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Interview with Paralegal Janis Jones

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Most of the work that I do is in the area of consumer litigation, and most of the claims are brought under breach of warranty statutes or lemon laws. What makes my job so interesting and challenging is that until about three years ago, the job that I currently do, along with two other paralegals, was performed by an attorney. At that time management decided that these cases could be managed and administered by paralegals with attorney supervision.
 
Interview with Paralegal Janis Jones

Company: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.


City: Torrance, CA

Department: Legal Department

Title: Senior Legal Administrator

Salary Range: $38,000-$54,000

Benefits:

Insurance: medical, dental, vision, life, disability

Financial: savings and pension plan, credit union

Vacation: 15 days (after 5 years)

Sick time: 7 days

Misc.: 2 days personal time, 12 paid holidays. On-campus facilities: fitness center, 3 restaurants, store, dry cleaner. Vehicle lease/purchase/rental program, tuition aid, holiday party, service awards, family picnic, dependent care reimbursement, etc.

Previous Work Experience:

Three years as a litigation paralegal for a large law firm. Three years as an entertainment transactional and litigation paralegal for a small law, Corporate Legal Departments firm. One and a half years as an entertainment litigation paralegal for a small law firm.

JOB DESCRIPTION:

General Summary

Administers consumer lawsuits, provides paralegal support to business litigators and other departments in the company.

Principal Duties:
 
  • Manage litigation on fifty to sixty "Lemon Law" and breach of warranty law suits from complaint through resolution, including trial.
  • Respond to all third-party subpoenas for company documents.
  • Conduct legal and factual research.
  • Obtain for outside counsel documents and company information needed in business litigation.
  • Review all garnishments and advise payroll department on any resulting legal issues.

Q: Janis, you work for Toyota, in California, at the company's national headquarters, and you're in a legal department.

JJ: It is the legal department, for the whole country.

Q: So, a big job.

JJ: Right. My duties cover the entire country, which makes it interesting. I have forty-nine states worth of civil procedure to contend with.

Q: Minus what?

JJ: Hawaii. Since we're the importer of the vehicles from Japan, it makes sense just to drop them off in Hawaii directly rather than bring them to the U.S. and then send them back. The company's been in the U.S. about thirty years.

Q: You are senior legal administrator. Can you tell me a little about how the department is structured?

JJ: There were actually two legal departments until recently. One was called Business Law, and the other Product Law. The Product Law group's main emphasis was product liability litigation.

The Business Law group basically did everything else for the company: corporate maintenance, finance issues, dealer relations, dealer litigation, labor and employment, and it handled all non-injury consumer litigation. That's the group that I work in. The Department recently combined under one vice-president and general counsel, but there are still these different aspects. I believe we have about seventy people in our department.

Q: How many attorneys and paralegals?

JJ: Approximately twenty attorneys and nine paralegals. We have one professional staff person; that is how the paralegals are categorized and one manager, or attorney. So that's a pretty good ratio for support.

Most of the work that I do is in the area of consumer litigation, and most of the claims are brought under breach of warranty statutes or lemon laws. What makes my job so interesting and challenging is that until about three years ago, the job that I currently do, along with two other paralegals, was performed by an attorney. At that time management decided that these cases could be managed and administered by paralegals with attorney supervision.

Q: That's wonderful, because you must have a large amount of autonomous responsibility.

JJ: Yes. From the day the complaint is served through the day the settlement agreement is signed or the case dismissed, it is the responsibility of the paralegal to handle the case. It is never assigned to an attorney. But we work with attorney supervision. The attorneys have trained us to be aware of the legal issues and legal strategies involved in handling the cases, and they are available to discuss issues of law that come up or strategies with motions or discovery that we want to address. Also, for certain dollar amounts we have to go to the attorneys for our authority.

Q: Do the attorneys have to sign off on legal documents for you, or do you have the authority to do that?

JJ: By legal documents do you mean documents filed with the court?

Q: Yes, generally.

