by Ellen Zacarias
Christina Hough is an in-house paralegal for a Fortune 10 company through Legility, LLC. She has been in the legal field for over 17 years, and has experience working in-house and for law firms. On top of being a paralegal, she is also a notary and volunteers as an on-call notary for the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program. In this Q&A, Christina Hough provides insight on what it's like to work in-house, being a notary, and how the legal industry has evolved since she started working as a paralegal.
Name, firm/workplace, areas of law you work in? How big is your company?
I am currently employed by Legility, LLC, a legal recruiting, placement, and temporary assignment firm. I am on assignment with a Fortune 10 company that employs over 250,000 people worldwide. I was offered full-time employment two months into my assignment and I am currently waiting to be onboarded.
Paralegal program attended? Other educational background?
University of San Diego Paralegal Program. I will be graduating from Southern New Hampshire University with a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration this year. I also have many hours of continuing education credits.
For how long have you been working as a paralegal?
I have been working in the legal field for over 17 years now and have been doing paralegal-level work for over 12 years but I was not able to call myself a paralegal, at least in California, until May 2014 when I graduated from USD with a paralegal certificate.
Per your LinkedIn profile, you have experience working in a law firm as well as your current in-house experience. What is it like working in-house compared to a law firm for you?
Working in-house has been great. It is actually the least stressful position I have ever held. Everyone has their eye on the ball and does a great job of keeping on top of deadlines which helps to minimize and even eliminate stress. I am responsible for investigating and resolving small claims and limited civil actions in the West region, which is comprised of 13 states. I have a lot of freedom to handle cases in a way that I believe is most conducive to a quick resolution. I also act as the liaison to outside counsel for matters being monitored by senior legal counsel in our California corporate headquarters. I also provide paralegal support on various litigation matters, both plaintiff and defense, being handled in-house.
Working in law firms is completely different than working in-house. It is great to have experience in both environments. Solo practitioners, small to midsize law firms, and/or large law firms all have very different dynamics. I am glad I had the opportunity to work at one firm in each of those environments before moving to my current position.
How has being a notary public helped you in your career? What led you to becoming one?
Being a notary is a very interesting and rewarding opportunity. In California, notaries have to renew their commissions every four years and take continuing education courses so that actually helps with meeting the paralegal continuing education requirements set forth in California Business & Professions Code. In my first legal position, the principal at the time offered to pay for me to become a notary because the company filed numerous recorded documents involving mechanic’s lien claims, lis pendens, and the associated releases and withdrawals so it was only natural for me to become a notary so the company could avoid having to pay an outside notary every time it needed a document notarized.
Also, for approximately three years, I have volunteered as an on-call notary for the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (“SDVLP”). SDVLP provides free legal services to low-income, disabled, and terminal residents in San Diego County. That work gives me an opportunity to give back to the community and SDVLP’s clients are so thankful for the volunteer notary services. On occasion, I will travel to meet one of their clients in a mutually convenient location but most of the notary services are performed at SDVLP’s HIV/AIDS Clinic, which is held weekly in Hillcrest.
How has the legal industry changed since you started?
Well, this is an easy one. How has it not changed? Legal technology has come a long way since 2002. Adobe Acrobat alone, with its Bates stamping, optical character recognition, and document organization and bookmarking capabilities among other things, has completely revolutionized the way document reviews and exhibits are managed and organized. It has increased productivity exponentially and actually saves both law firms and legal departments and their respective clients an extraordinary amount of money.
That is just one example. However, you have companies like Thomson Reuters, Lexis, and others changing the game and continually developing new software and cloud-based technologies that rival anything that has come before them. WestlawNext and LexisAdvance for example are so intuitive that legal research has become nearly as easy as using a search engine.
Not to mention you have document management, practice management, and other softwares that try to bundle all necessary operations of law firms and legal departments into a series of integrated, intuitive technologies that continue to push the envelope on what is possible.
What was the hardest thing to learn when you first became a paralegal?
This is a tough one. The legal field is so expansive that it is difficult to pin down just one thing. I will say that billing took a bit of time to get used to because, at least in insurance defense matters, you have to be very careful about the way you bill your time because you can use one wrong word in a billing entry and it can be rejected even though the task that you performed is billable under the American Bar Association guidelines but may not be under an insurance carrier’s guidelines. What makes that even more tricky is that every insurance carrier has different guidelines for what is considered a billable or non-billable task.
Describe a typical day for you. What do you do at work?
There is no such thing as a typical day. Each day is different. Today, for example, I prepared exhibits in both hard copy and PDF format (including bookmarks) and wrote a trial brief for a small claims trial I am attending next Wednesday. I also followed up on various emails for pending assignments, participated in a conference call, skimmed documents I received in response to public record requests from two different public agencies for two different cases, and followed up on some settled cases in an effort to obtain closing documents among other things.
What advice do you have to people who are looking to find a paralegal job?
Anyone looking to become a paralegal should really enjoy the work. I recommend working as a receptionist or file clerk for someone just out of high school or college. This will give that person a feel for the environment and the personalities that work in the legal arena, which are numerous. I would definitely recommend the paralegal field to someone who likes investigating, puzzling pieces together to build the full picture, and enjoys working in a fast-paced environment that is always changing. Because the law always changes.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Since I have been enrolled at SNHU, I have not had much time to participate in outside activities but I do enjoy live music, collecting music memorabilia, writing (especially poetry and lyrics), traveling, etc. I would say I enjoy the simple things in life, such as spending time with family and friends, but I am always up for an adventure, especially if it involves music, culture, and travel.
What advice do you have for paralegals who would like to work in-house for a company?
Don’t be afraid to work from the ground up. In fact, be willing to do it. Ask questions. Don’t just do the work. Understand why you are doing the work. This will prepare you for anything that comes your way. Also, do not twiddle your thumbs. If you have downtime at work, offer to assist others. Seek out new assignments or unfamiliar work. This will build your skillset and make you invaluable.
Some general advice too: Never be satisfied. Always push yourself to be better than you were yesterday. Be grateful. You have a finite amount of time on this planet and you should do everything in your power to make this life your best life.
What skills do you believe it takes to thrive as a paralegal?
Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do. Being a paralegal is not for everyone. Some key skills for being an efficient paralegal are the ability to organize, manage time, take constructive criticism and apply it, and be willing to go the extra mile. Be a lifelong learner and enjoy learning. Paralegals need to be able to acquire and recall a wealth of knowledge and skills and apply them in a limited amount of time to innumerable tasks. Being able to work independently and collaboratively are both mandatory.
In some cases, a thick skin is necessary. Learn not to take things personally. Unfortunately, the human condition causes people to treat others unkindly at times but it mostly has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person. For example, you may be on the receiving end of someone else’s bad day even though you just called to ask for the status of an opposing party’s discovery responses. We are all human but we all can strive to be a little bit better today than we were yesterday. A kind word goes a long way and each day is a new day.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers, Christina! To readers, if you are a working paralegal and are interested in participating in SDPA's Q&A series, please contact me (Ellen Zacarias) at firstname.lastname@example.org.