“Paralegals Are More Than You Think” — Berlinda Bernard
This interview is part of Loio series of interviews with legal enthusiasts about the ins and outs of the legal industry.
The following is the interview with Berlinda Bernard, a freelance contract paralegal with 12 years of professional experience, owner and founder of Quintessential Pillar Paralegal Consulting, LLC, the heart and mind behind Quintessential Pillar, a blog Berlinda started in July 2020 to share her knowledge, paralegal experience, education resources, and professional insights. She believes lawyers and paralegals can work smarter together, and she is on a quest to make that happen.
Let’s dive in!
Berlinda, thank you for doing this interview! According to your LinkedIn profile, you studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Why did you choose to become a paralegal eventually? Is there still a fashion bone in your body?
There’s still a little bit of fashion bone in my body. It was one of those things that I liked naturally. For me, it was almost like a hobby. I love being creative. For me, that was my first love. So I thought I would just go to school for it. It lasted until I knew what I wanted to do as a practical career, something that is more portable and secure.
So being a paralegal is more secure. Today fashion is like a side of me. Something that I still explore as a passion or a hobby. So it’s not fully forgotten, it’s there.
But why did you choose to become a paralegal? You’ve mentioned that it’s secure, but what interests you the most in this profession?
I definitely like working in law. I wanted to become a lawyer earlier on. But I knew that I wasn’t ready to go in full force into the profession. So I chose one of those alternative careers within the law, where I could be just as effective, without having to be in court, arguing for someone, or solving the problem directly. I wanted to be kind of a middleman. It was something that made sense to me.
I love reading case law and just seeing how this whole story develops. I also thought that I was the perfect person to be in this profession because you do have to have a bit of creativity to do it. People don’t really think about it, but you have to be able to play everything out in your head. Lawyers play out the whole matter in front of them before they go into court or write out this beautiful story in emotion, and present it, and hope the judge will believe it, or consider it.
So I feel like there is a creative aspect in law. So it would make perfect practical sense for me to be there. I do enjoy reading and writing. Those are the two things I could put together when I work in this legal profession.
You have been a paralegal for 12 years. What’s the best part of the job?
I think it’s a variety of work. Another thing is legal research. It is one of the things I love to do — I love looking for stuff and finding things. I feel like “Aha!” when it works out. I think that’s the kind of satisfaction that I get.
As I’ve mentioned before, I do enjoy legal writing. I love seeing how the story unfolds. So those are the aspects of it. I also enjoy talking to clients. It is kind of getting the story, especially in labor and employment law. You have to get the story: how this started, what happened, and who did what. Doing the client interview part and just seeing how they started and unfolded is really interesting.
This is the part of what I like. The variety of work, the flexibility and also getting to work amongst some of the smartest professionals — I think it’s a win.
So, being a paralegal is basically a combination of a ‘whodunit’, storytelling, creativity, and law… Fascinating! My next question is, what is the hardest part of the job?
I read about this all the time: sometimes lawyers don’t understand fully what paralegals are and what they can do for them. So, I think that the hardest part of the job is to get someone to believe that you are who you say you are. Sure, I’m not a lawyer — and I don’t have to be a lawyer to do what I do — to assist a lawyer and help them get from A to Z. But having to prove myself every time is the biggest turn-off for me.
Here’s the message I’d like to get through:
“Paralegals are more than you think. I went to school just like you did. I just didn’t follow the same path as you. But I come with the same skills that you have. Most importantly, I can help you get this process going. I could relieve you from the stress that you think you have to be burdened by. I can help you by doing a lot of these other tasks that you as a lawyer don’t really have to do. If you want to do it, you will be working till midnight — and I can actually help you out and get this done.”
What is the main goal of a paralegal’s work? Has it changed over the past ten years or over the past year?
I think the main goal is to be that body that’s present.
The paralegal role was originally supposed to be the person that stays around to hold down the fort when the lawyers are out there fighting for their clients. I think it’s still the case. I think it goes down to this: “I know you have A, B, and C to do. I can help you to do that so you can focus on the bigger picture.”
In terms of billable time, I believe that it was supposed to help lower the cost of legal fees and create more access to justice. Not everyone can afford a lawyer for around $400 an hour, you know. People are going to say: “No, thank you. I’m gonna just wing this.” But if you go like: “Well, I have paralegals on my team. Their rates are lower. But it’s not them doing the work — the lawyer still has to review the work. Paralegals are at least that manpower, that extra pair of hands to take on that task. This way, the lawyer will browse the document for like a .2 in billable hours versus a whole .5 or a whole hour.
