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Obtaining a law degree and becoming a lawyer can be a long, expensive journey. If taking the law school plunge isn’t for you, other opportunities are available within the legal sector. One alternative to becoming a lawyer is to pursue a career as a paralegal. The following Salary Story offers insight into what it's like to be a government contracts paralegal. Our guest describes what you can look forward to in this challenging paralegal position, offers valuable advice on how to handle a paralegal career, provides info on paralegal training, and some insider’s tips of the trade.
Paralegal Job Description:
I am part of the Procurement and Contracts team of contracts specialists, procurement specialists, and a contracting officer for the US Congress. I assist, very actively, during procurement/competition by managing the document traffic between government and vendors.
To do this, I maintain the POC spreadsheet, create a cyberspace folder, and put together a binder for the competition. I am tasked with sending out the Requests For Proposals (RFP) to the respondents. I create spreadsheets for clarifications, questions, and put together the government responses. I maintain a calendar of due-dates related to the competition. Once the competition has reached a certain level where the "no-bids" have already been established, I become the POC for the government. I am responsible for ensuring the confidentiality of all documents between contractors and government. I am expected to require that Non-Disclosure Agreements are signed by everyone involved in the competition both from the government and the industry side. I distribute the proposals related to the relevant competition to the government evaluation team. I facilitate the exchange of documents between the government and the vendors.
For example, I am the POC for Past Performance Documents for competitions. With the contract administration, at the request of the contracting officer or the designee, I modify contracts, prepare documentation and facilitate awards of task orders. I process documents required for on-site contractor employees, maintain all files, and am the administrator of the government's contracts administration system. I maintain the documents required and authorize on behalf of the Contracting Officer (CO) and/or Contracting Specialists (CS) issuance of access to the government facility. I prepare authority request packages for procurement for the government, putting together quotes, justifications, etc. and am tasked to edit the same. These documents are submitted to a leadership official in the U.S. Congress.
I also do due diligence for the government by using Hoovers, Moody's, Standard and Poor's and Dun Bradstreet and a government website to make sure that a contractor has not been debarred or otherwise precluded by law to enter into a contract with the government. Seasonally, I train and supervise temporary summer employees.
PayScale: How did you begin your career as a paralegal?
I decided to become a paralegal and so I went back to college and earned my degree in Legal Studies. Since I have been working within the government finance area, I pretty much had exposure to the contracts behind the government obligations and when the paralegal job was created during the early 2000, I was not hired! A couple of years later, and after I had earned my degree, the job became open again and this time, I was hired. The hiring panel told me that they waited until I had done all my schooling to make sure I had all the time to concentrate on the "practicum." I have since taken other training paid by my employer to ensure that I am current on best practices. I have always wanted to become an attorney but I was at a stage of my life that going to law school was not a wise decision. Being a contracts paralegal gives me exposure to the field. Oh, and I am married to a successful attorney. He supported me in my pursuit, but lovingly told me one lawyer for each family is plenty.
PayScale: What was that moment that sparked your love for your paralegal career?
Initially, I was seen but not heard from. I had to learn the language the contract professionals were speaking and I had to learn it fast. One day, months after being on the job, I came to work and the Contracting Officer told me, "Look, Bob and I have looked at this document a hundred times and could not tell anymore if there are things that are wrong or missing. We decided that you should be the last person to look at it before we send it out." I proofread it and suggested some changes to it and I caught some clause that was referring to a non-existent previous section and my CO said, "You go ahead and deal with the Contractor. They wanted that clause in there. You are ready for that. You are conversant in it." And the best was when he said, "I told the Contracts Specialist that you need to see this first for the English before it goes out!"
PayScale: What are the biggest challenges you face as a government contract paralegal?
A paralegal job description is mainly a support role - in theory. However, as a government paralegal, I find myself, being a very active participant in the contract negotiations and administration that take place. The challenge is to be able to learn both sides of the process, speak and understand the legal jargon, manage your time, and be able to prioritize tasks and do them well.
