Lee A. Paige, CLA, Senior Legal Assistant, Morrison & Foerster, LLP
by Regan Morris
Mr. Paige, 54, became a paralegal by chance. He was a journalist, reporting for several Chicago dailies when he decided to relocate to Los Angeles. His family didn't want him to go, but Mr. Paige was fed up with the Windy City and wanted some sunshine.
He got the sunny weather, but the economy was tight in California, and Los Angeles only had two major daily newspapers at the time. The Los Angeles Times, which was under a hiring freeze, and the Herald Examiner, which went bust within a year of Mr. Paige's arrival in the city.
"There were other, smaller papers around town, but I really didn't want to go backwards in my journalism career, so I kept plugging away, trying to get a job at one of these dailies," he said. "I really never intended to go into the law. It just sort of happened out of circumstance. I decided to retrain and do something else, a long and hard decision because I really enjoyed working in the news media, but it was not to be."
He learned that the legal profession was also prone to ups and downs in the economy. As he already had a bachelor's degree, Mr. Paige enrolled in the certificate program at University of West Los Angeles, specializing in both real estate law and litigation. While he advises prospective paralegals to specialize, he always advises them not to take on two specialties at a time. It took him two-and-a-half years to finish his certification studying both simultaneously.
"It's something I always advise students against. Because you don't realize what it all entails when you're in it," he said. "All of this is very new to most adults. And all of us who go through these paralegal programs are usually working adults. And many of them have been out of school for a long time, so you really have to retrain yourself and re-discipline yourself for study all over again."
But Mr. Paige's decision paid off for him. If he'd only focused on real estate, he may have been in trouble. While it's hard to imagine in today's blistering hot real estate market, the market was struggling in the early 1980s.
"I got my real estate certificate just as the real estate market in California took a dive, and all of a sudden there was no work," he said. "So what I've always done is try to keep ahead of the curve by always retraining and learning more so that I can always be employed."
Mr. Paige said his journalism skills transferred easily into law and that the attributes and skills needed to excel in the professions are similar: independence, drive, and a thick skin.
"It tends to be one that's more self-driven than anything else," he said of the legal profession. "I guess anybody who works in the law, they have to be relatively thick skinned, because it can be overwhelming sometimes if you're not thick skinned, if you're not a good time manager, if you don't have the ability to juggle little small details and keep an eye on those things."
When you join a law firm or corporate legal department, it often takes a while to establish a rapport with the attorneys, he said. Once the attorneys rely on you, you need to keep your skills honed or the relationship, and likely job, won't last, Mr. Paige said.
"If you don't have your skills as sharp as they should be, attorneys can rely on you to their detriment and to the detriment of the client," he said. "So you really have to be sharp. It takes some practice, and it takes some doing. It's not something that comes overnight. You learn all the basics in paralegal school, but on the job is where it really tells and really shows."
Mr. Paige worked part time for the District Attorney's office while looking for a journalism job. It was there that he first became interested in the law. His job there was largely menial, and his bosses suggested he go to law school or paralegal school.
"At the time, I really wasn't interested in being an attorney, and I said 'What's a paralegal school?'" he said. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in UWLA.
Mr. Paige recently became the second paralegal graduate in the 36-year history of UWLA to be elected to the University's Board of Trustees. When asked who normally gets elected, Mr. Paige said "lawyers, doctors, and judges."
He is also an active member and past president of the UWLA Paralegal Alumni Association, and in May 2003, Mr. Paige became one of six UWLA graduates and one of only two paralegal graduates chosen to receive the prestigious Bernard S. Jefferson Award of Excellence. He was also the winner of the 2000 5-Star Paralegal of the Year Award.
So the change of profession has clearly been good for Mr. Paige, although he said during the first year, he worried that he wasn't experienced enough in the profession.
Mr. Paige still writes for legal publications like Legal Assistant Today and is often a guest speaker at legal seminars and events, including the upcoming UWLA Paralegal Open House.
During the Open Houses, Mr. Paige advises prospective students to keep learning throughout their careers. Mr. Paige now has four specialties, including environmental law, and still takes courses on preparing for trial, although he's been to trial many times.
"Never stop learning because the law is just that way. It constantly evolves. It's constantly changing, and if you're preparing for trial the way they did back in the 1980s, and here we are in the 2000s, you're going to be left in the dust, and somebody's going to be embarrassed in court," he said. "When you file a document and somebody says, 'Oh, we don't do it in this format anymore," the attorney looks at the paralegal, and the trouble starts brewing."
And he always warns the future paralegals to be resilient and not take things too personally because it can get heated building a case for trial.
"If you've got a thick skin and a thirst for learning and hard work, you can do well," he said. "I'm glad to be in the position I'm in now."