“So, having a paralegal is about lowering the cost of legal representation and making it easier for everyone. I think that’s what it was supposed to do, and, I believe, it still is true.”
People get a little bit confused with all the different terms like ‘legal assistant,’ ‘paralegal,’ and ‘legal secretary.’ They are all different roles. A paralegal is supposed to be doing more substantive legal work, the stuff that a lawyer delegates to them. They could still get the money back, by billing the client for the paralegal’s time.
Legal assistants are supposed to be almost hybrid but focus more on legal administrative work. Meanwhile, the legal secretary mostly does secretarial work: they answer the phones and do things that are more front office. They get the work quickly out the door.
So, the definition has changed so much. But when you take everything back, you see that paralegals are supposed to be the ones who assist, the ones who are the lawyer’s right hand in almost everything when it comes to the representation.
Thanks for the clarification. You have switched to freelancing recently. Why did you do that?
I did that because I wanted the freedom to do the work that I enjoy the most. It’s about all that amazing stuff of being a business owner and having that autonomy to do what you want when it comes to the work you do.
For example, I enjoy working in Labor & Employment Law and Bankruptcy Law. So I decided to focus on these two practice areas that I thrived in and enjoyed the most when I was working full time.
Also, finally, I can concentrate on the tasks I love — legal research, writing, litigation support, and client intake — instead of doing the tasks no one else in the firm would do. Working full-time, I was getting tired of doing those tasks. I would think: “Why do I always have to deal with these things that have nothing to do with my background? Why do I have to figure it out?” And it was almost impossible to do — almost like trying to get water out of rocks. I think that’s an expression in Creole.
Eventually, as paralegals, we usually end up supporting lawyers in figuring that impossible stuff out. But at the end of the day, it’s so frustrating. And you go like: ‘I am not an accountant, guys! I hate math, just like you all do!’
“But then you find something else — a project which is aligning with your skills. For me, it is about deciding to only be offering services that I know I’m good at. I know that lawyers will appreciate my legal research skills. Knowing that I’m into technology and using the right resources, I can probably pass this along to the lawyers’ as proof that they can take a chance on me to work with them.”
What skills should a paralegal have to start as a freelancer?
I had to start my own business, so I had to do all of these things that I’d never really done before. Like establishing my LLC and doing the filing with the state. And I had to learn how to draft my own contracts, too. Here’s a funny thing: a colleague of yours, Lucy, once asked me if I worked with contracts. And I said no. And obviously, now all of a sudden I need contract drafting skills. I’ve created the formal contract that I use when I provide my services to attorneys and generally when I’m entering any agreements with anyone else.
What lessons have you learned so far as a freelance paralegal?
Paralegals should be able to wear multiple hats. You have to be willing to put them on and just go. That’s what makes you more valuable to your attorneys because that’s what they need. But as a freelance paralegal, you are not only wearing the hat of that paralegal but you are also wearing the hat of a business owner.
Another thing is that you are going to have to be ok to leave some stuff to the professionals. You should hire an accountant and a lawyer. You’ll have to do that even though you are savvy as a legal professional.
When I was in a law firm, I could fix some IT stuff. But as a freelancer, you have to really trust that other stuff with the professionals, because you want to focus on the work you do.
As a paralegal professional, I’m still putting together education materials. I also want to turn part of my services into consulting pieces to train paralegals, who are more or less seasoned than I am, in law firms that take a chance on bringing up a legal assistant to become a paralegal. But there are still a lot of things that are missing in this area in terms of education.
I believe that paralegal education provides paralegals with certain fundamentals that if you did not go to a program, you might not know. Like the unauthorized practice of law. A lawyer doesn’t have time to teach that to paralegals. So I also offer these educational services to the attorneys, especially in small law firms, who have staff who lack the professional development they need to effectively support attorneys.
Going back to wearing multiple hats. There are only 24 hours in a day and I have to take care of the kids. Earlier, I was trying to tweak my lifestyle. I love that creative aspect of it. But by the end of the day, I know that I’m going to mess something else up. Then when you mess it up, you write that as zero. Oh my gosh, it could be so nerve-wracking and frustrating! So I learn to say “You know what? I’m going to do this part and I’m going to eventually have to pay somebody to do the other parts. Because if I break this, this is my storefront. Especially if this storefront is a website.”
“So, you have to leave your non-core tasks to the professionals and focus on your craft making sure you are on top of your education as a paralegal, on top of your skills, and on top of the work that you are trying to bring out there to the world.”
To wrap up, I think that as a paralegal-business owner you will wear multiple hats and you will certainly need to learn which one to let go of.
Let’s talk a little bit about mental health. Do you have any personal tips on how to manage mental health?
