Like many of the other paralegals spotlighted on this blog, I met Sarah R. Coats, RP, through the National Capital Area Paralegal Association (NCAPA). She is also a member of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA).
Sarah is a Staff Assistant in the Office of the Reporter of Decisions at the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS).
PRTW: Why did you choose the paralegal profession?
SC: I love the law. I love researching, reading, and writing about the law. I sincerely enjoy the writing process: researching, drafting, editing—the whole thing. I’m also very good at taking a huge quantity of information and finding ways to sort it into useful categories. Everything I enjoy and excel at most professionally lends itself very well to being a paralegal. And being a paralegal lets me do all those things without doing the things I don't want to do, but that I would have to do if I were a lawyer (being in charge of case strategy, for example).
PRTW: What do you find most challenging about being a paralegal?
SC: People asking me when I’m going to go to law school! It’s funny for a while, but then it really starts to make me wonder why people can’t see what I’m doing now as me being a legitimate, full-fledged legal professional. That’s how I view myself, and I don’t need a JD to do that.
PRTW: How do continue to do your best work in light of these challenges?
SC: I keep myself focused on my own goals and my own happiness, not my ego or the pursuit of external sources of approval.
PRTW: Name a highlight in your career.
SC: Getting the phone call from SCOTUS offering me an appointment!
PRTW: What is the best book you have ever read and why?
SC: That’s a really tough call between Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” and the “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu. I believe in serving a cause greater than myself, whether it’s the pursuit of justice on a global scale or serving my own community locally. (Though it’s all one global community if you ask me.) It’s the ethos I was raised with. But in order to do that, I had to first learn how to serve that greater good without simultaneously diminishing myself. In “The Art of Loving,” Fromm rejects the notion of love as some mysterious and magical romantic ideal and instead posits that it is only by first fostering the development of one’s capacity for loving one’s neighbor with “true humility, courage, faith, and discipline” that one can then attain the capacity for true love. The “Tao Te Ching” teaches us how to strip down all the surplusage of modern life, and, in that simplicity, focus on “doing without doing,” emptying oneself of desires of a material or egoistic nature, and embracing “the spirit of the valley,” which is basically the ability to metaphysically contain all things within oneself without having to get rid of anything. It’s the art of keeping a low profile, not taking things personally, and prioritizing justice and wellbeing over ego. Those are ideals that deeply resonate with me.
PRTW: Tell us about someone who has influenced your decision to become a paralegal.
SC: My mom. For such a long time, it was just a foregone conclusion that one day I would go to law school. It felt like everyone around me just expected it—myself included. I worried that if I didn’t go to law school, I wouldn’t be achieving my full potential, and to be honest, I worried that people in my life would be disappointed in me. When I expressed these concerns to my mother, she very quickly nipped that line of thinking in the bud. She’s an English teacher, so Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true” was invoked more than once. I am so grateful to her for that. I know too many people who have gone to law school without really wanting to be a lawyer and later found themselves professionally stuck in a career they don’t want. I’m grateful to have been spared that.
PRTW: What advice would you give someone interested in choosing the paralegal profession?
SC: It’s the lawyer’s job to think about the whole forest; it’s the paralegal’s job to tend to each and every individual tree. You will be under intense pressure at times and you will be expected to pay attention to even the tiniest details. If you can do that and keep your cool, you will likely be very successful as a paralegal.
PRTW: What was your educational path?
SC: I received my undergraduate degrees at Kansas State University (dual majors: Sociology with an emphasis in Criminology, Women’s Studies), Boston University (Master’s in Criminology), George Mason University (Paralegal Certificate), and The George Washington University (Master’s in Paralegal Studies).
PRTW: How do you deal with stressful situations?
SC: Oddly enough, in a professional setting, the more chaotic and stressful the situation, the calmer I feel. I’m a very good person to have around in a crisis. To keep everyday life from driving me nuts though, I have to rely on planning, organization (I love to-do lists), yoga, meditation, and being aware of when I need to make space for myself to be alone and recharge. Self-awareness is key.
