Work Like A Paralegal / Investigate Like A Woman

Being a woman influences the way I approach my career and life itself. With everything that is happening in our county, I push myself to be great. I want to be successful in my career. I want to know that I have helped, that I have made an impact in someone else’s life.
— Yolanda Barajas
 Speaking about what she finds rewarding about her work as a paralegal for a personal injury law firm, Yolanda says, "We deal with people who are injured at no fault of their own. Knowing that I can help, even if all I do is lend an ear, that gives me satisfaction." Photo by Marcy Browe Photography

Speaking about what she finds rewarding about her work as a paralegal for a personal injury law firm, Yolanda says, "We deal with people who are injured at no fault of their own. Knowing that I can help, even if all I do is lend an ear, that gives me satisfaction." Photo by Marcy Browe Photography

How many careers did you imagine for yourself throughout your childhood? Then, the possibilities surely felt endless. Those of us of a certain privilege, who are surrounded with a supportive community early on, are encouraged while we are young that we can be or do anything we want. Privilege, we use this word again and again because so much of what steers our success is contingent on this very concept.

When we are able to dream without limitations, and reach for those dreams without interference, what better privilege in the world is that? It was Langston Hughes who said, “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” Without dreams, we are stunted. We lose our ability move, or in the bird’s case, fly.

But the gap between the origin of our beautiful dreams and actualizing them can be wide. Time, difficulty, set-backs, and just life in general, can derail even the strongest of dreamers.

We talk all the time about what sets people apart -- why some succeed and why others don’t. Everyone has an opinion. And this is why we use the word privilege in such situations.

Here’s one theory? A common factor in the stories told from one person to another, time and time again, rests its turning point on the encouragement of others. Community. A supportive community.

This week's featured woman found her strength because others believed in her, pushed her, and cheered for her. They didn’t let her forget to keep moving forward toward that childhood dream. These people did not have ulterior motives or serve to gain from her success. But, make no mistake. While a cheer squad and shoulder to cry on is pretty much a requirement to power through the road less traveled, it still takes a certain level of grit to get to the destination. That can only come from within. This woman has that and more.

Like many women, especially those who work behind the scenes, the paralegal we spoke with is not someone who would openly share the details of her greatness. Instead, she pours her heart, time and energy into helping others.

MEET YOLANDA, A PARALEGAL FROM FALLBROOK, CALIFORNIA.

Yolanda, let’s start with your story. Share how your life experiences led to your current profession.

At an all too early age, my parents divorced. My mother moved 300 miles away, so I was always moving back and forth from San Diego to Fresno. When I was 18, I chose to permanently relocate to Fresno.

My very first job was at Gerawan Farming, a family owned and operated tree fruit company, when I was 18 years old. First, I was hired as an HR Clerk/Counter and worked that job from 2006 to 2008. As a Counter, I had to go out to the field twice a day to take a headcount of every person working in the fields. First count was in the morning, the second count was in the afternoon. From 2008 to 2014, I was a Compliance Auditor. While working for Gerawan Farming, I met many people from diverse cultures. I learned how to interact with people, how to listen and most of all, I learned to appreciate the little things in life.

When I started working for Gerawan Farming, I was able to experience firsthand what it was like to work hard. 90% of the workers were immigrants from all kinds of different backgrounds. Many of them had been working there for years and some were arriving day by day looking for the American Dream. Regardless of their backgrounds or how long they’d been there, they were all working hard and sacrificing a lot for their families.

After a few years with Gerawan Farming, I became friends with a lot of the immigrant workers. It was then that many of them would tell me to do something better with my life. Constantly, they would tell me that I deserved an education and that someone who was so lucky to be born in America had to do something better than work in the field. I became good friends with a wonderful lady named Gloria. She was a Crew Boss and I learned so much from her. She had shared her life struggles with me: the loss of her son, the loss of her grandson, and her breast cancer diagnosis. She too would tell me that I needed to leave the company and find a career that provided a better environment, away from the heat and especially away from the fields.

The day I enrolled in college, I made my announcement to Gloria and the other workers. The look in their eyes, their sincere happiness for me, I cannot put into words. To see how genuinely happy and how proud they were when I finally graduated, it was so rewarding.

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Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be a lawyer, specifically a District Attorney. I watched a lot of Law & Order: SVU. It was my favorite show because I loved how the DA fought for injured victims, especially those who were no longer around to fight for themselves.

When I was 12, my class got to take a trip to Camp Pendleton. While all of my friends chose to go to the jail/prison area, I chose to meet the Prosecutor. After we got a tour of his office, he took us to a trial, and it was amazing. Although we weren’t there long, we did get to hear a witness being questioned.