OK, so this is a thing that has been brought up lately, especially in the legal profession. People are finally opening up about it. I do think paralegals deal with it. We are so good at hiding it or dealing with it in the background. We take it home with us in a sense where we don’t get to express it at work. When you are at work, you get to deal with a lot of things. For example, with lawyers that are super under stress. So that might not be so great for a paralegal. You deal with your own stress behind you and you deal with your own confidence issue because you are being doubted a lot of times, not being trusted to do the work. Often as a paralegal, you’re like: “Hey listen, I can do it, I can do that.” So sometimes it could be a lot for a paralegal to deal with.
I think that paralegals are affected in that sense, but again, we don’t really put it out there. Sometimes I see these issues discussed in the forums and it seems a bit strange to me. But at the same time, paralegals have to unload that somewhere.
I’d like to speak for myself. I’ve worked with various attorneys. Sometimes it could be challenging. It could be an ego thing or stress going from upwards like their manager or an executive committee. And sometimes they pass it on to you.
So I think you have to have tough skin as a paralegal. Because you are going to have somebody who’s going to make you feel “less than.” You are going to have someone who is dealing with their own stress and insecurity, and you could see it getting passed onto you. As a paralegal, you have to be aware of that and know when to set boundaries.
Try to not take it home with you as much as possible. If you’re going to go home, whether it’s just by yourself, with your friends, or your beautiful family, try your best to leave it at the door at work. It can be a stressful environment. It could really have some toll on your own mental health.
What do you think the winning mindset for paralegals is?
I think a winning mindset is being open to learning. Whether you’re a paralegal who went to a paralegal studies program, or you were brought up in the race (you start out as a secretary or a legal assistant), wherever and however you came up, you have to continuously be learning.
Even if you come with the textbook mind, meaning like everything is up there, you still gonna have to learn the institutional knowledge. You have to know how those things actually work in this environment. You have to be open to learning and not come in as if you know it all. It’s all about being flexible, adaptable, and being proactive. I believe this is the winning mindset for a paralegal.
If you go like: “No, I won’t do that. No, this is beneath me. No, this is too much,” you aren’t going to succeed. It depends on your relationship with whoever. I’ve seen people who could get away with it. But for most of us who want to succeed, who want to move further, you have to have that mindset. That you want to learn. That you want to help. That you have that collaborative spirit. Because that collaborative spirit will help you go much further. I’m willing to help someone who has a collaborative spirit. But if you see that kind of person who’s going to take and run, and not even say thank you and act like it’s your own… I hesitate I’ll help them next time. I’m still going to help them because at the end of the day I want to see us all win. But if they want to talk bad about you and not give you the right credit when it’s due, I’m not going to be like: “Yeah, I’m gonna help you!” I’m going to say: “I’m busy,” because, usually, I’m going to be busy. I’m not going to drop everything and be like: “Oh my gosh, you have an emergency! Let me help you!” I’m going to be like “Wait until I’m done.”
So you have to have that mindset when we are teammates, we are here to work together. Whether you’re a paralegal, a legal assistant, or whatever, we are in the same group together. The best way to succeed is to actually work together.
“So I think that having that camaraderie (that’s like the key word I want here) will allow us as legal professionals who are not lawyers but practice in law to succeed. That’s really the key I think.”
What skills should a paralegal of the 21st century have? Do they include tech-savviness?
Absolutely, you need to have technology skills, you need to be tech-savvy. We’re not going backward, we’re only going forward. I think that as a paralegal who knows how to navigate a few systems you are going to be more useful than anyone else.
Yes, it’s beautiful to have a whole bunch of books. You are supposed to have a background of all these beautiful textbooks. But legal research is on the Internet now. Legal research, law practice management … it is all web-based. You can use it the basic way, or you could actually use it the most useful way — actually use it for what it is supposed to do.
“Being tech-savvy and being willing to use new technology is one of the ways that a paralegal will succeed.”
The lawyer will succeed there, too, because you only know what you know and you are only able to use what you know of. But if you know more and you know how to get more, I think everyone will stand out better. So definitely tech-savviness works.
Other than that, you have to be organized because attorneys are not always the most organized people. Most of the attorneys I work with are very disorganized. And as a paralegal you have to pull everything in: a lawyer can give you an email saying “Here are my thoughts.” And you need to be able to get all these documents, and organize them in a way that’s more presentable. So you have to be self-directed.
You have to be able to manage your time because, again, there are a lot of last-minute things. So, it’s about being prepared, having good communication skills, and not being afraid to approach an attorney and say something like: “I’ve noticed you’ve been working, but can you let me know what’s coming up?”