PRTW: Do you possess any certifications? If so, what are they?
SC: I am a Registered Paralegal (RP) through NPFA.
PRTW: What did you do to obtain these certifications?
SC: I passed the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE).
PRTW: How have the certification(s) helped you in your career?
SC: It both raised the regard my lawyer colleagues had for my professional abilities and improved my own professional confidence. It also feels pretty fancy to have the initials after my name. ☺
PRTW: What skills should a paralegal learn today?
SC: Learn standard proofreading marks and how to proof and edit properly. You will never make your supervising attorney so happy as you will when you prevent her from being embarrassed by a misstatement or typo. You should also never underestimate the importance of knowing the Bluebook inside and out.
PRTW: What do you find most rewarding about being a paralegal?
SC: When I was at the Children’s Law Center, seeing a case I’d worked on bring relief to a family was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. Knowing that a child will go to a safe and stable home where they are loved and don’t have to worry about their world being turned upside down is just an indescribable feeling. Now that I’m at the Supreme Court and no longer working with clients, I still feel a monumental sense of duty, as I very literally hold history in the making in my hands every single day. As a law nerd and history buff, it’s a pretty heady thing to know that I’m ensuring the accuracy of the cases that will form American legal precedent for generations to come.
PRTW: Do you have a professional mentor?
SC: I am fortunate to have relationships with several legal professionals—paralegals and attorneys—whom I respect a great deal and know I can always turn to for guidance. Over the years, I have sought their counsel on a number of issues, from choosing a school to changing jobs to how to handle particularly difficult interactions in the workplace.
PRTW: Why do you feel mentors are important to your success as a legal professional?
SC: The perspective you can get from a mentor is priceless. Plus it’s always helpful to know there’s someone you can talk to. The sympathetic ear of an understanding colleague can go a long way to dispel the negative effects of a bad day, rough case, or stressful situation!
PRTW: Are you a mentor to someone in the paralegal profession?
SC: I certainly try to be! Although I’m not formally meeting with anyone in that capacity on a regular basis, I always try to make myself available to new and up-and-coming paralegals and people considering law school who maybe don’t want to be attorneys.
PRTW: If you could change one thing about the paralegal profession what would it be, and why?
SC: This may not be a popular answer, but I would like to see a national licensing requirement to enter our profession, much like attorneys have to have with their bar admissions. As it is, anyone can call themselves a paralegal, regardless of their education or professional experience. Such a laissez-faire approach makes it harder for people to understand what paralegals can really do, and that dilutes our standing in the legal community.
PRTW: What legal blogs do you read?
SC: Above the Law, Lowering the Bar, SCOTUSblog, and Supreme Court Haiku (everyone needs a laugh now and again).
PRTW: What legal podcasts do you listen to?
SC: TED Talks – Law
PRTW: If you weren't a paralegal, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?
SC: I’m honestly not sure. It’s hard to imagine my life without the law. I could see myself living on a beach somewhere one day, supporting myself as a massage therapist, but that’s a couple decades down the line, I think.
PRTW: What is a “typical day” like in your shoes?
SC: Since my appointment to the Court, I’ve had a much more predictable schedule than at any other point in my career before now. I’m usually at my desk by 7:30 and I read/proof/edit until around 4:00 most days. If there is an argument in the morning, I may attend. More often than not, I am cozily reading away at my desk. Most people probably don’t realize that I do the majority of my work on paper with a pencil rather than on a computer. It’s a big change for me!
PRTW: Who inspires you?
SC: The women of the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. All of these women are phenomenal jurists, outstanding writers, groundbreaking thinkers, trailblazers, and fierce advocates for the kind of social justice that really fires me up. It is common knowledge among my friends and family that when I was a kid, I wrote to Sandra Day O’Connor (my then-hero, along with Indiana Jones) and told her that I wanted her job when I grew up. To this day, I still have the letter she sent me in return, and it’s hanging at my desk at the Supreme Court. Talk about coming full circle! I’ve never forgotten what it felt like as a kid to receive a letter from my hero. The five minutes she took to write a note to a kid in small town Kansas changed that kid’s life forever. That’s powerful.
