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The Changing Paralegal Job Description

Distinctive areas of law for the nontraditional paralegal.

By Janet Roberts

(Originally appeared in print as "Unique Specialties")

November/December 2005 Table of Contents


The classic interpretation of a paralegal’s work paints a picture of diligent professionals working in real estate, corporate law, trial preparation, divorce work, bankruptcy filings, estates and probate work, and more. But some paralegals use their legal training and skills in settings they never dreamed of. Four such paralegals tell exciting tales of blazing trails in unique areas of law and loving their work.

Prisoner Advocacy: Sharon G. Robertson, CLAS

Sharon Robertson received her bachelor’s degree in secondary education in 1976 from the University of Arizona, Tucson, and an associate’s degree as a paralegal technician in 1985. She worked for eight years as a legal secretary and later as a paralegal for a five-attorney firm in Morganton, N.C., doing primarily corporate and real estate work.

Then, she heard about a paralegal position with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services Inc. in 1989. “I have not looked back since,” said Robertson, a Certified Legal Assistant with a civil litigation specialty and a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants.

NCPLS is a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to more than 37,000 inmates, male and female, in 78 state prison units located across North Carolina, as well as 250,000 people

incarcerated in the 98 county jails throughout the state. Robertson has worked for NCPLS’ western office since September 1989, and handles a variety of legal matters involving prison conditions and criminal convictions. According to Robertson, it’s NCPLS’ mission to make sure inmates in state prisons and county jails receive the basic necessities of life and that the courts accord them the safeguards and guarantees provided by law. Through her work, she acts on behalf of North Carolina residents to enforce societal standards of morality and decency to ensure humane and lawful treatment of people in custody of the state.

“Prisoner advocates, such as myself, provide the checks and balances that are critical to our justice system,” Robertson said. “One need look no further than the Abu Ghraib prison incident in Iraq to appreciate the importance of our work.”

One of the first questions she was asked during her job interview with NCPLS was whether she could handle talking to a convicted inmate inside a prison or jail without a guard physically standing in the room — something she never had to do at her previous job — but she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “I can still recall the first time I was escorted into the bowels of a prison unit to interview a client,” Robertson said. “I heard the clang of the steel doors close behind me as I walked into the prison. I prayed there would not be any electrical blackout while I was there.”

Sixteen years later, she  said she can count on one hand the number of rude comments or threatening encounters she has experienced and said in almost all instances the inmates are very polite. She said she treats inmates with the same respect she would any person and provides them with all the professional courtesy they deserve, and finds the inmates return the same respect.

Robertson’s area of expertise is in civil rights. She currently is the paralegal for the Safe & Humane Jails Project, an initiative primarily funded by the North Carolina State Bar’s Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program. She mainly focuses on conditions of confinement for pretrial detainees, which include complaints about inadequate medical services, substandard or dangerous living conditions, threats to physical health and safety from other inmates, and abuse by prison officials. She reviews and responds to correspondence, identifies legal issues, conducts investigations with clients and witnesses to obtain information and facts about the situation, researches legal questions, and monitors conditions through records reviews and inspection tours in county jails. When needed, she provides litigation support.

Prior to contact with an inmate, Robertson rarely looks at the person’s criminal record or what charges he or she is facing. She said she feels such information might adversely affect her ability to assess the inmate’s credibility and might cloud her attitude toward the inmate. The criminal record is available to her after the interview is conducted. She always is careful never to place herself in any situation that compromises her safety when interviewing an inmate.

“Every person is entitled to be treated with a certain degree of respect,” Robertson said. “Given the huge number of people who are incarcerated in this country and the trend toward locking up ever-increasing numbers of people, there is a great need for the type of legal assistance provided by NCPLS.”

Robertson said she sees a lot of positives to her line of paralegal work. She works with clients who desperately need legal assistance and in almost all circumstances don’t have the financial means to retain a private attorney. She is able to make a difference in improving the living conditions in a jail or prison while “stretching and growing” in an area of law that has many facets and changes.

Robertson said she likes being able to comfort and support clients or family members by listening to their concerns and explaining the complicated, rigid prison structure. The only negatives for her come in meeting inmates who are smart, intelligent people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or finding herself unable to correct an injustice or resolve a legitimate problem for an inmate.

“I enjoy working for NCPLS because of the challenges, the assistance I provide our clients, and the respect I am given by my peers and colleagues,” Robertson said. “Each client inquiry and file presents a new set of factual issues that challenge my substantive knowledge and reasoning abilities, and stimulates my growth and professional knowledge.”

