Fatima Mahmud, AACP

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Fatima Mahmud, AACP, and I met through the National Capital Area Paralegal Association (NCAPA). She is currently an Enforcement Paralegal at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in Washington, DC. Fatima is also a Notary Public for Maryland.

Fatima is an active member of NCAPA and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). She is a voting member of the Maryland Association of  Paralegals (MAP). Fatima is an American Alliance Certified Paralegal by the American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc.

She recently received the NFPA PACE Scholarship awarded to a single applicant in 2015. She is studying to take the PACE in 2016.

PRTW: There are many avenues for becoming a paralegal. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a paralegal?

FM: Throughout my college tenure I worked for a private-sector public policy consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After graduation, they requested that I move to Bethesda, Maryland to work in their branch office and paid for all my relocation costs. I frequently toyed with the idea of law school and becoming a lawyer. Once in the Metro DC area, I actively networked with lawyers and legal professional associations after work. Once I learned that the federal government hired and utilized attorneys, I wondered if government paralegals even existed. And they did! I found and networked with a federal government paralegal who suggested I continuously search www.USAJobs.gov for paralegal job openings. I did just that, and secured an Honors Paralegal position at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). I completed all four years of the FTC’s Antitrust Honors Paralegal program before I departed. Just as my official FTC term was ending, the Obama Administration launched the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) under now-Senator Elizabeth Warren’s leadership. I again applied online at www.USAJobs.gov, and secured a paralegal position within its Enforcement Office. Currently, I am the longest tenured paralegal in both CFPB and Enforcement history. I find it satisfying to have and develop both a paralegal and federal career.

PRTW: Why did you choose the paralegal profession?
FM: Just as other paralegals featured on PRTW have mentioned, I thought my path would travel through law school and lead me to becoming a government attorney. I previously worked with non-profit social justice lawyers and watched many legal-oriented TV shows. Being a strong advocate of work experience, I worked immediately after college rather than attending any graduate school. I kept working when the Great Recession of 2008 stormed through the world. Something curious began. Practicing law firm attorneys and recent law school graduates found me. They kept asking me how to become a government paralegal. They were all clear they would make less money in government and becoming a government attorney was very competitive. Moreover, the federal agencies I worked for started hiring former attorneys or recent law school graduates as paralegals instead of recent undergrads. The private sector paralegals I have spoken to since then tell me about law firm resistance to hiring lawyers as paralegals. Red flags were ablaze in my mind. Indeed, the legal market was oversaturated with lawyers. Law school was not leading to the guaranteed life and career once available in the 20th century. I compared myself (with no educational debt) to these individuals making the same low salary, but tethered to hundreds of thousands in education debt. The smart, practical, logical decision was to not invest in law school or remove myself from the workforce for three years. So I kept working through the Great Recession as a paralegal.

PRTW: Tell us about someone who has influenced your decision to become a paralegal.
FM:
The Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) influenced my decision to enter the legal profession, and is the non-profit social justice legal organization I referenced earlier. During senior year in high school, I interned weekly at their sister organization, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center within walking distance of my home. At that time, they had a tiny legal department that decided to spin-off into a separate, but allied, non-profit. The VRLC was the first to provide legal support services to victims of sexual assault. The reality of America’s criminal prosecution system is that the state is the legal victim of sexual assault,  but the human victim is its witness against the defendant. During the summer after high school, I interned closely with the VRLC’s founding staff, including Susan Vickers and Stephanie Decandia. I used my organizational skills to keep all their files and work organized as they spun off. I was effectively their junior paralegal. There were several highlights of that summer: I met Susan Estrich, Esq. in person to discuss the impact of her ground-breaking Real Rape book on American culture. And I drafted a script for a multi-disciplinary online video informing sexual assault survivors of available resources. The VRLC further developed that video and content once my internship ended. For several years it was on their website, but the VRLC has expanded and changed so much since then. The VRLC inspired me believe in professional careers in legal public service.

