Thursday, June 09, 2011

What it is about Paralegals

I assume Marin anticipated the sh*ststorm s/he ran into with the post dumping on paralegals (ha!  I see it has zero "likes"!), but I think a lot of the commentary misses a key point.  It's  not just the smug ignorance and the aristocratic hauteur.   The real thing about being a paralegal is that it's an entirely different skill set--one that does not, on the whole, pay nearly as well as law grads dream of being paid, but one that lawyers dispense with only at their peril.

Good lawyers come with a variety of skills (though it is rare that any one lawyer has all of them--like the title role in Hamlet, the script is just too rich for any single actor to explore it all).  One skill most of them do not have is picking up the pieces.  Good paralegals are great at picking up the pieces at assembling the data, at not-missing the unmissable deadline.  We've all known--okay, I have known--good lawyers who travel with their paralegals as if joined at the hip like Steve Wilson and Lorelei, one doing whatever it is that he does and the other making it all happen.

I suspect I am treading on the outer reaches of a much larger issue here: the whole universe of the "second banana," Sancho Panza, Doctor Watson, Bunter, whatever.  But damn, it's real.    Top executives, the public face of the company--particularly the creative types (eg, fashion designers), but just about anybody highly visible front person--squint a bit and you'll see that almost anybody in this situation operates with a less visible sidekick who keeps it on track.

Women readers, if I have any, are seething at the moment, ready to yell heyThat is precisely the kind of condescension and trivializing that kept my female ancestors in their cages for so long!  I can sympathize and there is at least a large kernel of truth in the view.  I'll try to sidestep it (at least in part?) by insisting that the second banana need not be a female.  Certainly all those career military noncoms who have shepherded countless generations of officers were not female, nor even, come to think of it, remotely feminine.  And FWIW, perhaps the most interesting second banana in literary history is Pallas Athena in the Odyssey, always pullinig Odysseus; chestnuts out of the fire.  I also leave aside for the moment the contentious question of how many women took up the second banana role because it was thrust upon them, not because it was their natural metier.

Sadly, one way to get insight into the matter is to watch what happens to great paralegals when they get fed up with working for a jerk and decide to go to law school themselves.  Some of them do fine, of course, but a lot of them find that their particular skill set just doesn't travel very well and that they have given up  career they were pretty skilled at and secure in for one in which they can find no natural home. One class of second bananas (bananae?) who have famously understood this are the "clerks" ("clarks?") who run/ran barristers' chambers in the classic British law-model.  They learned to practice an aesthetic of 'umble; they also knew how to run rings round their betters, and to make them jump through hoops.  Maybe good paralegals know the same thing and aren't telling us.  

1 comment:

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

It's mostly about social class: less so gender.

Our genial host forgot to explain that there are two kinds of paralegals: the cute little well-groomed kiddies who eventually go to law school, and the less ornamental more proletarian sorts who actually expect to make a living at this. The kiddies are there to amuse the lawyers; the proles are there to do real work. They receive very different forms of condescension.

For a more purely gendered story, I would look to nursing rather than the paralegal biz.