When I graduated from high school, I was not sure what career I wanted to pursue as an adult. Four years later, when I graduated from college, I was still unsure. But by that time I was married to a Naval Officer, and we had became busy raising a family, with every two years finding us on a new duty station in a different part of the world. If I gave it any thought at all during that time, I would probably have said that I’d go into education; both my parents were teachers, and I had enjoyed the time I spent educating my children at home.
When my younger child started high school, the question reared its head again, and I began to put some serious effort into investigating possible careers. A college admissions counselor I saw at that time advised against my going into education because there were so few positions available. When I asked her where the opportunities were good, she suggested Paralegal Studies. I had only a cursory idea of what the field was, so I began to explore it, and the more closely I looked, the more impressed I became.
I was looking for a profession that had good employment opportunities for the future, and the U.S. Department of Labor listed Legal Assistant as one of the top growth career fields through the year 2006. It was important to me, too, that I worked in a well-respected field, and our court system and the legal profession embody authority and integrity and are well worthy of respect. I was also looking for a field that utilized the skills I had and felt I could develop. Finally, I wanted to find a field in which I could contribute to society, and I felt that the training I received as a paralegal would prepare me to work for an agency or other organization that offered legal services to the community.
The next step was to find a school that offered a program in Paralegal Studies. Because there are no standardized requirements for entry into the field, I felt it was extremely important to choose a quality paralegal education program. The Harper College program is the finest one I could find. It is accredited by the American Bar Association, and the faculty there are attorneys with excellent academic credentials and real world experience. The quality of the program gave me confidence that I would be well prepared for the challenges of the work place.
I enrolled in the Introduction to Paralegal Studies course at Harper College in January of 2002. The homework assigned after the first class was to read and brief two cases. The first of those was a case called Steinberg v. Chicago Medical School, 41 Ill. App. 3d 804, 354 N.E.2d 586 (1976); I sat down to read it and felt like I had run into a brick wall. There were entire paragraphs made up of words that I didn’t know or that were being used in a way I didn’t understand. The textbook we used in the course explained how learning the law can be like learning a foreign language, which offered me some comfort at that time, because I truly felt the same sense of culture shock I had experienced when I lived overseas.
The instructor also assigned a set of terms, which we were to commit to memory. The first one was: Remedy: a specific means provided by law for protecting a right. I said it over and over hoping it would sink in: a specific means provided by law… a specific means provided by law… The second one was: Cause of Action: an aggregate of facts, which if proved, provide the plaintiff with a remedy. But by then I had forgotten what a remedy was! It felt like trying to grab smoke, but the instructor had said the terms were important, so I continued to plug away at them.
Somehow, it was beginning to sink in, even though I was not consciously aware of it happening. In February, a few weeks after the start of the course, I told my son that I planned to work in a soup kitchen on Easter Sunday, and asked if he wanted to join me. He thought about it for a while and then said, "No, I work in food service already, and I don’t want to do any more on my time off." I answered, "Food service, when it’s working behind the counter at a candy store, can be clearly distinguished from food service when it is done in a soup kitchen on a volunteer basis!" I was shocked at my own words. They indicated that I wasn’t just memorizing terms: I had begun to internalize their meanings.
I made it through the introductory course. In the fall, I enrolled in three more courses, and what I was learning began to overlap. We learned about individual or concurrent ownership of property in Real Property Law, and then learned why that distinction is important in Estate Planning. We learned about being related by consanguinity or affinity in Estate Planning, and then saw the concepts again as grounds for annulment in Family Law.
First I had learned individual words. Then the words became linked and overlapped. They began to form a network, and suddenly I saw the world as I had never seen it before. It was as though society were being held up by a huge, all- encompassing scaffolding, and I had never realized it. It had been there all along, but it had suddenly become visible. There was a framework in place holding up buildings and spanning from tree to tree under which people went about their business, confident that they could live their lives in stability and security.
"Big Picture, folks!" is the favorite phrase of one of my instructors, and I finally got it. It’s about taking a factual situation from one class and applying a concept I’d learned in another. Up until that point I had thought that each class was a like separate jigsaw puzzle; I was trying to find the piece for the empty space from the terms I’d learned in the class. Suddenly I realized that the terms did not belong to one subject or another. The piece I was looking for could come from a huge pool of pieces called "The Law."
"What do you call it when someone leaves you a diamond ring in a will, but you discover they sold it before they died?" asked an instructor. "Breach of will?" a student suggested. "Can you breach a will? No? Well, what can you breach? A contract- that’s right! Is a will a contract? No? How about a trust? " Because it’s not about any specific terminology. That just gives you access. It’s about the law, which is as solid and stable as granite, and has endured for hundreds of years, yet which is infinitely fluid and will apply to any situation in which people might ever find themselves. It is, as language has been defined, "the infinite use of finite means."
I felt like Alice after she tumbled through the looking glass. Just as learning a language allows a person access to understanding a new culture, so the terms I had been learning gave me an entry into understanding the abstract concepts of the law. The first few terms I memorized were like a student’s first few words in a foreign language. Gradually, the language student begins linking words into two or three word sentences: I was beginning to see overlap between subjects. When I began to apply concepts I had begun to see the big picture, as a language student does when she has gained enough proficiency to appreciate a new culture.
A tourist has to look at a guidebook and down at his feet to know where he is going. But someone who knows the language can find answers by looking out and around him. The education I have received at Harper College has given me the means to appreciate the law. I look forward to lifting up my eyes and exploring this intriguing new world.
Elizabeth McGuan is a student at Harper College, majoring in Paralegal Studies. She received her B.A. in Spanish language and Literature from the University of Michigan. This article was the winning entry in a writing competition held in Ms. McGuan’s class at Harper College. Thanks are due to William D. Goren, a member of the Publications Board of the DCBA Brief, for suggesting the competition and acting as one of the judges.