PRTW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
SC: Either “do the best you can with what you’ve got wherever you are” (Teddy Roosevelt) or “take it easy, but take it” (Woody Guthrie). My dad was really good at passing along useful tidbits of advice like that.
PRTW: What do you think will change in the paralegal profession in the United States the next five years?
SC: I think we’ll continue to become more and more specialized, much like attorneys.
PRTW: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
SC: Something akin to what the Buddhist thinker Chogyam Trungpa said: “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” Don’t panic, even when things seem out of control. There is no end point, no single achievement, no job, no house, no relationship—nothing—that means you’ve “made it.” “Making it” is an illusion; it’s the journey—the crazy, sometimes out-of-control journey—that matters, so stop grasping at things and achievements as though they will bring you security or happiness. Similarly, stop holding on to failures as though they mean something about your value as a person—they don’t. Being able to appreciate each day and each experience it for what it is—positive, negative, or otherwise—is what will bring you security and happiness.
PRTW: What might someone be surprised to know about you?
SC: As of February 2016, I will be a Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT)! The practice of law is a very esoteric, up-in-your-head kind of pursuit. Massage therapy requires me to climb down out of my head and come back into my body, and to practice mental, emotional, and physical balance. Plus it’s a great way to feel like I’m really helping people take care of themselves and to make an immediate difference in their lives, which is very fulfilling. I look forward to using this certification in a part-time private practice and also to volunteer in my community, so I can bring the many benefits of massage therapy to people who may not otherwise be able to afford it.
PRTW: In the United States, paralegals have a variety of career options to specialize in, from patent law to elder law to technology law to criminal law. If so, what is your specialty?
SC: Without intending to, I seem to have built my career around family law (adoption, custody, child welfare, & neglect) and the appellate process.
PRTW: Why did you choose this specialty?
SC: I more fell into it than chose it, but as soon as I did, I was hooked. My first law job was in a small boutique firm that specialized in LGBT family law. Helping families establish the legal protections they needed was incredibly humbling, and I felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to do that kind of work. I carried that feeling with me to the Children’s Law Center where I worked on appeals stemming from child welfare and neglect matters, contested adoptions, and the terminations of parental rights. Heavy subject matter, of course, but the work itself was invigorating because I knew that what I was doing was going to create the circumstances under which the most vulnerable children in the District of Columbia would be afforded the opportunity to flourish. It was a truly awesome experience, in every meaning of the word.
PRTW: Have you ever worked in other specialties?
SC: I’ve worked temp jobs in other areas of law (government contracts, intellectual property, personal injury), but none of them excited me the way appellate process does or fulfilled me in the way that family law did.
PRTW: In the United States, paralegals can be employed in different sectors, such as private or public sectors. What sector are you currently employed in?
PRTW: Do you believe paralegals employed in each of these sectors possess different skillsets?
SC: Sure, there are specialized tasks that go along with working in each of those sectors; for instance, I would be utterly lost in an anti-trust action. However, there are many core characteristics that make paralegals successful, regardless of their sector or industry: close attention to detail, calm under pressure, well-organized, good time management skills, proactive, pragmatic.
PRTW: In the United States, there are many avenues for becoming a paralegal. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a paralegal?
SC: Like many paralegals, I came to the profession with the idea that I would one day go to law school. I prepared for it, I took the LSAT, I applied to law schools, but every time I got an acceptance letter, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Eventually I realized that I didn’t want to be an attorney; I wanted to be a paralegal. It just took me a ridiculously long time for me to realize that was a legitimate option.
PRTW: Does the Supreme Court or Washington, DC require continuing legal education for paralegals? If so, what are the requirements?
SC: No, but my PACE certification requires me to have 12 hours of CLEs every two years, with at least one of those hours being in ethics.
PRTW: What resources are available to you in order to do your job?
SC: I am fortunate to have all the resources of the United States Supreme Court and the Library of Congress at my disposal.