Perfectly Paralegal® Spotlight with Deborah L. Baugher, VARP
Deborah L. Baugher, VARP, is an independent paralegal contractor and has owned and operated The First Choice Paralegal Group, LLC in Rixeyville, Virginia since 2006. As an independent paralegal, Mrs. Baugher serves predominantly family law and bankruptcy practices in Virginia’s 16th Circuit, Richmond and Northern Virginia, providing project-specific and/or ongoing support to a variety of attorneys.
Mrs. Baugher has worked in the legal profession since 1994, first as a legal secretary and then paralegal to a well-known Culpeper family law attorney. From July 2001 through January 2003 she served as paralegal to a Charlottesville firm having a more general practice, gaining experience in immigration, bankruptcy and civil litigation. Thereafter, she returned to her former Culpeper firm from February 2003 until December 2006.
Mrs. Baugher has served as a faculty member/presenter and review board member for the Institute for Paralegal Education, and was a speaker at the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations’ October 2008 conference as a panel member discussing career opportunities for independent paralegals. Mrs. Baugher is a member of PANV, the Paralegal Association of Northern Virginia, and NFPA, National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and serves on the NFPA Case Law Review Committee. She enjoys model railroading, embroidery art, has been a certified brakeman on the Walkersville-Southern excursion railroad, and enjoys playing Minecraft with her business partner and husband of 30 years.
How long have you been a paralegal and how did you get started?
Since about 1996-ish. I took a job as a legal secretary and decided I loved the law. My attorney was a former teacher and was happy to teach me. As I learned, she seemed to like my work over that of the paralegal she had hired, eventually let that person go, and gave all the work to me. She’s been both mentor and friend for more than 20 years now and remains one of my main attorney/clients.
What is your official title and what areas of law do you primarily handle?
VARP, Owner, Senior Paralegal, Chief Cook & Bottle Washer. I primarily handle family law, have done quite a bit of Ch. 7 bankruptcy, and I support the institutional attorneys to two of Virginia’s correctional centers. In fact, I seem to have become the “legacy paralegal” to Coffeewood, as my first attorney became institutional counsel there when the place opened and although the appointment has changed hands multiple times since then, I’ve “changed hands” right along it. The Circuit Court doesn’t know it, but apparently I come with the appointment.
Do you have a college education, and if so, what type of degrees or certificates do you have?
I have some college but no degree.
Do you hold any paralegal designations or certifications, and if so, which ones?
Virginia Registered Paralegal is the only certification I hold and I only got around to getting that this year.
Do you think that a formal college education or paralegal certification is important or beneficial to those in the paralegal field?
I think it depends a lot on what you want to do and in what area of law. The lack of one hasn’t held me back one bit. Because I far prefer small firms, and of course as a contractor small and/or new firms are my primary customer base, the lack of any letters after my name never posed a problem. At this level, attorneys are far more interested in whether you can do the job than how much formal education you have. That said, if you are working in larger firms and metropolitan areas, I think it would be helpful, perhaps even necessary, in order to be competitive.
What is a typical workday like?
At this point, some people may want to hunt me down and shoot me but, remember, I paid my dues for 12 years working as a W2 employee in regular offices, with regular hours, before I went out on my own. Now, a typical workday involves slouching 20’ to my office in my sweats and bedroom slippers with my coffee and breakfast in hand. Now you can all stop envying me because, at this point, my typical workday becomes like everyone else’s. I spend my days on conference calls, drafting pleadings, answering discovery, propounding discovery, drafting orders, writing letters and answering pages upon pages of emails. About the only difference is that the phone does not ring as often (the email more than makes up for that). We currently support 5 firms on a regular basis, with another 2-3 sending single projects to us now and then. So I’m juggling priorities not for separate attorneys but for whole separate firms and trying to make sure that all of them feel like they’re my #1 priority. (Still envy me? Anyone? …. Hello? ….. I hear crickets.)
Do you work a pretty regular schedule or do you frequently work overtime?
Yes. Ok, I guess a bit more explanation is called for. The schedule varies wildly. There are ebbs and flows seasonally in family law and there are ebbs and flows in offices which all trickle down to us. Sometimes we work evenings and weekends and there have been times when my business partner was unable to work and I’ve worked 16 hour days to keep up with the load. Then again, sometimes we play Minecraft on “company time”. In between times, we try to keep a more or less regular schedule.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Getting paid to be an insufferable brat. No, I’m serious. Family law is a dirty job sometimes, and things can get filed that get really personal. Woe betide to the opposing counsel who tries taking cheap shots at our clients. Now, some of the attorneys I support these days will not let me have as much fun as I might like to have, but my friend/mentor/attorney-client usually does (insert evil grin here).
