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Profile Jim Barber, CP, Christensen & Jensen, P.C., Salt Lake City, UT
by Regan Morris
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Two years ago, Mr. Barber, a litigation paralegal with Christensen & Jensen, P.C., in Salt Lake City, UT, decided to write an article on moonlighting. He conducted some research and found the one and only law review article on the subject was from 1985. It had been written by a professor at Pepperdine University and published by the Detroit law review.
Barber called both the professor and the law review and suggested they revisit the subject. The law review in turn suggested he team up with a student and write the article himself. Barber jumped at the opportunity.
The article took two years to complete, and Barber received only "contributing author" credit, instead of the co-authorship he expected. But it was a great experience, delving into a scholarly article, and Barber said he would do it again. The Rocky Mountain Paralegal Association recently sent out a press release lauding its member's success as the "first" for a paralegal.
"They checked with the national federation—NFPA—and they also checked with NALA, and neither of those organizations had heard of any paralegals ever being published in a law review, ever," he said. "So then they went and checked further with state organizations—and nothing. They sent emails out, posted notes saying 'Has anyone ever heard of this?' and got no responses. So after doing that background, they said, 'You're the first.'"
Barber has also recently written articles about major complex document control and new state laws in Utah. He is passionate about the paralegal profession and actively involved in various paralegal organizations, promoting education standards and professionalism.
But Barber wasn't always a champion of paralegal education. He had various odd jobs in the 1970s after a stint in the Air Force. While working in a San Antonio, TX, law firm in a clerical position, Barber finally decided what he wanted to do with his life.
"I like to help others, and I became fascinated by the law. It's like a continuous chess game," he said, adding that an attorney at the firm urged him to get a paralegal certificate.
"And my knee-jerk reaction was 'Why go take the course when I'm already doing the work?'" he said.
The attorney convinced him that a certificate was a sign of accomplishment and would further his career.
"So I went to the paralegal course, got my certificate, and brought it back in to him," he said. "And he was gracious enough to ask if he could frame it for me, and he did. And I still have it."
Now Barber worries about what he calls "poof paralegals."
"A guy with a magic wand comes along, taps you on the head, and poof, you're a paralegal now. That really hurts our profession, and I don't see that going out any time soon," he said. "Because the attorney has his legal secretary and he goes poof, he makes her a paralegal, gives her a couple bucks more an hour."
That's great for the one being "poofed," but it hurts the profession because it denigrates the people with education, especially when paralegals are lobbying for raises and more professional treatment, he said.
Barber said he thinks there is too much competition and infighting among organizations like the National Federation of Paralegal Associations and the National Association of Legal Assistants and various state, local, and national groups.
"It's not about NALA v. NFPA or NFPA v. NALA or either them v. state bar associations or local paralegal associations. It's about us in total trying to make the profession better, the paralegal profession," he said. "You hear people say, 'I don't like NALA,' or 'I don't like NFPA.' Well, that's not what the issue is. The issue is we as a group—together, we need to foster more for our profession. And if we don't take care of our profession, no one's going to."
Barber, who joined his firm in August 2004, said his writing helped him land the job.
"The reason I started writing was at that point, I felt, well, I've got enough experience now that I can actually feel comfortable about saying something about something and know what I'm talking about," he said. "When I came here, they said, 'You're the only one that's applied that has all these articles published.'"
The firm was clearly impressed, as Barber got the job. Writing well gives any applicant an extra edge in the legal profession, he said.
"It tells them a few things—that you can read, write, type, and understand and be able to restate issues," he said. "I think when you're in the employment market, you get some mileage out of that."
He also urges paralegals to seek diversity in their experience, even in the age of specialization.
"In Texas, if you start out as a personal injury paralegal, you will die a personal injury paralegal," he said. "I tried very hard to get experience on various sides, in different areas. So I've worked in personal injury, medical malpractice, plaintiff's work, defense work, with unions—so that you get employment labor work from a union's perspective in addition to the plaintiff's perspective or the employee or employer's perspective."
Variety is worth fighting for, he said, even if you have to sacrifice a short-term pay raise. In the long term, diverse experience pays.
"Get plaintiff's side, defense side. Don't just stay with personal injury; don't just stay with state law. Learn the federal law as well," he said. "Get some diversity in your background. It will help you if you decide to change careers; it will help you if you deicide to change states."