Valerie Lam

Valerie Lam is a paralegal with Marr Jones and Wang LLP (“MJW”). While in Washington, DC she was a member of the National Capital Area Paralegal Association (“NCAPA”), and recently joined the Hawaii Paralegal Association (“HPA”).

PRTW: In the United States, there are many avenues for becoming a paralegal. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a paralegal?
VL: I had been on the law school track when while in college and thought that interning at law firms during the summer was a good place to start. When it came time to move forward with law school, I realized that it was not the profession I really wanted. Going into legal support was the practical thing to do.

PRTW: Why did you choose the paralegal profession?
It started off as a practical matter (you get out of school, you get a job and this job made sense), but over time, I found that being a paralegal presented challenges and honed professional skills that kept me stimulated.

PRTW: Tell us about someone who has influenced your decision to become a paralegal.
VL: I wouldn’t say any one person has been an influence. I have been really lucky to have worked with and for some great attorneys and managers, who have pushed me to work smarter and better and who have presented me with really great opportunities.To a degree you have to seek out those mentors, but at the same time, these people have seen the value I can add to a team, and they nurture and develop that, and I am grateful. I am pleased to say that pattern continues to this day.

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. What is your specialty?
VL: I never had a specialty. I was a “litigation” paralegal and for the past 10 years, I supported case teams across a breadth of practice areas to include: government contracts and bid protests; complex civil litigations that go to trial or international arbitrations that have hearings abroad; and appellate work in state and federal courts.

I moved from Washington, DC to Honolulu, Hawaii this past summer and my current firm, MJW, is a boutique employment law firm. So, you could say I have a specialty now.

But, I think that’s really the beauty of the profession. You can specialize as a paralegal, but you don’t have to. There’s a lot of space in this type of work to shape your own career path.

PRTW: What advice would you give someone interested in choosing the paralegal profession?
VL: Be open and adaptable. Having that attitude will keep you sane on the job (working in the legal industry is stressful!), and it will open up opportunities for you.

On that latter point, I’m a jack of all trades because I’ve been willing to field any kind of project, and as a consequence I have been able to meet and work with a lot of different people, try my hand at various types of work, and travel domestically and internationally. If you like diversity in your work, being open and adaptable is how to start.

PRTW: What do you think will change in the paralegal profession in the United States in the next five years?
VL: I don’t know that it is a new trend, but technological resources are playing a heavy hand in case and document management due to client demand to be more efficient and the sheer volume of data and information for a case.

I think that’s a real opportunity there for paralegals. I’m seeing that we - the paralegals - are the case team experts for Concordance, CaseMap, Trial Director, etc., particularly because not all firms have a Litigation Support Department (“Lit Support”). And even the ones that do, a good paralegal ought to be versed to a large degree in these kinds of software applications so they can bridge the gap between Lit Support and the lawyers.

PRTW: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
VL: You can’t control everything, but you do have a choice in how you respond, and that makes the difference.

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? Do you believe paralegals employed in each of these sectors possess different skillsets?
VL: I’m in private, but I would imagine that both public sector and private sector paralegals have to have a lot of the same skills.  It’s how we apply them in the day-to-day that may differ.

PRTW: What do you find most challenging about being a paralegal, and how do continue to do your best work in light of these challenges?
VL: Work-life balance is the toughest part of the job, but I have had and continue to have a supportive personal and professional network that reminds me to “turn it off” from time to time.

PRTW: Please name a highlight in your career.
VL: We were pressed for a filing that had to be hand delivered, and the secretary and I were in the final throes of quality checking the brief and exhibits. The 2 attorneys on the case were feeling the heat too, and the stress and emotions of the situation were getting the better of them; they were hovering, pacing over our shoulders, and barking out questions that distracted the secretary and myself, and slowed us down. Finally, I just dead stopped what I was doing, stepped beside one of the attorneys and gently took his arm, leading him a few feet away from us to sit him down. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop as everyone watched me do this. The attorneys got the point, and everyone started laughing.

It’s these little moments that bring the humanity back to the job - breaking the heat for everyone with humor.  I wouldn’t say that’s a “career highlight” (sure, I have some pretty awesome trials and a hearing in Cairo, Egypt I could go into - but that’s the expected stuff, saved for job interviews). However, that interaction made a difference for everyone there in that moment, and I know that story gets told still by the people involved.

Oh, and we made the filing with time to spare.

PRTW: What is the best book you have ever read? Why?
VL: Another tough one for me. The “best book” changes every few years depending on what I have read and my current temperament.

I guess right now, it is Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris, because he tackles relatable human stuff with a sense of humor and heart.

PRTW: What was your educational path?
VL: I have a Bachelor's of Arts in International Relations from Bucknell University.

PRTW: How do you deal with stressful situations?
VL: I freak out initially, quickly. Then I turn to finding a solution and focusing on achieving the solution. Then, when it’s over, freak out some more.

But seriously, a sense of humor usually gets everyone through the stress as noted in two examples below.

To meeting a filing deadline, I once sat inside the FedEx pick-up truck to hold the driver until the filing could get down to him.

The other FedEx story was a bit more harrowing. It isn't like this anymore for FedEx coming out of Dulles, but there used to an office that customers could get out to at the airport itself up until midnight. I had a package that needed that FedEx scan before midnight and it was 11:30pm. I already was working late that night getting the documents ready for shipment up until literally the 11th hour. I called my significant other to grab the car and meet me downstairs at our DC offices. I had 30 minutes to get from downtown K Street to Dulles airport. We hustled to the airport; luckily, that late at night, traffic was not an issue. The car was still running when I jumped out of it, ran through FedEx's front doors, and put the package on the counter. Right behind me, the office representatives closed and locked the doors, and the people behind the FedEx counter all burst into laughter. The FedEx representative, while scanning in my package, said "Well, you certainly aren't the first we've had like this... but girl, you did that in heels!" My response, "If I'm going to come in a panicked, hot mess, I'm going to do it lookin' damn good." And we all burst into more laughter (probably out of sheer hysteria at that point on my part).

PRTW: What skills should a paralegal learn today?
VL: Skills on the paralegal/technical front? Learn the software that’s out there. If you have the luxury, talk to your Lit Support Department and vendors and learn the language and functionalities. Go to the software-provided trainings. You will be an asset to your employer, and there is a need and niche for you there.

Soft skills that will help you manage the job well. Learn how to manage up and manage down. Set expectations for those above you, and learn how they work so you can get what you need from them to get the job done. Figure out your resources among your peers and other support staff. Build relationships and share information and knowledge there because you can and will help each other.

PRTW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given
This was given to me by another woman, as professional advice: “You need to pat yourself on the back because nobody else will do it for you.” It reminds me to be confident because I am good at my job, and in turn advocate for myself.

Valerie can be reached via
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