PRTW: Paralegals have a variety of career options to specialize in, from patent law to elder law to technology law to criminal law. What is your specialty & why did you choose it? Have you worked in other specialities? Why did you change specialties?
FM: As mentioned before, I chose to have a federal public career but I did not choose my legal specialties either in 2007 or 2011. The FTC happened to be hiring paralegals at the time I was looking, so my lack of experience in antitrust law was irrelevant. Over four years I gained knowledge and experience in federal consumer protection investigations, which antitrust really does fall under. I had to leave my FTC position as the mandatory term was ending, and it just happened that the CFPB was launching in 2011. I was a competitive candidate because of my past federal consumer protection investigation experience. I have remained in the federal consumer field since 2011.

PRTW: What advice would you give someone interested in choosing the paralegal profession?
FM: I am a strong advocate of individual introspection so that each person knows who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Newcomers should reflect upon and determine if they truly are detailed-oriented, excellent writers, highly organized, and genuinely interested in law’s impact on society. A lack of these characteristics makes for a difficult paralegal experience. Once a newcomer has her introspective answer, then she should seek out a paralegal job. It can take time, but keep at it. Consider becoming a federal government paralegal by searching and applying online. Many entry-level federal paralegal positions do not require prior paralegal experience as they prefer to provide on-the-job training.

PRTW: What do you think will change in the paralegal profession in the United States the next five years? What is the best way for a paralegal to prepare for these changes? With this mind, what changes will you make to continue being a successful paralegal?
FM: What will change in the U.S. paralegal profession in the next five years is the same as what has been changing over the last fifteen years: (A) the development of technologies that reduce costs and increase efficiencies; (B) impact of technology on the law and how the law responds; and (C) the shift towards delegating more work and responsibilities to paralegals and non-attorneys under attorney-supervision. I will continue to remain a relevant and strong paralegal candidate by continuing my education through various forums and actively learning about new technologies. I advise others paralegals to follow suit.

PRTW: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
FM: I knew this to be true when I was 18 and still know it is true today: Your instincts are your powerful guides, and always be in touch with your authentic self.

PRTW: What might someone be surprised to know about you?
FM: I enjoy dancing to bhangra and raqs sharki music (visit YouTube and watch videos featuring each of them). I mold clay and paint as relaxing hobbies. Readers can review pictures of my clay artwork on my Twitter account, and watch out for new pictures posted every Tuesday morning around 9AM.

PRTW: Paralegals can be employed in different sectors, such as private or public sectors. Do you believe paralegals employed in each of these sectors possess different skillsets? If so, what are they?
FM: Yes, private and government paralegals share certain similar tasks, procedures, routines, and experiences. However, profits and the economics of the billable-hour dictate law firm life. Service to country and fellow citizens dictate a federal paralegal career.

In terms of skill sets, federal investigative paralegals assist litigation attorneys in investigating potential violations of law and, as needed, preparing to sue defendants on behalf of the U.S. government. During non-public investigations, these paralegals will review confidential consumer complaints, review confidential whistleblower tips, collect and preserve evidence, coordinate and participate in witness interviews, write summary reports, and assist attorneys with evidentiary review in document management platforms. Some federal investigations, but not all, evolve into law suits. At that point, federal paralegals perform the majority of the tasks that law firm litigation paralegals do. A day in the life of a federal investigative paralegal can be very different than one who works within a government agency’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Ethics, Office of General Counsel (OGC), or Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office.

PRTW: What do you find most challenging about being a paralegal? How do continue to do your best work in light of these challenges?
FM: The challenge associated with a government paralegal life--and the reward--is to serve the American public to the best of my ability. The American public is the ultimate client for both government attorneys and paralegals. This client is broad, diverse, and holds high expectations for both service and tangible results. These demands make every day at work different than the one before. I get through this first challenge by returning to a state of gratitude that as a former low-income immigrant, I earned the privilege and right to become a naturalized citizen who is eligible to work for one of the most powerful governments in the world. The other challenges and stresses experienced on the job are similar to those experienced in law firms of various sizes. I get through these challenges by acknowledging they exist, and seeking help from others when needed. Swapping war stories with trusted paralegals is a great stress reliever.