As I got older, I wasn’t so set on being a DA. I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer, but I wanted to try to get some experience with all areas of laws to see which one I liked best.

When I finally started looking at schools, I came across a Paralegal program that thought it was the best fit. While in school, we were allowed to try an internship program. I really wanted to complete mine at an immigration firm, as it was one of the areas that really interested me. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it, so I completed mine at a Personal Injury firm. My experience was not the greatest as all I got to do was update litigation filing for all my internship. Nonetheless, I knew that becoming a Paralegal was my first step to becoming a lawyer.

Describe the work you do.

I currently work as a paralegal for a small law firm which specializes in personal injury cases. Personal injury can be anything from a car accident to a dog bite and elder abuse. Our firm represents the injured parties, who end up being the plaintiff if the case becomes a lawsuit.

While I am not an attorney and cannot give legal advice or make court appearances, I assist with all aspects of a case from start to finish, so this can include opening an injury claim with an insurance company for our client, even setting up their rental car for them. I help draft and package legal documents such as demands for settlement, lawsuits and other court documents. I do a lot of online research to help find information about witnesses, defendants, and our clients. When a case is ready for mediation or going to trial, a whole new set of tasks unfold, of which I am active in preparing, drafting, revising, and packaging alongside the attorney. We really do work hand-in-hand on a daily basis. Since I am fluent in Spanish, I’ve also assisted with translating for the attorney when needed. In some ways, no task is too big or too small. I make copies of documents using the copier, hole punch, staple, check mail, print stamps, but I also draft and file lawsuits, review and organize medical records, contact courtrooms, schedule depositions, and put together trial binders.  

On top of all that, I am also encouraged to and try to attend continued education seminars or classes to help increase my knowledge and stay up to date on any changes within the field.

What are some misconceptions about paralegals and personal injury law?

The one misconception that I get from a lot of people is that this job is easy, that all we do is sit in front of a computer, typing and answering phones. But, it is quite the contrary.

Being a paralegal is so much more than that. Our job consists of research, problem-solving, investigating, communicating with clients, and much more. It can be very mentally draining because of all the problem-solving and critical thinking you have to do each day. Let’s not even discuss trial mode, because we’d never finish.

When it comes to personal injury law, the biggest misconception is that most of the clients are milking it or faking their injuries. People think that it’s easy to proceed with a lawsuit and “cheat” the legal system. The reality is very far from the truth. While I am sure there are people out there that do this, that is not my experience for the most part, and these people more often than not do not get very far. The clients we have had at our firms have had their lives turned upside down. They come to our office at their most vulnerable state and are often very fearful of the legal process. It isn’t uncommon that clients actually give up their rights and decide not to file a lawsuit because they are intimidated about having to go to court.

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A lot of people also have a negative opinion of personal injury lawyers too for similar reasons. If people knew what goes into each and every case, and especially preparing for trial, all the risk that is involved, they might think differently. The lawyer I work for at least spends so much time on each case, and when a case is headed for trial, that amount of time spikes! Most personal injury lawyers do not do this just for the money, it wouldn’t be worth it. They do it because they care and want to help people. That’s what I see anyways. It’s what makes the job fulfilling, for me too.  

How did you get the job you are currently in? Was it something you actively pursued or one of those jobs you sort of stumbled into by accident?

I was looking to relocate to the San Diego area, and casually browsing employment ads in the area online one day. I came across the ad and it felt like a sign, so I took a chance and sent my resume. I got a call that same day. It was the best decision I made in a long time.

What are some challenges you faced getting where you are today in your field. How did you overcome them and what did you learn?

To be honest, it was very hard for me to get a job as a paralegal. I didn’t get hired at a firm until two years after I graduated. I had no experience. My only experience was a three-month internship and every firm I applied to was looking for a paralegal with five or more years of experience.

After many unsuccessful interviews, I gave up for a while. It was hard to stay positive. No matter how honest or professional I was, I was not getting hired. Fortunately, I caught a break thanks to one of my college professors.

I can say that, with all the interviews I had to go through, I did learn and improve one very important thing, and that is to look people in the eye. It used to be very hard for me to look people in the eye when I spoke to them or smile in an interview. I gained so much confidence from the repetitive process of interviewing at so many places, and I’ve taken that experience all with me. Nowadays, I always look people in the eye, I always smile, and I am confident in myself, no matter the outcome.

What are your goals for yourself professionally?