Medicare Paralegal: Robert H. Graham

When Robert Graham was a paralegal student at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill., heading for his first internship with a legal services agency, he never imagined he would join the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program full time. Graham already had degrees in mathematical science and philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that he received in 1979, and had been working as a bank teller while going to school at night for his certificate in paralegal studies, which he received in 2000.

The Long Term Care Ombudsman Program later merged with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, where Graham now works. Because his internship covered Social Security and public aid law, it was a natural transition from there to advocating for residents of skilled and intermediate nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and some sheltered care. He primarily handles long-term care issues and is required to be knowledgeable in the areas of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“I like the fact that I am not behind a desk all day,” Graham said. “As John LeCarre said, ‘A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.’ Since I am in the field so much, I really am challenged to be creative and think on my feet.”

During visits to nursing home facilities, he meets with the president of the resident council to get an idea of any general issues. He then randomly interviews residents and families that might be visiting loved ones. Graham teaches them how to advocate for themselves to correct problems and sometimes, with the resident’s consent, formulates a plan to advocate for them. He also responds to complaints to the intake department at his office, whether from families, residents or the facility. Funded by the state, Graham’s program advocates for residents at least 60 years old in skilled nursing facilities, intermediate care facilities, sheltered care facilities, assisted living facilities, supportive living facilities, and intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled. Graham said there are some challenges in his job. “It takes a high energy level to work with residents who often take a long time to explain their complaint or to understand what I am advising as a solution,” he said.

Graham represents residents at Medicaid appeal hearings and soon will be trained to represent residents on appeals of Medicare Durable Equipment decisions. His legal research covers a broad array of issues involving the Nursing Home Care Act, the Department of Public Health rules and regulations, and Medicare and Medicaid questions. He and the attorney for the ombudsman project jointly prepare for involuntary discharge hearings and represent Medicaid appeals that involve denial of eligibility, improper calculation of spend-down and improper calculation of spousal impoverishment.

The nursing home facility staff members frequently rely on a resident’s agent or representative in making decisions about a resident’s care, according to Graham, rather than taking direction from the resident. He said residents don’t understand and assert their rights because they fear recrimination from the facility’s staff. “Certainly the most pressing needs are the residents’ rights to be treated with dignity and respect,” Graham said.

There are several pending proposals before the U.S. Congress concerning Medicaid that would make eligibility much more stringent. One such proposal, Medicare Part D, will have a significant impact on Graham’s work as most nursing home residents are dually eligible under Medicare and Medicaid, with Medicaid currently paying for all the medications nursing home residents need. In January 2006, these individuals will be required to select among Medicare Part D plans, none of which cover the medications they need such as barbiturates or benzodiazepines — two pain-relieving medications used in nursing homes.

Graham’s field work kicks in when a facility wants to evict a nursing home resident. First, the facility must serve a 30-day Notice of Involuntary Discharge on the resident, as well as on the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Regional Ombudsman. Graham’s supervisor, Robyn O’Neill, is the regional ombudsman. She is a licensed attorney and registered nurse. When O’Neill is served with a 30-day notice, Graham visits the resident to determine if he or she has the capacity to understand the issue, then advises the resident of his or her rights.

For the first 10 days after the 30-day notice period, the resident might request a hearing to determine if the facility has the grounds for eviction. Graham visits the resident early enough in that 10-day time frame to make sure he or she can, in fact, request an appeal. If O’Neill determines that the facility’s grounds to evict have no merit or the 30-day notice is deficient, she can offer to represent the resident at the hearing before an administrative law judge from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Graham assists in preparing for that hearing by checking to see if a Medicaid application has been submitted, and if so, whether Medicaid has not offered a final determination of eligibility, which would result in dismissal of the 30-day notice. If the grounds for eviction are nonpayment, Graham works with the nursing home bookkeeper to determine the exact amount outstanding. Graham often is second chair to O’Neill in the hearings. They work to make sure the resident’s rights are protected, and the family is willing to agree to a payment plan if one is offered by the facility or they make sure the resident is transferred to a safe and appropriate location if the facility wins the eviction.

Ultimately, Graham said his job is rewarding: “I experience great satisfaction from being the voice of elderly residents and helping them to find the courage to use their own voice.”  



Janet Roberts is a freelance writer and manager of communications for The Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.



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