PRTW: Please name a highlight in your career.
FM: Organizing all aspects of a field investigation to the Detroit, MI area in 2010 was a highlight of my federal government paralegal career. There my attorney and I interviewed underrepresented communities, especially Asians and Muslims, in their complaints against a company’s practices.

PRTW: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?
FM: Two of my biggest professionals risks so far have been: 1) Moving to Maryland for a job with no direct family in the area and 2) Joining the startup team of a brand new 21st century federal agency dedicated exclusively to consumer protection. It’s not every day that you can help build a federal agency from scratch.

PRTW: What is the best book you have ever read & why?
FM: I encourage everyone to read Susan Cain’s Quiet as a better way to understand, accept, and leverage and unique talents of introverts in a world of talkative extroverts For more information, visit Quiet Revolution.

PRTW: Have you ever been published? If so, where can we find it?
FM: Yes, I published articles on the federal government paralegal experience. Readers can read some of my brief blog posts once they connect with me on LinkedIn. My longer articles documenting the realities of federal government paralegal jobs are located within both NCAPA’s OnPoint magazine and NFPA’s Paralegal Reporter. I published about five in total. Please feel free to contact me at fmahmud[at]wellesley[dot]edu if you are interested in receiving PDF excerpts of my published work.

PRTW: What is one law in your specialty that people would be interested to hear about? Why are you interested in it?
FM: Consumer protection law and employment law affect every working American’s lives on multiple levels. American schools and colleges should do more to educate students on the basics of both consumer protection and employment law so individuals can better protect themselves from abuse.

PRTW: If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the beginning of your career what would it be?
FM: Document, in writing and through photos, more of what I experienced and thought about as things were happening. Make more time to do more art as a hobby.

PRTW: Pro bono work is an integral part of the legal profession. Do you feel that paralegals can contribute to pro bono work? What are some of the benefits for paralegals to perform pro bono/volunteer activities? Have you participated in any pro bono activities?
FM: Yes, I agree that pro bono work is integral to the legal profession. I am a strong believer and advocate of paralegals contributing to pro bono efforts to bring the justice gap and deliver needed services to moderate and low-income individuals. To that effect, I assist low-income workers at the DC Employment Justice Center’s Workers’ Right Clinic that occurs weekly. I encourage readers to review my related pro bono article in both NCAPA’s OnPoint magazine and NFPA’s Paralegal Reporter. Again, please feel free to contact me at fmahmud[at]wellesley[dot]edu if you are interested in receiving PDF excerpts of my published work.

PRTW: What was your educational path?
FM: I consider myself to have a fairly standard American education path. I attended an inner city public elementary school for eight years and then received a scholarship to attend an elite private inner city high school. Both cultural experiences shaped my views as a minority in America. Fortunately, I also attended the very empowering Wellesley College for my undergraduate years where I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. I focused my major on both the judiciary and comparative political theory. 2016 is a great year to be a Wellesley Woman. ☺ I have worked in professional offices since I was thirteen years old so I feel that employment experiences are as educational as academic ones. Currently, I am close to completing my ABA-approved Paralegal Certificate at Georgetown University in DC ). I enrolled in Georgetown to enhance what I already learned on-the-job from both the FTC and CFPB. A ten year gap existed between college and sitting in paralegal classes so I eased back into academics by completing Georgetown’s Forensic Accounting Certificate in 2014. I will continue learning through continuing legal education (CLE) and online reading, as I encourage other paralegals to follow suit. Should anyone know of great graduate school programs that would align with my background, I would be happy to hear about that via email.

PRTW: How do you deal with stressful situations?
FM: Acknowledge that stress is real and lives in the human body as a chemical. Acknowledge that stress affects how one sees the world and interacts with people in that moment. Breathe. Discuss or vent with trustworthy safe people who can understand your situation or environment. Finish the job, and go home to a life that is not dictated by the legal profession. Remember to eat real food, which is something paralegals lack time to do during the busiest days. Work out, dance, listen to music, do clay artwork, write paralegal articles, have a social life, and remain a balanced human being with multi-dimensional identities.