JJ: No. On each of our consumer litigation cases, if we decide to answer the complaint and go forward with the litigation, we retain local counsel with a law firm in the state where the case was brought. Usually, it's just one plaintiff, and the cases are fairly straightforward as to the facts. So we do some discovery, take the deposition of the plaintiff and, maybe, his expert, such as his mechanic, and during the whole time we try to evaluate whether it's something we want to defend or settle.

The challenge for us, as paralegals, is that we're the ones who are the client contact with the local counsel, and we make all those decisions. Our supervising attorney is available if we seek guidance, but basically, after having done these for years now we make most of those decisions on our own.

Q: You have a high level of independence.

JJ: Yes, we do. The country is divided up among the three paralegals by state. We each have a third of the states, and for variety, I guess, we each have states on the East Coast, in the Midwest, in the South, and in the West. I spend probably fifty percent of my time on the phone, and on any given day I might talk to people from North Carolina, Illinois, Wyoming, and Southern California.

It's quite interesting. The challenge is really in the volume. Toyota has very few cases in comparison to other manufacturers, but I probably have about fifty open cases at any one time.

Q: Which is a fairly high case load?

JJ: Yes. That's a pretty heavy case load, and it takes up about fifty percent of my time.

Q: What do you do with the other fifty percent? Your title is senior legal administrator. Does that mean the other fifty percent of your time is spent in a supervisory capacity? Or does every paralegal there have the same title?

JJ: No. When I started I was called legal assistant. After two years, I was promoted to senior legal assistant. But in our company, people who are at our grade level, in the professional category, are called administrators, which is where the title derives. "Administrator'' is a word which correlates with other job titles, so those outside the legal department can tell from your title what level you are.

Q: I expect that, in the corporate world, that's important.

JJ: Yes. In corporate politics, that's important. The title is also a form of recognition that I've worked for Toyota for six years. Especially with times being a little financially tight, the raises are not as frequent as they used to be, so you take things like title upgrades as a reflection of your value to the company.

The "administrator" part of my title doesn't mean that I supervise anyone. I don't actually have anyone working under me, although I have helped the newer paralegals. What it does refer to is the fact that we paralegals administer the cases.

Q: Back to the other fifty percent of your time-what do you do with it?

JJ: I'm available to provide paralegal support for business litigation, which is something that at one time I was much more involved in than I am now. By paralegal support I mean coordinating with our outside law firms to provide them with all of the documents that we have to help them respond to discovery requests or to evaluate or defend the case. The company [Toyota] is the client, and in order to properly represent the client they need quite a bit of information. Providing that information and being the communication channel is my role.

Q: That must put you into contact with an enormous number of people.

JJ: That's one of the great things about my job. I not only have contact with attorneys all over the country, but I also have contact with all types of people within Toyota. I work with accountants, marketing people, distribution people, technical people, and operations people. That makes the job very interesting. These are very knowledgeable people who have a lot to share, and that expands my own knowledge base. Many times in these lawsuits, I learn so much that I become sort of a lay expert on aspects of the company, and I find that very enjoyable.

A related comment to that is that it is always very clear whom I work for. When you work in a law firm you have to divide your loyalty and time among your clients and projects, whereas when you work for the client, as I do, you don't have that division in your interest. All my energies can be given to my one client, Toyota.

However, we don't think of Toyota itself as being just one client. We view the different departments in Toyota as individual clients. My particular clients are the customer relations department for both Toyota and Lexus, and the payroll department. For example, I advise the payroll department on all wage garnishments for all of Toyota's companies all over the country, so I have to review them to see that they're valid. I have to do the research for the state that the garnishment is in, so I can answer their questions properly.

An area which has kept me very busy this week is vehicle safety complaints. Periodically, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, which is an arm of the Department of Transportation, get enough safety-related complaints about a type of vehicle that they will do an investigation. It's my job to respond on behalf of my department. This means that I have to review all of the files, which, fortunately, are on a computer database, to determine which might be responsive, and then I pull them, review them, make the copies (my secretary would make the copies), and put them into memo form.

