In our continuing series on the paralegal experience, we spoke with three powerhouses who serve on the Board of the San Francisco Paralegal Association.
Amy McGuigan is a paralegal at Swanson & McNamara and the president of the SFPA. She’s joined by Kate Oliver, who serves as a litigation paralegal at the Scranton Law Firm and a director at large of the SFPA, and Erin Keller, SFPA treasurer and paralegal with Fink Family Law.
We asked a few questions to learn more about resources and opportunities the SFPA offers members, and what it’s like to juggle paralegal work and community service.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amy, what’s it like to volunteer for an organization like the SFPA?
Well, I started off as a legal secretary, and worked really hard to move into a paralegal position. And what I realized is that the SFPA is just such a great resource for anybody who wants to meet other paralegals and learn more about the day-to-day aspects of the role. I really wish I had found it earlier, because I remember what it was like when I was trying to learn the ropes. As a member, I enjoy the fact that I can come up with different ideas to help people, whether they’re trying to learn a new skill or get a job. I kind of figured things out on my own as I went along, and I hope that as a member of the Board, I can spare other people some of that struggle. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it.
Erin, do you want to answer that too? What are your thoughts?
I think I’ve had a bit of a different experience than Amy has, although I will just piggyback on to her last statement about the amount of work that’s involved in volunteering on a Board like this. Sometimes it almost feels like a full-time job in its own right!
That said, I started out as a receptionist and legal assistant. When I started working towards becoming a paralegal, my boss was completely supportive. But I wasn’t part of an organization like the SFPA, so I was pretty isolated in my position. Before I met Amy and the other SFPA members, I had no idea how wide the range of tasks we might be responsible for could really be. So I’m learning a lot from everyone on the board, and it’s very rewarding to see how appreciative people are – we provide a ton of great webinars and information and networking opportunities, and people really are benefitting from all of it. So I’m really proud to be a part of it.
Amy, what’s your perspective on the training resources SFPA offers? As both board president and a training professional, you probably have a unique point of view.
You know, it’s so rewarding to have people come up to me after a class or a training program and say “I can just tell how much you love this – I really want to talk to you more,” or ask if SFPA has a mentorship program. Every time we host a class, we get all these emails saying thank you for putting that program together, I learned so much and it’s all really going to help me. It just really makes me feel like the organization makes a big impact.
Kate, what’s your sense of the work you do with the group? Do you feel that being that resource of learning and connection is important?
It really is – every time we put on a CLE or a conference, I make it a point to reach out and give as much real-world, practical information to the students as I can. And I think the members really are starting to see that we’re here for them, as a resource they can turn to for advice and ideas about all the different aspects of their work.
So let’s talk dollars and cents. Erin, you’re the treasurer – how do you get creative with the funds you receive to make sure you can provide so many different programs and resources?
Actually, I’ve found that in my role, it’s really important to talk with the Board and help the organization prioritize its goals. What do we want to do for the Members in any coming period of time? What is it going to cost? I help to facilitate those discussions, but it’s really up to the whole group to be creative: to bring in ideas and figure out how we can make those ideas happen for our members.
Amy, as the president a lot of that must fall to you. How do you set the priorities? How do you know what needs to be done? How do you get feedback?
You know, so many things have been so different during COVID. Our priorities really had to shift in 2020 because everything had to be done online. And that really pushed us to focus on building up our social media presence. We realized it was an incredibly effective means of communicating that we just weren’t using much at all, but once we did, we saw a big uptick in our membership, which was great.
On top of that, the pandemic has really forced us to shake things up – now we have to do everything on Zoom, and that has meant we can actually do more things, like virtual happy hours, webinars to help people update their resumes, and programs to help our members learn new skills and reinvent themselves. Between March and July, I think we put on 35 different webinars.
So what’s next? What are some of your goals for the organization in 2021?
A big goal for next year is to set up a ListServ so that members can subscribe to different practice areas or topics, like criminal cases, civil litigation, family law, bankruptcy, and so on. That will allow them to lean on each other for advice and information – some of our members have been with us for 20 years or more, and that represents a tremendous wealth of knowledge that we need to help them share.
We’re also going to do a skills Academy once a month, where we’ll offer a more hands-on MCLE class. We want to do something that’s more than just an hour-long presentation: something where people can learn something they’ve never done before, and walk away with some sort of tangible work product. We’re still fleshing it out, but I’m excited by the possibilities.
That sounds awesome – but like Erin said, it also sounds like a lot of work. And if there’s one thing that keeps coming up, it’s this description of the life of a paralegal. People use phrases like fast-paced, moving targets, and juggling all the balls. How would you describe it, Katie?
Never a dull moment. Honestly, between my work and the activities I’ve taken on for SFPA – the social media management and so on – I don’t know if I actually have a life! But I’m never bored.
Erin, what do you think?
I think one of the main things that you come to understand as a paralegal is that you’re never going to just rely on what you know. There’s always something new around the corner. It takes paying attention to detail, and keeping in touch with your County clerk and your colleagues, so that you’re well-informed and aware of new developments. And then, like Kate said, you’re also dealing with new systems. You’ve got your office administration issues, technical issues – for example, if the computers won’t work or email is down…yeah. Never a dull moment.
Let’s wrap up. What do you enjoy most about SFPA? Amy?
I love having 900 things on fire and juggling the flaming chainsaws – I’m just that kind of person. But I thought I was alone, because none of my friends are like that. So it’s nice to have a group of people that I can collaborate with and come up with ideas with, who share that perspective.
And watching SFPA grow over the two years has been truly rewarding for me.
Erin, what about for you? What do you enjoy most about being part of the group?
The empowerment I experience as a member of the board feels really good, but more than that, I really enjoy being part of the community. When you get on a Zoom happy hour, and people are laughing and coming together, sharing stories about what SFPA did for them, or how we encouraged them to get this job or take this position…that feels awesome. And I want to be a part of that. I want to help people help themselves.
And what do you have to say about the SFPA, Katie? Show us the love!
You know, the Board is truly such an amazing group of people that care about each other and the people we’re serving. It’s such an honor to serve with people like Amy and Erin, because every one of them, in one way or another, is super inspirational. When we can come together and play off one another and make these magical things happen for our membership, it’s a really incredible feeling.
Ladies, you’re amazing. Thanks so much for your time and your perspectives – and for all the work you do for the paralegal community.
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