Featured: Writing Paralegal Resumes

New: How To Discover Business Assets

New: Criminal Motion Practice (with forms)

New: Trends in paralegal training &  programs.

New: Getting Started as a Paralegal

Featured topic: Billable Hours

Recently Posted:  Avoiding Technology Traps


2007 Paralegal Rookie of the Year: Stacy Wagner

By Allyson T. Collins

November/December 2007 Table of Contents


Growing up in rural Gering, Neb., near the western border of the state, Stacy Wagner watched her parents each work 10-hour days — her father on the railroad and her mother as a nurse at a nursing home. When her parents arrived home from work, they managed to make dinner for Wagner and her brother, and then work five to six more hours on the family farm. “They showed me the benefits of working hard,” she said, recognizing that their vacations in a camper were due to her parents’ tireless efforts. “I believe that my strong work ethic came from them.”

It’s no surprise then that this same strong work ethic has led Wagner to be chosen as LAT’s 2007 Rookie of the Year. Working up to 60 hours per week while juggling a full-time paralegal course load in college, she was driven by her goals of earning her degree and a good job. “My parents would always tell me I could be whatever I wanted if I just put my heart into it,” said Wagner, who is now a paralegal at Legal Aid of Nebraska.

Road to Success

After graduating from high school in 2000, Wagner attended Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, Neb., just 10 miles north of her home. Although she earned a full scholarship to pursue her associate degree in criminal justice, Wagner chose to balance two jobs — at a video store and a daycare — with her classes to save money for a bachelor’s degree program.

Since high school, Wagner had been interested in working in the legal field, but her aversion to public speaking kept her away from a career as a lawyer. She originally hoped to be a legal investigator, but as she studied criminal justice she realized that she lacked a passion for the hands-on investigations of crime scenes. “After reading many different court cases during my criminal justice classes, I started to get very interested in the court side of the law,” she said.

Because she lived in a rural community and lacked exposure to the legal field, Wagner felt her career options were limited until she learned about the paralegal profession after taking an online quiz to find the perfect job. She immediately began researching bachelor’s degree paralegal programs in Nebraska. Following her graduation in 2002 from WNCC with an associate of arts in criminal justice with honors, and as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society, she moved to Lincoln, Neb., to enroll in the paralegal studies bachelor’s program at Doane College.

Jason Hayes, an adjunct professor at Doane College who also works as deputy state treasurer, remembers Wagner as a student who was determined to learn as much as possible in the classroom, and was very conscientious and detailed in researching legal projects. “She put many hours and much effort into completing assignments,” Hayes said. “She always turned in the most complete assignments compared to
her classmates.”

Wagner continued to manage a full schedule of two classes with a 40- to 60-hour-per-week position as a data entry specialist for a subcontractor of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). She admits that her life was confined to school and work, but when her motivation waned and she thought about skipping a class or giving up altogether, she remembered her parents’ example. “I was dedicated to getting my degree, as I would be the first one in my extended family to ever complete college,” she explained.

She reached this milestone in May 2006 as a magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor of arts in paralegal studies from Doane College, with the highest grade point average in her major. “I did not give up sight of the final prize — accomplishing my dream,” Wagner said.

Finding a Niche

Although she graduated in 2006, Wagner already had been working as a paralegal for Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Lincoln office since November 2005. The office is one of seven nonprofit Legal Aid locations in the state, and its employees provide free legal services to low-income residents.

While she was finishing her final two courses to earn her bachelor’s degree, Wagner responded to a paralegal job listing that Legal Aid posted in the classified section of a local newspaper. Within a week of submitting her application, Wagner interviewed with the director, the paralegal supervisor and the executive director of the organization.

“Stacy was such an exceptional candidate that the decision was made to hire her knowing that she would receive her [bachelor of arts] the following spring,” said Lori Wilson, a senior attorney who has worked at Legal Aid of Nebraska for 15 years, and one of Wagner’s two nominators for the Rookie of the Year award. “Her previous boss [from her data entry job] described the work she did as top-notch and what you would expect from someone who was already a paralegal.”