I also review and respond to all third-party subpoenas for company records. With this job, again, I get to meet and work with people from other departments.

I think your observation is correct. I work with a high level of responsibility and a low level of supervision, which makes it challenging. But I never feel like I'm floundering in terms of not having attorney support, because there are attorneys available who have experience in all the areas I work in.

Q: As you said, in your current job, Toyota is your client. Working for that one client is different from working for a law firm, where you typically have many clients. Did you come out of a law firm environment where that was the case?

JJ: Yes.

Q: What was your background?

JJ: To begin with, I worked in a large, downtown Los Angeles law firm with hundreds of attorneys for about three years. I spent most of my time summarizing documents and depositions and indexing and Bates stamping.

Q: All the fun stuff!

JJ: Right. Fortunately, I did sometimes get involved with trial work, which was exciting. After I decided that the hurry-up-and-wait pace of litigation was not for me, I was fortunate to find a very old, prestigious entertainment law firm with about sixteen attorneys in Hollywood that was looking for a litigation paralegal to train in entertainment. That just sounded so great to me. I went to work for this law firm, and they paid me to train in music publishing, some television production, and corporate maintenance for entertainment clients, contracts and licensing, and copyright registration for music clients on new albums and new songs. I was the only paralegal there. The firm had many high profile music clients, performers, and directors.

But, believe it or not, after about a year and a half, I started to miss litigation. I'm someone who's always looking ahead for my next career move, even if I have no plans on changing jobs.

Q: You want to keep the doors open, even if you don't ever go through them.

JJ: Right. What I found was that the work I was doing in the entertainment section was not very marketable-it's a very specialized niche. The studios and record companies did have people in similar positions, but they didn't pay them beans. So I thought "You know I really need to keep my finger in the litigation pie."

Q: What did you do then?

JJ: I approached the litigators in the firm and told them I'd like to provide them with litigation support. Of course, they snapped me up right away. I did that for about three years. Then I took a position in an entertainment litigation law firm. It was perfect because it combined the excitement of being in the entertainment area with the skills that I wanted to continue to build in the litigation area.

Q: It's nice to be in demand!

JJ: I hadn't planned on interviewing in a corporation and hadn't paid a lot of attention to what goes on in one. I had never dreamed I would work for an automotive company. What probably attracted me most were the geographic desirability and the reasonable hours, because at that time I had a young child. I thought "This is coming along at the right time for me."

So I accepted the job and started out doing a different kind of work than I do now-pre-litigation claims. I did that for a couple of years before I started doing the litigation.

Q: Now that you've been in both the law firm and the corporate world, which do you like better?

JJ: The corporate.

Q: Why?

JJ: The answer is probably what appears to be obvious to me--the reasonable hours and the benefits package, combined with a competitive salary. Having only one client, Toyota, is a plus because it enables you to develop an ongoing working relationship with the client. You can become familiar with the client's products, personnel, and philosophy. You have the luxury of developing a really deep knowledge. Another great benefit is that we don't do time sheets.

Q: The infamous billing requirements!

JJ: Yes. Working for one client eliminates that problem. I also very much enjoy the opportunity to work with other people daily who are not legal types. When I worked in a law firm, it was very easy to develop a certain mindset and attitude. Here we have a philosophy I'm proud of, even though it increases our workload, and that is that we try to be proactive. We try to get involved in things on the front end-when a contract is being drafted, when a license is being entered into, when legislation is being drafted-so that Toyota can continue to be a responsible citizen and contributor to the country, rather than be seen as cleaning up the mess after something falls apart.

HFCi Unlike a law firm, where, although through no fault of the law firm perhaps, you often spend much of your time fixing problems that have already developed.

JJ: It's a whole different ball game. We walk a fine line between the economics of managing a case and the bigger economic picture of knowing you can't pay the plaintiff on every frivolous lawsuit filed, because it could open a floodgate of people who think all you have to do is file a complaint against Toyota and they'll send you a check.