My dream, for as long as I can remember, was to become an attorney. After working so closely with attorneys, I now realize it is more than just a job. It’s a way of life, and the two attorneys I’ve worked with both had something in common: their minds never seemed to rest. Whether they’re at home or away from the office, they are in constant work mode. I don’t think that is something I am willing to live with for my career. I want to be able to leave work, shut off my brain, and disconnect during my time away. It’s something that I have to work towards even as a paralegal, so after my first-hand experience in the legal field, I am happy working as a paralegal. I get to help people and work within the legal field, which is what I wanted. But I have less weight on my shoulders, so to speak, so that I don’t have to take it home with me when I’m not working. That being said, I would like to further my education and move upwards in my field. I would like to manage a firm someday.

How does being a woman influence your approach to your career? Have you felt any adversity, discrimination, harassment or other challenges that you feel were due to your gender at any point in your working years?

Being a woman influences the way I approach my career and life itself. With everything that is happening in our county, I push myself to be great. I want to be successful in my career. I want to know that I have helped, that I have made an impact in someone else’s life. Working at a personal injury firm, we deal with people who are injured at no fault of their own. Knowing that I can help, even if all I do is lend an ear, that gives me satisfaction. I don’t know if it is because I am a woman or if it is just who I am, but I have pretty good intuition. I believe my intuition has helped me get to where I am today.

I currently work for a female attorney and my co-workers are all female. It is a very open environment. We work closely together on a daily basis. At the other firms, it was not like this. They were bigger and had both men and women working, and we didn’t work this closely. The first firm I worked for, everyone had their own private office. The environment was completely different. We had meetings in private. We had a bigger workload, and everyone worked independently; there was really no working together. My boss was a male attorney, and I rarely had face-time with him or any attorney for that matter. Even though I personally learned a lot thanks to my coworkers, I did not have that one-on-one with an actual attorney. This made it hard to learn the who, what, when and where of the case. I didn’t get a chance to know our cases from beginning to end.

When I worked at the farming company, I came across a lot of men on a daily basis. Although, most of these men became familiar faces, there were seasons when the company hired outside immigrant workers. Most of those outside workers had some disgusting behaviors. They would have dirty conversations when I was present, some would urinate out in the open, without a care that I was nearby. It became very uncomfortable, but I learned to be careful when I approached these workers. It did open my eyes to male behaviors, which I was very naive to when I first started working there. I learned that not all men are trustworthy and that I need to keep my distance.

 Image source: Docurama.com

Image source: Docurama.com

Looking back at the way you have approached your professional development, education, and decisions, what would you say is your philosophy about work? What do you believe people need to do in order to succeed? Where did you learn this?

I believe that you really have to give 100% of your hard work at any job. You have to be happy and actually enjoy what you are doing, because if you don’t, nothing good will come of it.

It is my belief that in order for people to succeed, they have to keep going and not give up. You have to pursue what you want and keep at it because you will eventually get it. To quote one of my college professors, “It doesn’t matter how long it takes, what matters is that you finish.”

What advantages made getting where you are possible?

I think my one advantage to getting to where I am today have been my personal connections. My Civil Litigation professor has been my #1 connection. Thanks to her, I got hired at my very first law firm. She has been my reference and my go-to person for legal questions.

Before you go, can you share something that is worthwhile for the public to know about personal injury?

A lot of people know about the old lady that sued McDonald’s over spilling hot coffee on herself and got a multi-million dollar settlement. I would recommend watching the documentary “Hot Coffee” to learn more about how and why this case was played out in the media this way. It’s important to know the rights we have in this country and this documentary does a good job at laying out why the public has such a negative opinion of personal injury.

Since we deal with a lot of auto collisions, I think it is also so important to understand what you are paying for when it comes to your auto insurance coverage. So many of our clients are devastated because they do not have a policy that will help them recover from their own injuries and their vehicle damage. Most of our clients do not know at all what their coverage is, even though they pay for it.  

ABOUT YOLANDA

 Photo by Marcy Browe Photography

Photo by Marcy Browe Photography

Yolanda was born and raised in Fallbrook, CA, and moved to Fresno in 2006. There, she worked for one of the Central Valley’s largest farming companies for eight years. She provided first aid to the field workers, transported them to medical facilities for treatment, and served as translator for the field workers when needed. Yolanda also trained field bosses and other employees on CPR, first aid, and heat illness prevention. Her experience motivated her to pursue paralegal school, as she saw how some field workers were treated unfairly. In 2012, Yolanda completed her paralegal program. Yolanda returned to Fallbrook to be closer to her family, to include her two nephews. She has worked at the Law Offices of Lien T. Tram, a personal injury law firm in Carlsbad, California, since 2016. Yolanda loves to read, enjoys going to the movies with her family, and traveling throughout California.