The former para­legal in Wagner’s position, Crystal Childers, who now works as a staff assistant for the State of Nebraska Department of Administrative Services Employee Relations Division, helped train Wagner for her new job. Although Childers worked with Wagner for only a short time at Legal Aid, she noticed that Wagner not only was personable but also demonstrated her abilities as a good listener through constant eye contact. “This is a valuable skill for a Legal Aid para­legal,” Childers said. “To the disadvantaged who are seeking legal help, it often seems like the only people who listen to them are the attorneys and staff at Legal Aid. It is a huge gift that Stacy uses to assist the clients.”

Wagner started out in the position by drafting basic pleadings and entering bankruptcy claims. “I learned the basic procedures and information in the classroom, but I feel like I was definitely able to relate everything I learned better once I was in the job setting,” Wagner said. “I felt like the documents I drafted at school made much more sense here at my job, once there was an actual face and history I could put with them.”

Currently, Wagner works for nine attorneys with another paralegal, a secretary and a law clerk; the cases vary and include juvenile law, family law, bankruptcy and consumer law, Social Security law, and housing law. Her daily tasks include drafting and filing bankruptcy claims as well as drafting Social Security memos, subpoenas, divorce pleadings, and general family or juvenile law pleadings. Wagner also completes emergency intake forms over the phone or in person when a client has an urgent domestic abuse or housing situation. “I am interested in every new case that we get because each case is so different,” she said. “It’s nice to have a variety so you’re not drafting the same procedures.”

Wagner also participates in team meetings for the Lancaster County juvenile court system when the court-appointed attorneys are unable to attend. She represents Legal Aid in a group with other attorneys, the parents of the child, a caseworker from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and the child, if he or she is old enough. “We talk about the goals for the family to achieve so that they can get out of the court system,” Wagner said.

Another part of her job involves visits to children for whom the Legal Aid office acts as a guardian ad litem.  During these visits, Wagner assesses the living environments to ensure that the children are in the most beneficial situation, whether it’s in a foster home or in their parents’ care. She visits each child once every six months, but sees about two to three children per week.

“The attorneys in this office rely on her observations when making recommendations to the court regarding the children that they are guardian ad litem for,” said Heather Bernt, Wagner’s paralegal colleague at Legal Aid and her other nominator for the Rookie award. This is just one of the many ways that Wagner has taken the initiative to become involved with clients, Bernt said, an initiative that flows over to help colleagues as well. For example, when the new bankruptcy laws went into effect, Wagner helped implement a new stystem to track bankruptcy cases in the office.

Wilson said that Wagner is a quick learner who is able to absorb new tasks immediately and complete them successfully. “I have been working with paralegals over my 28 years of practice and Stacy stands out as one of the best,” Wilson said. “She is invaluable to me in my practice.”

True Calling

In just two years with Legal Aid of Nebraska, Wagner seems to have found her true calling. In Social Security disability cases, Wilson said she often gives Wagner a new case and tells her to write an analysis after developing and analyzing the medical evidence. “Her analysis has been remarkable, thorough and insightful,” she said. “From her memos, I can then write an argument to the administrative law judge requesting an on-the-record decision.”

Bernt said that Wagner’s success in the area of Social Security is impressive because she had limited prior knowledge of the subject, and added that Wagner’s reviews of these cases have been influential in providing a quick resolution to clients’ issues. “This is vital to our clients who are low income and often have no means by which to live while they wait up to 18 months for a hearing date.”

Wagner’s organizational abilities and willingness to ask questions to complete assignments effectively would ensure her success at any law firm, Bernt said, and Wilson agreed. “Stacy is remarkably efficient, trustworthy and dedicated,” she said. “When I give something to her, I know that it will be done. I do not need to follow up with her. I have known her to stay past hours to make sure something is done. She does this with a smile on her face, no complaining and a genuine caring for our clients.”

Wagner credits Wilson and the other lawyers at Legal Aid who have served as mentors, guiding her through her first job as a paralegal. “The various attorneys here at work have inspired me to do better,” she said. “They are always helping me out with questions I have or showing me different ways to do things. I think that the biggest way that they inspire me is just by believing in me and in what I am capable of.”