Q: Any drawbacks to the job?

JJ: There's not a lot of upward mobility in our company. Very few, if any, paralegals are neutral on the topic of billing. Most hate it. In a billing system, paralegals are expected to work a certain number of hours per day which can be billed out to a client. Many firms have a minimum billing requirement. For example, paralegals in a particular firm may be expected to bill out seven and a half hours a day. Obviously, this can be difficult, especially if the paralegal is also expected to perform daily tasks which are not billable to any client, such as training new paralegals or attending a company workshop.

There is a correlation, although perhaps a weak one, between billable hours and a paralegal's compensation. Supposedly, if a paralegal is producing more hours of work which can be billed to a client, more money is coming in to the firm and the paralegal's salary may be higher. But working more hours, and thus billing out more hours, may not, in reality, have much effect on a paralegal's actual salary. There wasn't a huge difference in the salaries of the bottom and the top billers, yet the top billers were working far more hours. In other words, even though a top-billing paralegal may make more money, he or she may actually make less money per hour than a bottom biller. Of course, some firms base annual bonuses on how many hours a paralegal has billed throughout the year, which may more than make up for the inequity in pay.

HINT:

One thing almost all non-traditional paralegals love does not have to deal with billing requirements. They like not having to track every minute of their time on the job, and they like not having the stress of meeting a billing minimum. There are a few non-traditional paralegals that still have billing requirements. If this is an important consideration to you, ask about it when interviewing for a non-traditional job.

Q: Then what do you see as your future?

JJ: Well, I never perceived that much upward mobility in a law firm, either. I think you just continue to do your best job and hope that you're recognized in terms of interesting work, attorneys coming back to you attorneys you like--and your raises. That's what it really comes down to in my mind--that you're compensated for doing your job well day in and day out. So the fact that there's no upward mobility where I am now is not necessarily a negative.

I think that when I feel my ambition rearing its head (I won't say its ugly head), what I would like to try, and what I'm starting this fall, is teaching. I might like to freelance, too-not as a working paralegal but perhaps as a consultant to law firms on setting up paralegal programs and hiring paralegals, especially by hooking up with placement departments in paralegal schools. I think that's a good source of trained, professional paralegals.

I don't know about Denver, but in Los Angeles, you see a lot of people passing themselves off as paralegals who have no background whatsoever. They come and go. Many of them are want-to-be actors who are just passing their time doing paralegal work, and it really disparages those of us who are trained in the profession and have deliberately chosen it as what we want to do.

I don't see any change for me in the near future because I'm still finding out if I like teaching and if teaching likes me and if I can be successful with it. I am on the advisory board of a local junior college, and I'm learning a lot about the education process. Although I never perceived myself as a teacher, it's something that I'm very excited about.

Q: It sounds like much of your motivation to teach stems from your wanting to pass on your knowledge and also hoping that you can help train paralegals better than they have been in the past, if they've been trained at all.

JJ: Yes. Another thing I don't think is being done nearly enough is the training of attorneys in the use of paralegals. We work very hard to network and educate ourselves, legislators, and people who want to come into the profession, but we forget to educate the attorneys. After all, we're still mainly hired by attorneys. We need to let them know that there are trained, professional, committed paralegals out there.

Q: Any final words of wisdom?

JJ: I guess my thoughts for new and currently working paralegals are to encourage them to continue to grow in the profession and in the direction that the profession and market demand. That includes getting involved with a local professional organization as well as continuing their education. I think that's very important. Some paralegals say, "Well, I've been doing it for twenty years," as though there's nothing else they can learn. But I think there are always new areas of law opening up where paralegal support is needed.

I think that in today's employment market, you've got to be well-rounded. If you specialize too heavily, it's going to limit you when you go to look for another job. I think that's what got me the job here. There were several candidates, but I believe I had a broader knowledge than they did.

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