What is your least favorite part about your job?
Dealing with monsters. There are monsters. I’m serious about that too. I’ve met a few (thankfully, only a few over the last 24 years) and the things that they can do to their spouses and children are really quite unspeakable.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Juggling the deadlines of our separate attorney/clients so that everyone gets what they need, when they need it, and so they feel like they are, each one, our #1 priority.
Do you ever travel for work?
Not often, but yes, I have. One of our folks is a mediator/arbitrator in DC and I have had to travel up there to help her with hearings on occasion.
Looking back at your career, are there any experiences in particular that stand out or are particularly memorable?
Going to court, whether it’s in a divorce trial or an arbitration hearing, is always memorable. What was the most memorable one? I had a commissioner’s hearing (equitable distribution divorce where the ED part is tried before a Commissioner in Chancery, rather than a judge. Did I mention I’ve been doing this for a looooong time?) that went on through 7 days of trial. 7 DAYS. The OJ Simpson trial didn’t last as long as that case and our parties had a house worth maybe 100K and a couple small retirement accounts. That’s ALL. Opposing counsel had never done an ED hearing before and the commissioner wound up not so much judging the case as teaching Divorce Trial Practice for Dummies. By the time the whole mess was over we were wheeling the exhibits back and forth on a couple of refrigerator dollies. Opposing counsel came loaded with 12 5” thick binders of documents. Nobody bothered to tell her that the judge wasn’t gonna read Every Single Bank Statement these parties had ever gotten in the course of a 10 year marriage. Our exhibits were in 1 binder. A small one.
How have you grown in your role from previous years?
I can lead a multi-attorney conference call without stammering now. I can sit down with a new attorney, look at their needs and tell them what I can do to help them and what I can’t. I can tell a client that if they don’t cough up the documents that were requested in discovery they’re going to shoot their case in the foot. I think it’s all about confidence. That’s the thing I’ve developed from previous years. I can project the confidence I feel about what I do know, and I have no problem whatsoever telling people that I don’t know something, if I don’t.
What skills are most valuable for a paralegal?
Organization. Attention to detail. The ability to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs. The patience to deal with wild eyed, frothy mouthed lunatics. And the ability to hide the bodies of said lunatics when the patience finally wears out.
How competitive is the paralegal job market?
Probably not a good question for me. I’m in a fairly rural area. There is one other independent paralegal very near to me but there’s no competition between us. In fact, Karen is the one who got me started as an independent. She told me back then that there was enough work for everyone and she was quite right. We refer people to each other on occasion and have never been in competition.
Are you a member of any national, state or local paralegal associations? If so, which ones?
What benefits do you feel you gain from being a member of paralegal associations and what advice would you give others about joining?
Opportunities for continuing education and networking with others in the profession. I could take more advantage of it than I do if I were a more social person. I don’t go to meetings or professional events, which I know would be beneficial, because in any given crowd of people I’m the one hiding behind the nearest potted plant and waiting for a clear shot at the door.
What suggestions would you give someone new who is trying to enter the paralegal profession?
If you’re totally new to the profession and/or are just out of college or a certificate program, make sure any attorney who hires you understands that you are entry level. You need OJT to grow in the job and gain confidence. Network with other paralegals, either through social media or local organizations. Some of the larger bar associations have a paralegal section. Every darn court/circuit seems to have a different way they want things done; there isn’t much standardization, if any. However, most courts have their local rules posted on their websites – look them up and get familiar with them. There is a lot of helpful information there which can absolutely be relied upon except on Tuesdays during a full moon or any time Jupiter is aligned with Mars.
What suggestions do you have for someone who is trying to advance their career or remain marketable?
Continuing education. No matter what area of law you are in, the laws change constantly; we need to stay current. Active participation in paralegal organizations is a great resume builder too.
Is there anything you want to share that we haven’t covered?
What, you’re not tired of me yet? Ok, then I’ll throw just a couple of other things out there for those who are thinking of going independent. You need at least 10 years in before you try it (my opinion). You don’t realize what a support network you have in a regular office until it isn’t there anymore. And, as an independent you are marketing yourself as an expert, so you had better be one. There is no other reason for an attorney to hire you when s/he could have someone at a much lower hourly rate to sit in their office all the time. And if you are going to take the leap (and trust me, it feels like jumping out of an airplane only to remember that you didn’t check your chute first), it helps to have another income in the family to be a safety net till you really get going. Preferably another income that includes:
*** A Flourish of Trumpets ***
*** A Flourish of Trumpets ***
Ok, seriously, you don’t want me to get started on health insurance for self-employed persons.