Setting the bar high | Robert M. Shalhoub
Enter the world of Robert M. Shalhoub. The ‘attorney by day, adjunct instructor by night’ is near-legendary as a superhero for paralegals in Palm Beach County. For 35 years, he has taught in Palm Beach State College’s Paralegal A.S. degree program. His students are always a little scared at first, most work harder than they ever have before, but they always leave saying his “Court System: Procedures and Pleadings I & II” courses were among the best they’ve ever taken.
Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, support attorneys in the delivery of legal services. The PBSC Paralegal program exposes students to every facet of legal knowledge, and for his part, Shalhoub sets the bar high. “I want them to understand what they are doing. I want them to understand the concepts and principles involved.” His two courses are taken in succession in the final year of the program. “They have to go through Shalhoub to get out,” he laughs.
Born and raised in West Palm Beach and one of Florida’s highest-ranking attorneys, Shalhoub captivates students, illuminating lectures with tales of his “downtown experiences” practicing matrimonial and family law. Students hang on every word and feverishly take notes. A student even transcribed every lecture, including all his “Shalhoubisms” (his better-than-the-textbook definitions of legal terms), and presented it to him as a book.
“He’s a great teacher because he knows how to explain things in a way that makes it easier for students to understand,” says Don Marsh, who graduates this spring. “While his classes are by no means easy, you learn a lot and understand what you are learning.”
Everything comes together in the mock trial, an unusual opportunity for undergraduates. Asks Shalhoub, “If students want to know what we lawyers do, what better experience can I give them?”
The process starts with the case – a real one concerning an intersection collision that occurred in Washington, D.C. Students receive the “fact pattern” or case evidence in the fall term and use it to prepare complaints and answers, file counterclaims, do discovery and take depositions. In the spring term, they present the case before a jury consisting of former and future students.
“To think outside the box, you have to know what’s inside the box first.”
As Shalhoub explains, “I want students to think outside the box. It’s corny, but to think outside the box, I keep on telling them, they have to understand what’s inside the box first.” A mock trial makes for a perfect box.
The trial itself has become a rite of passage for each class. Students divide into teams, plaintiff v. defense, and play every role except judge. (Judge Timothy P. McCarthy of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida has presided over the mock trial for close to two decades.) “The students become absorbed in their parts so well,” says Shalhoub. “Those playing witnesses will come to the trial dressed up as an ambulance driver, police officer, or whatever their part calls for. Or, they have to do an opening statement or cross examination. They get out of their shell…it’s amazing.”
By giving students the experience of going to trial and coaching them to think like a lawyer, they are better equipped to provide attorneys with unmatched paralegal support.
Shalhoub constantly runs into former students working in legal offices throughout the county, and many return to his classes to help with the mock trial. “I’ve been back and it refreshes my memory,” says Tara Maione, a 2011 graduate who now works as a paralegal case manager. “It’s always such a joy to watch him teach…people want to give back to him because he gives so much.”
need to ask…
Q Why did you start teaching here?
A It was back in 1978. Dr. Ed Eissey [former College president] looked at me and said ‘How would you like to be involved in the Paralegal program?’ I said ‘sure, no problem.’ Everybody knows that Dr. Eissey is a Lebanese boy and I’m a Lebanese boy. His family and my family came here from the old country together.
Q How do you know you’ve succeeded?
A A [former] student will call me up and ask me out to lunch. I say, ‘OK, why are we going to lunch?’ They say, ‘I want to thank you. I filed a lawsuit in Martin County and I won. I wouldn’t have won if not for you.’
Q Do you have any pet peeves?
A I’ve always given tests where you have to write the answers out – it makes students think even harder. But then I have to grade them…a lot of students now have some of the worst penmanship you’ve ever seen. It has to be legible for goodness sake!
Q Why did you become a lawyer?
A Law has always fascinated me. I was influenced by Perry Mason – sure, I say it proudly. When I came home after school, I’d sit down in the house and turn on the TV and there was Perry Mason.