For instance, the paralegal should not submit something to get signed or reviewed before moving to the next task. Rather, he/she should be constantly keeping up with all the other tasks to ensure that the contractors are not unduly delayed with their contract related documents, approvals, requests, funding documents, and contract modification requests. The government contracts paralegal should have put in place a system whereby he/she can respond to a question as to the status of contract related documents at any given time.
The biggest challenge for me is understanding the technical language that I find in our documents that I need to either edit or help compose. “Techies” tend to talk in words that do not seem to make sense to a mortal when they are requesting a new widget or service. My job is to fix the document so that it takes into consideration its audience. Contracts are precise and a comma can make a difference. Therefore, attention to detail is paramount and the standard one needs to set for oneself is high. The government cannot appear to be arrogant, uninformed, and careless.
The main job duties of a contracts paralegal, whether you are from the industry or the government - but especially when one is dealing with the government - is to keep up with the changes in government regulations. The paralegal cannot be complacent; continuing education and training for the best practice skills in government contracting is a must to be at the top of this career.
PayScale: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a paralegal career? What supplemental paralegal training do you suggest?
Take legal writing 101 and 401, take every writing course you can take. Buy a grammar book, and learn to use the colons, commas, and semicolons properly. Know the rules of grammar. Complete your sentences!
Approach your job with a great sense of humor and appreciation for written and spoken words; pay attention to details, and strive for excellence. Do not be stressed or annoyed if your CO (Contracting Officer) or CS (Contracting Specialist) or COTR change his/her mind and asks for changes made a thousand times, and sometimes expects you to know things you were not aware of. They expect you to remember for them. That is the nature of the job. Embrace it.
Be prepared to be in the supporting role. Just because a paralegal creates the legal document does not make her the lawyer. Learn the style of the ones you support, and accommodate it. Once you have earned their trust and respect, suggest what you think MAYBE (do not say "is") a better way of saying or doing something. Before you know it, everyone depends on you and appreciates you. However, when you are given an assignment all your own, establish your own style. My boss can tell if it was I who wrote something.
Learn to anticipate and be proactive. Do not wait for your team to ask you for a document (that you should have anticipated) as a result of the preceding action. There is nothing more satisfying than when I am told, "You are too efficient for me," whenever I am asked to do something related to an action we are doing and my response is, "It is done. There is a copy in the folder ready for your review." Even though you are in a supporting role, that role is very important and valued, and hugely rewarded when your team knows that they can rely on your competence. Be reliable and be professional in your actions, in your words, and in the way you dress up.
Remember that you are a professional representing the government or you might be the counterpart who represents the industry to the government. You are in a professional position - act it, look it.
And lastly, bring out the friendly person in you. You will not succeed if you are an introvert in this job - you will be expected to deal with numerous people and you will sometimes be the spokesperson for the government. Be a team player, and shine by being the "go to" person within the team.
Last and most important part of paralegal training: create your own task table, and list everything you are supposed to do and have done. Identify the task, for whom, etc. and the date you have completed it. This will help you organize your work and will benefit you. You can go back to this list during your job review and you will be able to list the important tasks you have accomplished since the last review.
I wish I knew earlier how happy I would be doing this job. I would have pursued it much earlier!
PayScale: Could you name a few interesting moments in your career as a paralegal?
I was sure I sent the government request to this individual with a Spanish last name. I revisited my request and I asked him to explain why the government had not received a response. I even said a phrase in Spanish. The poor guy said, in Spanish, that he lived in Venezuela and did not understand what I was asking him to do. Ooops, the wrong Mr. Diaz.
Or the time a contractor sent me an email stating that I must have sent him the e-mail by mistake. I was telling him the information for my son's doctor appointment for the coming week. And the e-mail said, "Honey, please do not forget the ...." I thought I would die of embarrassment.
At the end of the day, I know that I have done my best and that is very fulfilling.