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Taking a 'side step' in the legal profession

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paralegals-bethellis-3-15col.jpg Elizabeth Ellis, corporate counsel for Emmis Communications Corp., said her paralegal career was beneficial in law school because it gave her legal writing experience. (IL photo/Eric Learned)

From her desk, Elizabeth Ellis watched the attorneys in her office work and realized as many other paralegals have – I can do that.

Ellis was a paralegal at Emmis Communications Corp. in Indianapolis, working closely with the company’s corporate counsel and general counsel. She enjoyed her job and loved the company but “I can do that” kept nagging at her.

Then one day while at home sitting on the couch with her husband, she talked about wanting to stay at Emmis forever. But she also felt she could do more and she needed to try. With that, her husband went to the computer and immediately began searching law school websites.

Ellis remembers him telling her, “If you have that tremendous nervous excitement, that is a sign you are doing the right thing.”

Paralegals who have become lawyers who spoke to Indiana Lawyer echo Ellis in their reasons for switching careers. They found the work as a paralegal to be challenging and enjoyed assisting the attorneys, but law school was always in their thoughts.

For some, working as a paralegal was a way to make money to pay tuition. For others, it offered a front-row view of the legal profession. They said their time as a paralegal provided invaluable experience, and they have much respect for the paralegals who now assist them.

McDaniel McDaniel

“I realize how important they are, more than some people do, and I value their assistance in what I am doing,” said Bridget McDaniel, associate at Krieg DeVault LLP. “I very much enjoy working with paralegals.”

McDaniel briefly thought about continuing as a paralegal when she was at Williams Barrett & Wilkowski LLP in Greenwood, but law school had always been her goal. She needed money to cover the cost of her undergraduate education and purposefully sought out work at a law firm because she wanted to be an attorney.

Ellis had a more difficult time leaving her desk to study the law. She liked being a part of the media company and considered staying in her position while completing her J.D. at night. She finally made the decision she could not do her best if she had to juggle being a mother, employee and law student, so she resigned in 2005.

Still, tending to her 2-year-old daughter and handling class assignments turned out to be a real challenge. She realized as a law student there was always more reading, more research, more preparation she could do, but she did not have the luxury of time. She had to set limits and learn work to efficiently, sometimes getting creative by reading cases while her little girl sat alongside reading her own books.

Sheldon Sheldon

Amanda Sheldon is in the process of getting her law degree. She had to take time off from her undergraduate studies and became uncertain she could complete a bachelor’s degree let alone go to law school. However, family and friends always told her when she was growing up that she should be an attorney. She said she then realized her indecisiveness over whether she could get a J.D. was really an excuse rather than a legitimate concern.

A month before her classes started at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Sheldon got a job at Hensley Legal Group P.C. Like McDaniel and Ellis, she has no formal training to be a paralegal and does not hold a certificate. She has learned how to be a paralegal on the job and that hands-on training has proven to be invaluable in her legal studies.

paralegals-mills-5-15col.jpg Courtney David Mills, associate at Riley Bennett & Egloff LLP, said the transition from paralegal to attorney was seamles and that other lawyers, including opposing counsel, were welcoming. (IL photo/Eric Learned)

Sheldon and other paralegals-turned-attorneys said their previous work assisting attorneys gave them an advantage. They already knew the terminology and were able to understand legal concepts and identify key issues more quickly in the cases they studied. They also credited their attorney-bosses with mentoring them by making time to explain the law and allowing them to take on more responsibility.

The desire for more responsibility — specifically to be able to sign the documents he drafted as a paralegal — fueled Courtney David Mills’ decision to go to law school. He earned a paralegal certificate with the idea he would be able to see up close what attorneys do and then decide whether to get a J.D.

Mills had assumed the paralegal field was a stepping stone to something else, but he quickly realized it is a career of its own. The work is very similar to that of attorney, with duties that can include trial work, helping prepare appellate briefs and working with clients. By the time he changed titles at Riley Bennett & Egloff LLP from paralegal to associate, he did not think of himself as taking a step up but rather as taking a step sideways.

“I was one of the people who knew what I was getting into,” Mills said of becoming an attorney. “I went in feet first and everything else, and I have absolutely no regrets.”

Ten years after she resigned and four years after she became an attorney, Ellis was offered the position of corporate counsel at Emmis. She described her return as coming home and noted her previous work there as a paralegal has helped her to understand the business’s needs. While the work is not brand new, she brings a different perspective and new skills.

“Every day is different,” Ellis said. “Every day is a new set of interesting challenges. I look forward to coming to work here.”•
 

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  1. Call it unauthorized law if you must, a regulatory wrong, but it was fraud and theft well beyond that, a seeming crime! "In three specific cases, the hearing officer found that Westerfield did little to no work for her clients but only issued a partial refund or no refund at all." That is theft by deception, folks. "In its decision to suspend Westerfield, the Supreme Court noted that she already had a long disciplinary history dating back to 1996 and had previously been suspended in 2004 and indefinitely suspended in 2005. She was reinstated in 2009 after finally giving the commission a response to the grievance for which she was suspended in 2004." WOW -- was the Indiana Supreme Court complicit in her fraud? Talk about being on notice of a real bad actor .... "Further, the justices noted that during her testimony, Westerfield was “disingenuous and evasive” about her relationship with Tope and attempted to distance herself from him. They also wrote that other aggravating factors existed in Westerfield’s case, such as her lack of remorse." WOW, and yet she only got 18 months on the bench, and if she shows up and cries for them in a year and a half, and pays money to JLAP for group therapy ... back in to ride roughshod over hapless clients (or are they "marks") once again! Aint Hoosier lawyering a great money making adventure!!! Just live for the bucks, even if filthy lucre, and come out a-ok. ME on the other hand??? Lifetime banishment for blowing the whistle on unconstitutional governance. Yes, had I ripped off clients or had ANY disciplinary history for doing that I would have fared better, most likely, as that it would have revealed me motivated by Mammon and not Faith. Check it out if you doubt my reading of this, compare and contrast the above 18 months with my lifetime banishment from court, see appendix for Bar Examiners report which the ISC adopted without substantive review: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS

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  3. So if I am reading it right, only if and when African American college students agree to receive checks labeling them as "Negroes" do they receive aid from the UNCF or the Quaker's Educational Fund? In other words, to borrow from the Indiana Appellate Court, "the [nonprofit] supposed to be [their] advocate, refers to [students] in a racially offensive manner. While there is no evidence that [the nonprofits] intended harm to [African American students], the harm was nonetheless inflicted. [Black students are] presented to [academia and future employers] in a racially offensive manner. For these reasons, [such] performance [is] deficient and also prejudice[ial]." Maybe even DEPLORABLE???

  4. I'm the poor soul who spent over 10 years in prison with many many other prisoners trying to kill me for being charged with a sex offense THAT I DID NOT COMMIT i was in jail for a battery charge for helping a friend leave a boyfriend who beat her I've been saying for over 28 years that i did not and would never hurt a child like that mine or anybody's child but NOBODY wants to believe that i might not be guilty of this horrible crime or think that when i say that ALL the paperwork concerning my conviction has strangely DISAPPEARED or even when the long beach judge re-sentenced me over 14 months on a already filed plea bargain out of another districts court then had it filed under a fake name so i could not find while trying to fight my conviction on appeal in a nut shell people are ALWAYS quick to believe the worst about some one well I DID NOT HURT ANY CHILD EVER IN MY LIFE AND HAVE SAID THIS FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS please if anybody can me get some kind of justice it would be greatly appreciated respectfully written wrongly accused Brian Valenti

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