PRTW: How did you obtain your AACP?
FM: The AACP credential is earned based on experience and educational requirements, not a proficiency exam.

PRTW: How has your AACP helped you in your career?
FM: My commitment to the AACP credential demonstrates my commitment to growing within the legal profession and developing my own professional knowledge.

PRTW: What skills should a paralegal learn today?
FM: Paralegals today must learn the legal system, 
organization, attention to detail, efficiency, updated technology, and emotional intelligence.


PRTW: What do you find most rewarding about being a paralegal?
FM: Serving my fellow American citizens by protecting the consumer finance market place is the most rewarding part of being a government paralegal.

PRTW: What role does mentorship play in your career, both as a mentor and a mentee?
FM: The two best things that both mentors and mentees can do for each other are (a) act as safe sounding boards and (b) provide honest, object, constructive, and realistic feedback. Often there are political, emotional, or legal reasons why co-workers or managers cannot say something to an employee that they really want to. The mentorship relationship should allow for safe space to hear honesty about one’s professional self. I had multiple mentors for many years across many working environments. Some were assigned while other relationships developed organically. Both approaches work. I mentored multiple people for many years across many working environments. My current mentor, Angela M. King, was previously featured on PRTW in which she discussed our mentorship relationship and gave me a nice shout-out.

PRTW: If you could change one thing about the paralegal profession what would it be, and why?
FM: Paralegals ought to be respected and regarded the way nurses, PACs, and physician assistants are in the medical field.

PRTW: What legal blogs do you read?
FM: I look to Heather J. Lee, ACP, to guide me to relevant blawgs through her summary articles in NCAPA’s OnPoint magazine.

PRTW: What legal podcasts do you listen to?
FM: In the future I intend to be a better listener to legal and paralegal podcasts. I met LegalTech representatives at the ABATechShow on March 16, 2015, in Chicago, IL. If possible with the right resources, I encourage other paralegals to attend Legal Tech and eDiscovery conferences. And then write about the experience and lessons learned.

PRTW: If you weren't a paralegal, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?
FM: I already had jobs in both non-profit social justice organizations as well as private-sector public policy. I would return to those fields if I was not a paralegal in any sector.

PRTW: What is a “typical day” like in your shoes?

FM: Certain recurring tasks form a typical week in the life of a government paralegal. Federal investigative paralegals assist litigation attorneys in investigating potential violations of law and, as needed, preparing to sue defendants on behalf of the U.S. government. During non-public investigations, these paralegals will review confidential consumer complaints, review confidential whistleblower tips, collect and preserve evidence, coordinate and participate in witness interviews, write summary reports, and assist attorneys with evidentiary review in document management platforms. Some federal investigations, but not all, evolve into law suits. At that point, federal paralegals perform the majority of the tasks that law firm litigation paralegals do. A day in the life of a federal investigative paralegal can be very different than one who works within a government agency’s FOIA, Ethics, OGC, or EEO office.

PRTW: Are you regulated by an oversight agency?
FM: I work at a federal agency that oversees the consumer financial marketplace after the Great Recession of 2008.

PRTW: Does Washington, DC, Maryland, or your employer require continuing legal education for paralegals? If so, what are the requirements?
FM: Maryland and DC do not mandate continuing legal education for paralegals. My current federal agency does not mandate continuing legal education for paralegals.

PRTW: What resources does the United States, Maryland, or DC provide to you in order to do your job?
FM: The state governments of Maryland and DC do not provide these resources. However, NFPA provides access to recorded webinars for a fee on their website. NCAPA plans and sponsors many fee-based continuing legal education and paralegal classes for members and non-members alike. Readers should review the websites for both organizations.

PRTW: What inspires you?
FM: When I, and other people, do things to effectively improve the lives of those in need.

PRTW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

FM:All emotions are real and valid,” by Dr. Judith Pierson.

Fatima invites readers to send her a connection request on LinkedIn. Please reference this article in your request rather than using the generic message provided by LinkedIn. She is also available to provide Maryland Notary Public services to PRTW readers as well. Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/mdnotarypublic.