Wagner is well respected not only by her colleagues at Legal Aid but also by community members who interact with her, such as case workers and Social Security Disability office staff, as well as Legal Aid clients. “With our clients, handholding is sometimes what they need when they call instead of legal advice, which of course, we cannot give,” Bernt explained. Wagner’s compassion for Legal Aid’s low-income clientele is evident by her patience in speaking on the phone as long as necessary to ease their concerns about affidavits for divorce or custody cases, or to answer their questions about Social Security or disability paperwork.

“Her true caring about the individual shines through,” Wilson said. “I have had numerous clients comment to me on how helpful Stacy has been to them or how nice she is.”

“In my career, I feel motivated by knowing I helped someone,” Wagner said. “Even if it is a small gesture like helping someone fill out the papers to get her driver’s license, it still feels like the days when we get the big wins, like when someone is awarded his Social Security after many years of appealing his decision.”

Going Above and Beyond

As Wagner spends more time in the workforce, she is becoming increasingly adjusted to her role as a paralegal. “I’m incorporating everything I have been learning, and I’m able to think on my toes more when new projects come along,” she said. “Every day at my job I learn something new, which is what I love.”

She shares this newfound knowledge with an intern in the office, by serving as his mentor and answering his career questions, instructing him on how to file paralegal pleadings, and offering feedback on his work. “He’s going through school [to be a paralegal], and I realize that they don’t show you everything in the classroom,” she said. 

Wagner also spends time serving on the Recruitment and Retention Task Force for Legal Aid’s strategic planning committee, and teaches her co-workers from other offices to file bankruptcy proceedings electronically. In addition, she recently helped motivate her colleagues to participate in an annual food drive through the Food Bank of Lincoln. Each day she sent out e-mails with facts about the food bank and offered incentives for the participants, such as a pizza party. “Her work didn’t fall behind because she knows how to prioritize,” Bernt said.

Bernt also collaborates with Wagner in running Legal Aid’s Pro Se Dissolution Clinic, in which they instruct clients on how to file for divorce independently. The two paralegals assumed  leadership of the clinic in May 2007 in an effort to allow the previous organizer, an attorney, to spend more time in the courtroom. Under the supervision of an attorney, they hold two-part courses  scheduled around the number of participants, which usually is about five clients. During the first course, the participants learn to file divorce paperwork, and in the second course, offered 60 days later, they are educated about filing a divorce decree for a final hearing.

During the period that they have been in charge of the clinic, Wagner and Bernt have served more clients than the attorney who previously oversaw the program. “This is something we can do without technically giving legal advice,” Wagner said.

To further her paralegal education, Wagner takes the initiative to find and attend local paralegal conferences. In September, she traveled to Omaha, Neb., to attend a conference called, “Bankruptcy Law and Procedure From Start to Finish.” Based on her research and interest in attending, paralegals from other Legal Aid offices also decided to attend.

Other Pursuits

Since 2006, Wagner has been a member of the Lincoln Legal Professionals Association, an association affiliated with the Nebraska Legal Professionals Association. She attends monthly lunch­es to become more knowledgeable about pertinent legal topics, such as the proposed new guardian ad litem rules, and also served on the planning committee for one of the group’s social events — a Lincoln Saltdogs minor league baseball game. “She is an active participant in our general meetings and shows great interest in the educational activities,” said Childers, who is secretary of LLPA.

Wagner has even found time away from her job to donate blood every eight weeks, sell Avon products, and work as a mystery shopper reviewing stores and restaurants. She recently finished planning and building a house in Lincoln with her fiancé, and is training their Weimaraner puppy, Bella.

“I find it very refreshing to work with someone who is as bright and efficient as she is,” Bernt said. She believes that Wagner’s success is owed to her organizational skills, effectiveness in meeting deadlines, adeptness for learning and eagerness to tackle new projects.

As for being chosen as LAT’s Rookie of the Year, Wagner said, “I feel both ecstatic and honored that my colleagues feel like I deserve this award. I am hoping to benefit society as a paralegal, even if I have to do it one person or family at a time.”



Allyson T. Collins is a science writer for a research institute in Los Angeles. She has written articles on travel, health and legal issues for various publications. 



home  |  advertising  |  press center  |  about us  |  contact us  |  conexion international

© Legal Assistant Today Magazine