. They once stood in your shoes and said they could help too.
Other benefits of membership besides networking, competency exams, and CLE both online and through educational conferences, can include health insurance benefits, credit card benefits, contacts for court reporters, and other vendors. The publications of each professional organization have kept me informed about advancements in the paralegal profession as well as educated me on legal topics. I have used the salary surveys prepared by NFPA, IPA and NALA over the years to help obtain increases in my compensation.
Another benefit of professional memberships in today’s electronic world is the immediacy of list serves and blogs. NFPA, NALA and NALS have list serves through LinkedIn which allow paralegal contact of the most up to the minute sort. Topics are posted, questions are asked and information is provided. The associations also each have a Facebook presence.
Still another and perhaps one of the most important benefits of professional membership is the knowledge that the organizations are working to monitor legislation which may affect paralegals. A representative is ready to testify regarding legislative changes and submit briefs to the courts which offer the paralegal perspective. Professional organizations work toward educating the public and lawyers about the utilization of paralegals. Professional organizations are always vigilant about educating paralegals relating to ethical issues.
This article was not meant to be an “all about me” article. I hope I have not talked about myself too much. I just wanted to share how valuable membership in a professional organization has been to me. I have been exposed to wonderful people and critical thinkers, received important information both about my profession and about the law, been to new places and, hopefully, became a better paralegal through my memberships. As a seasoned paralegal, listen to my advice! Do not wait! Join now if you are not a member of a paralegal association.