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I Did a Thing … a Paralegal Certificate Thing

My husband is fond of saying, “I did a thing,” when he finishes a significant project. I finished something significant recently and my husband has been waiting for me to announce it so that he can share the news. So, then ….

I did a thing!

I earned a paralegal certificate from St. Cloud State University via The Center for Legal Studies.

This 14-week course started in January 2021 with a 7-week first section, followed by a couple of weeks for a break before launching into the second 7-week section.

The first part of the course concentrated on learning about how the legal system is structured, the different types of laws, the idea of precedence, federal rules of civil procedure, federal rules of evidence, various legal documents, legal ethics, and how to properly cite cases and other legal sources.

The second half of the course focused on research using Westlaw, the difference between mandatory and primary authority versus secondary authority, tasks within a law office, and more practice on proper citations. Our instructor was adamant that we make sure our citations were correct down to the proper formatting of words and placement of punctuation. Incorrect citations can cause a case to be thrown out.

Having been out of school for decades, I had to figure out how to structure my time in order to work, keep up with household chores, blog, and get my coursework done. It was a struggle at first. We had a short 10-point Bulletin Board assignment and a 50-point test every week. In the first part of the course, we had to write two legal memos. In the second part, we had three Westlaw research assignments and an appellate brief to write, along with the Bulletin Boards and tests.

For the first half, our deadline for assignments was Saturday at 5 p.m. I set a personal deadline of Friday at 5 p.m. because I hate working up to a deadline in case something goes horribly wrong and I need extra time to solve the problem. Once I got into the swing of reading and assignments, I found I could finish most work by Thursday evenings, though it took a few weeks to get to this point.

During the second half, our deadlines were Sundays at 5 p.m. I was going to set a deadline of Saturday at 5, but found that because I was off work on Mondays, I finished most of my assignments by Wednesday each week. I didn’t have to sweat the deadline at all.

My favorite parts of the course were conducting research on Westlaw, which I found to be fairly intuitive to use, and legal analysis, which we did for the memos and the appellate brief.

The appellate brief, a 100-point assignment, was intense but fun. We were given a legal scenario in which our “client” had been found guilty in trial court and we had to determine, using precedence set in prior cases, whether the law had been correctly applied to the facts of the case. I had no idea before this course that a case that goes to appeal does not go through a whole new trial. The Court reviews the appellate brief, response, applicable evidence that was submitted during the original trial, and determines whether the law was correctly applied, so the appellate brief has to make a solid argument on behalf of the appellee.

Here’s where precedence comes into play. To make the case for the client, you have to research past cases and see which ones are similar in terms of facts, laws, and jurisdiction. The cases that have been tried in the same jurisdiction and deal with similar facts and laws are the ones that are mandatory authority, meaning that the court is bound to follow those previous decisions. If you can make a good argument for why your case matches one or more previous mandatory authority cases, you are more likely to win the appeal.

I spent quite a bit of time on Westlaw trying to find mandatory authority for the scenario, plus a bunch of secondary (aka persuasive) authority. Secondary authority may be similar in facts and laws, but the jurisdiction isn’t the same, so a judge does not have to abide by the decision but can use it as a persuasive argument in making a decision.

I found a lot of cases that seemed to partially apply and got seriously bogged down for a day or two in deciding which cases would be best for making my arguments. I had to cram my head full of information, walk away and let it steep for a while, then come back to it. Then it was easier to whittle things down to a manageable level.

Courts are a stickler for the formatting of documents, not just the citations, so as I worked on the content for my appellate brief, I also had to pay attention to the formatting. Because I do a lot of graphic design work in my museum job and we museum folks tend to be sticklers for details, I didn’t find the formatting very difficult. Mostly, it was making a decent argument and, though the scenario was made up, I was invested in helping my client win the appeal.

Working through the paralegal certificate course, I returned psychologically to high school and college when it came to waiting for assignment scores. When I’d get an email announcement that a score was in, I’d be nervous to look at it. You’d think I’d have gotten over this by now, but nope.

I scored 100 points on the appellate brief and 96.29% in coursework overall. Squeeeeee!

I earned the paralegal certificate, expanded my writing skills in a new field, and learned a ton about the legal process. And I’ve already applied some of that knowledge to situations that have cropped up at work.

I enjoyed returning to a school setting to learn something new. I have my brother and his wife to thank for paying for the course (thanks, J & M!) and my husband for allowing me all the time I needed to study and complete assignments. He also encouraged me throughout. Thanks, Honey! (Now you can talk about my thing!)

Thoughtful comments welcome.