An Interview with Carly Griffith Hotvedt
“To succeed as a paralegal, you must be committed, work hard and take extra time to learn the things that you don’t understand, while dealing with many different responsibilities in work and life.”
Carly Griffith Hotvedt is a practicing paralegal. She works at a law firm in Oklahoma.
Carly has a Juris Doctorate and a Bachelor of Science in Clinical Science from University of Oklahoma. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Agribusiness from Oklahoma State University.
In your own words, what is a paralegal?
A paralegal is a legal secretary or lawyer’s assistant. As a paralegal, I complete various tasks to help the office run smoothly, including drafting petitions, filling out paperwork, returning phone calls and running errands. However, I don’t often interact with clients. That is the responsibility of the attorney I work for, who has been in practice for over 30 years.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a paralegal,” what would your response be?
I would tell a student who is interested in becoming a paralegal that it is a demanding and interesting job. Paralegals assist with the day-to-day running of the office while learning about how the law works and gaining valuable experience in the field. Working as a paralegal is challenging, but fulfilling.
What level of education is necessary to become a paralegal?
There are several ways that you can obtain the necessary education to become a paralegal. You can obtain an associates degree from a community college or, if you already have a college degree, earn a paralegal certificate. Some law firms provide on-the-job training, while others want you to have a specific degree in paralegal studies.
Personally, I have a background in agribusiness and clinical science. I also went to law school, where I obtained my JD. I want to become an attorney, but my law degree also qualifies me to work as a paralegal.
Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become a paralegal?
Aside from the educational requirements that you can meet with an associates degree or with a certificate in paralegal studies, there are no licensing requirements for this field. But you can earn additional certification from a paralegal organization, which can help your job prospects.
Why did you decide to become a paralegal?
The summer before my junior year, I was accepted to Girls State, a week-long camp hosted by the American Legion Auxiliary. At the camp, you learn how laws are made, how they work in your state, and how the court system works. I had always wanted to go to law school, and learning more about the process and how the law can be used to help others brought out my passion for it.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming a paralegal?
Although I did not have any major misconceptions, many people stereotype lawyers and others in the legal field. I think that it is important to uphold the rights of all citizens, such as the right to a fair trial. Everyone is entitled to legal representation.
What is a typical day like for you?
On a typical day, I don’t start work until 8:30 a.m., so I like to get up early and exercise, and then eat and get ready. When I arrive at work, I like to make a list of everything that needs to get done to make sure I complete all of my tasks. I check my e-mail, work on tasks that need to be finished and check my voicemail. Maintaining contacts is very important, so I must call everyone back within 24 hours. If there is a petition or plea that needs to be drafted, or paperwork that needs to be done, I do that.
Anything can happen during the day. For example, I might need to get papers signed by a judge in another county, requiring me to drive there and back. I might do errands like this all day or spend the entire day in front of my computer screen. It depends. I work from 8:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, and 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Friday.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
It can be hard for me to balance my job and my personal life. I have to be invested in resolving my clients’ situations, but also maintain a level of professionalism and keep boundaries in place. Mentally leaving my work behind when I go home for the day can be challenging.
Having personal time is important, but working as a paralegal requires a certain level of commitment. You have to be willing to do what it takes to get things done, and be able to juggle and balance different parts of your life. Keeping on top of your workload is very important. Sometimes it means that you need to stay late or cut your lunch break short, or come in on a Saturday to complete all of your tasks.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a paralegal? What traits would hinder success?
To succeed as a paralegal, you must be committed, work hard and take extra time to learn the things that you don’t understand, while dealing with many different responsibilities in work and life.
If you aren’t a very dedicated or hard-working person, it will not be easy for you to succeed in this profession. It is important to be as prepared as you can when you are on the job, which is part of any professional career.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
Yes, I should have taken more challenging classes when I was in law school. At my current job, just learning how to draft all of the work and follow the rules of professional procedure has been difficult at times. Focusing my law school courses more toward what was on the bar exam, rather than taking electives, would have been helpful to me not only for this job, but for my plan to become a lawyer. I graduated law school without ever learning how to write a plea or an appeal, or a client letter.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a paralegal should pursue?
Extra-curricular activities and experiences are definitely a good idea for someone who is interested in becoming a paralegal. Jobs, programs, and volunteering can help you learn what it is like to have a career in law and help you to develop your interest. Aside from attending Girls State camp, I worked at the Victim Witness Center at Dakota County District Attorney’s Office as a victim-witness advocate, which gave me great insight into the legal world. It is important to be open to a wide variety of opportunities to figure out what you truly want to do in your career.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a paralegal?
If you are thinking about getting into the legal industry, and going to law school or paralegal school, I would say that if you don’t like the law, don’t do it. Law school is intensive and difficult, and it takes passion and dedication to succeed. If you change your mind about going into law after you graduate, it can be hard to find other jobs where such specific knowledge is desired.
I would also advise you to do thorough research when looking at law schools. There are many schools out there with expensive programs that lack quality and are not selective.
Finally, it is a good idea to go to school in the state where you want to practice. For example, people from Texas could go to school in Oklahoma, and return to Texas with little difficulty. However, if you want to practice law in Louisiana, you will need to go to school in Louisiana, because their court system is very different from federal court and other state courts.