One time everybody was like “Wow, way to go!” when I sent an email to the whole firm saying: “Hi, I’ve attached one of the ADA documents about the utilization of paralegals,” when I realized I was not being utilized properly. I’m sure I could insult someone a little bit like the managing partner who may feel like they should be the one thinking up there, but I’m going to help all the lawyers. So, in my email, I went like: “Hey, FYI, I’m here to do more than just wait for you to have your last-minute emergencies. I can help you prepare for those emergencies.”
Another piece of advice would be to continue to develop other skills that fit the work you do. Your writing skills and your research skills need to be on point. Lawyers rely on those 2 things because they always are in a rush and those things save them some time and energy.
A good paralegal would say to a lawyer: “I’m blocking everything out. I’m gonna use my skills and abilities to navigate the systems and get what you need for your cases.”
What is the next logical step in a paralegal career? How do you envision your future career?
You bring so many skills from other professions into the paralegal profession. Then the skills that you learn within the profession help you to be better out there. So, it’s a win-win.
Paralegals end up working in a compliance setting, where you can be a compliance manager or associate doing more analytical work. The reason why I feel like that is that I’ve worked in compliance as a compliance paralegal. Initially, the person in that role was a compliance manager who was going to be a compliance officer. As they wanted to promote him, they decided to hire a paralegal instead to fill in that role. So, the stuff I was doing was both compliance work and paralegal work.
As a paralegal, there are so many careers you can end up in if you open your mind. If you stay within a firm within the legal profession, you can assume more of a management role being a paralegal administrator or a law firm administrator. But sometimes those roles imply only one person, so in the legal world, you’re limited, unfortunately. You could come from being a regular paralegal to maybe having more of a senior paralegal role. But there shouldn’t be a misconception: you don’t become a lawyer from being a paralegal. That will never happen unless you go to law school obviously. That’s the only way that would happen. Although, it’s really cool to have been a paralegal before going to law school. This is not a requirement obviously, but it’s definitely worth it.
So, furthering your career is a challenge paralegals will deal with, unfortunately. Even if you go out and get a Master’s in legal studies, it’s still going to put you in a position where you’re not gonna grow outside of the paralegal role unless you change jobs and do other things that incorporate those skills and that education into it. That’s why you have paralegals with no degree, associate’s degree, fashion degrees, and Master’s degrees.
A lot of paralegals teach in paralegal studies schools and do a lot of mentoring. To sum up, there are many ways to branch out, but not necessarily in the way that you would expect. It’s really limited, but you can create your own story if you’re creative enough.
Let’s talk about your story. How do you envision your future?
Sure! I am a dreamer and a doer. As a freelance paralegal, now that I have my business, Quintessential Pillar Paralegal Consulting, LLC, I would hope that I will definitely change how lawyers work with paralegals. I want to help lawyers work smarter with paralegals. So, it’s about continuously bringing it out there that paralegals are here to assist lawyers, help level them up — not to compete with them or mess them up. That’s really one thing I’m continuing to bring more recognition to.
“I definitely want to train up other paralegals to be the best paralegals that anyone could have.”
I hope that in the future paralegals who come out of a paralegal studies program to work with me will then come out of my office being the best starter paralegals in the country. I would love paralegals to have the proper training and education that the legal industry needs. And I would love to do it.
I definitely want to do more writing about the profession and bring more light to it. I want to just help lawyers see that the only folks that are going to really help lawyers alleviate that stress are paralegals.
One day I hope to go deeper into the topic of mental health and burnout and emphasize that it’s all about utilizing your resources. People keep thanking me for bringing out this topic, but no one seems to do the actual work of changing the status quo.
I hope my legacy would be that paralegals are perceived as a quintessential pillar in the legal services industry. If we acknowledge that we could have better lawyers and change the narrative overall.
In July 2020, you launched your blog called Quintessential Pillar. What’s the idea behind it? What’s the idea behind its name?
“Oh, I wanna start a blog!” — that’s what I thought last year. I had been willing to do it for a long time because, as a paralegal, I was not being utilized appropriately in certain settings. I was thinking: “Oh my gosh, people need to know what paralegals should work like.” So I decided to just start writing.
When I was coming up with the name of my blog, I didn’t want it to be like “Berlinda Bernard.” I know that “Quintessential pillar” is kind of a tongue twister. So I had to ask my husband who speaks a whole lot of languages and who had to go from French and Creole to Spanish and then to English — in that sequence. I asked if he could pronounce “quintessential pillar” — and he pronounced it even better than I did. Then I decided that was not such a hard name.
The meaning of the word “quintessential” reflects how essential paralegal is in the legal industry. I wanted to put that out there. The word “pillar” sends us to that column that literally holds the building together. You see them in most courthouses. So, “quintessential” and “pillar” together made the perfect name! My husband agreed that it is unique and different. That’s why I came up with that name.
Being a paralegal for years, I wanted to just share positive things about the profession in my blog. Apparently, I also wanted to nudge lawyers a little bit by saying: “Hey, we’re here to help you. Give us better work to do. We are actually profit-centered more than just being employees who just want to get paid and not do anything. We can do more. Trust us. Assign us more stuff.” In many of my blog posts, I say: “Work smarter with paralegals in your team.” I am trying not to say too much, but I say enough for people to get the point. Even if you’re not a lawyer or a paralegal, you’ll be going like “Oh, so that’s what paralegals do!” after reading my articles. I write about it because I wanted everyone — the general public — to understand what paralegals do.
Before 2009, if I called the lawyer’s office, I wanted to speak to a lawyer. But now I know that paralegals know no less about your case than lawyers do. And you pay less. So, one of the goals of my blog is to help the public understand that we’re not diminishing anyone by having them talk with the paralegal. It is actually good for them.
To sum it up, my blog is about educating the public, paralegals, and lawyers. I am not trying to be a smart head here. I’m just really trying to say that paralegals are here to work with you and make your life better.
You have built quite a following on LinkedIn. How did you do it?
Well, I’ve been posting consistently. For the last six months, I’ve really been very intentional about my posts. Initially, I noticed that lawyers had been posting about being lawyers, so I thought that paralegals could post about paralegals, too. I didn’t see a lot of that happening — at least, not consistently — so, I started to do it myself. After launching the blog, I got more consistent because I had more material and a place I could refer others to.
Recently I’ve been posting less active on LinkedIn just engaging more with those in my network, intentionally accepting connections and connecting with others.
By the way, I had lawyers, who are partners in firms having large teams of paralegals, reach out to me saying: “Oh wow, you put out this article on paralegal studies for lawyers! That’s a great article! Thank you for writing it!” That made me realize that people out there really need to know more about paralegals and what we do.
Just knowing that people want to see what I write encourages and motivates me. That’s probably why I was able to grow more of a following and hope to grow more.
Does LinkedIn help you to build your business? Does it bring clients to you?
Absolutely! Most lawyers trust LinkedIn as their preferred social media platform. I don’t get clients directly via LinkedIn, though. I think most people realize it’s not a place where you just say “Here I am, come and be my client.” It’s more about building your reputation. People are reaching out to me saying: “Hey, I was following you! I enjoy your posts!” LinkedIn works well for referrals. Somebody can say something like: “Hey there! There’s this woman. She’s a paralegal. Her name is Berlinda. She posts on LinkedIn and I’ve read about her blog. It seems like she knows what she’s talking about. She could help you”. So people off LinkedIn have reached out to me because someone who’s been following me referred them to me.
The exposure is helping.
If you could have lunch with any prominent legal industry figure, who would that be and why?
Oh my gosh, it’s a good question! Well, right now I follow quite a few people on LinkedIn. I really enjoy reading their stuff. But I’d like to mention Lisa Lang — I really enjoy engaging with her. I feel like she gets it. I could probably have a conversation with her about being paralegals and lawyers because she was a paralegal herself. And her military background has shaped her. So I think I’ll definitely enjoy lunch with her.
But there are a few other people I’d be glad to have lunch with like those exciting people in the legaltech world. I really like thinking about how people’s minds work because I feel like in that industry you also need a support staff. I always want to know how they come up with their product, when they offer it, and who they have in mind.
My last question is, what interview question would you like to be asked?
“What practice areas do I enjoy working in the most?” I think that would be a good question because that is different for paralegals. There’re so many different practice areas and we thrive differently in different settings.
And how would you answer it?
The two practice areas that I thrive in most as a paralegal are definitely Labor & Employment Law and Bankruptcy Law. Bankruptcy Law is where I started. It was one of those areas of law that I was kind of skeptical about. And intrigued by companies that could go through a legal process, get rid of their debt, rebuild themselves, and continue to prosper. There’s so much for paralegals to do in that area! I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of my skills from working there.
Then, Labor & Employment Law has obviously two aspects: you can either be in-house or you could be working in a law firm. If a paralegal gets a chance to work in both of them, they end up with a whole lot to offer.
For me, having worked in those two areas has made it possible for me to be where I am today.
Thank you very much, Berlinda!
On October 21, 2021, we at Loio hosted a webinar on tips and strategies for being a better paralegal. At this webinar, two brilliant p...