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Meet our 2007 Paralegal of the Year
and Runners-Up

By Tim Pareti

(Originally appeared in print as "The Votes Are In")

September/October 2007 Table of Contents

 

It can be argued that paralegals are the unsung heroes of the legal profession. They are an established presence that is valued in law offices, corporations, government agencies and courts throughout the nation. As with any profession, there are paralegals who stand out from the crowd. They not only are creative, passionate, inventive, organized and competent but they also all have something else in common — they love what they do. Perhaps that is why they can find the time outside their jobs to volunteer for pro bono work, assist in paralegal organizations, get involved with their community and even invent products. This year’s Paralegal of the Year and runners-up do it all, do it well and deserve to be recognized as the true heroes of the profession.

2007 Paralegal of the Year: Mary McKay

Two years ago, Mary McKay, a senior paralegal and paralegal coordinator at Glenn Rasmussen Fogarty & Hooker in Tampa, Fla., was chosen as one of two runners-up in LAT’s Paralegal of the Year contest (see “Paralegal of the Year,” September/October 2005 LAT). It was exciting news for her at the time. She felt honored and humbled that her friends and colleagues had nominated her for the award. Apparently unsatisfied with her placement in the 2005 contest, her colleagues saw to it she would win Paralegal of the Year.

“She is a true hero in my book and has my strongest recommendation for this award,” wrote Thomas Sasso, a senior chief paralegal for the U.S. Navy, and one of several people who nominated McKay for LAT’s 2007 Paralegal of the Year. “Her passion for the profession is unmatched, and she will serve as Paralegal of the Year with honor and commitment.”

For McKay, the second time around is simply a “blessing.” “I was on cloud nine for several weeks,” McKay said. “I was very happy to hear that I won because I know that that there are so many paralegals out there who are very deserving of this award.”

Passion for the Profession

Sasso, a delegate for the Memphis, Tenn., chapter of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, met McKay at the annual NFPA convention last year. At the convention, McKay stood up and confidently offered several ideas on how to improve NFPA. Sasso was impressed.

“I’m a strong believer that first impressions are lasting,” Sasso said. “She has this aura about her that makes you cling to her.”

Sasso searched for McKay during a break in the conference so he could meet her. During that conversation, McKay offered important advice to Sasso, who is making a job transition from the military to the civilian workforce. Since they met, McKay has been helping Sasso with his career goals, and a friendship has developed, he said.

“I consider Mary my mentor and friend,” said Sasso, who has served in the Navy for 24 years. “She has taken time out of her busy schedule to review my résumé and help me with my transition into a civilian paralegal job. She has been extremely helpful.”

Following the 2006 convention, McKay ran for and was elected NFPA’s Region III director. Serving as president of the Tampa Bay Paralegal Association at the time, she resigned because NFPA doesn’t allow anyone to serve on its board and on a local board at the same time. As Region III director, McKay went to work on implementing the ideas she announced at the NFPA convention. One of her primary goals was to increase communication between the local associations in the region. She increased the number of seminars at regional meetings and initiated monthly conference calls between regional delegates. “My role is to get everybody talking and get their ideas,” McKay said. “I don’t have the corner on the market of good ideas.”

McKay, who has more than 20 years of paralegal experience, sets the agenda topics with advice from regional delegates, summarizes the conference calls and sends the meeting minutes to every region association. In general, the conference calls are informal and informative, she said. Delegates might discuss new developments in the profession, brainstorm ideas on how to host a regional event or share ways to raise revenue. For example, in a recent conference call one delegate explained how her association raised money by hosting a “Pamper Your Paralegal Day,” where law firms could purchase gift certificates for pedicures and massages to give to their paralegals.

The conference calls have been very successful, as delegates get to share ideas and develop relationships that are cemented during regional meetings. This increased level of communication between paralegal associations in Region III has prompted praise from other paralegals.

“I would venture to say that Region III is most likely the best informed, most active region in NFPA at the present time,” said Edna Wallace, RP, a paralegal for Whitham Hebenstreit & Zubek in Indianapolis. Wallace met McKay through her service as NFPA primary for the Indiana Paralegal Association. “This is all due to Mary’s efforts. She organizes and directs without being pushy and always with a care so as not to step over anyone. She is extremely thoughtful of others. … I believe Mary is a person who lives by example. She expects a lot from people but she is more than willing to give twice what she expects.”

For McKay, the experience has been a good one. “It has been a very rewarding undertaking as Region III director, although it is a huge commitment, and I’m glad I did it,” she said. “I have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best paralegals, who are great examples to those just entering the profession, and who are truly devoted to the development of the paralegal profession. To lead others you have to stay a step ahead of them and with these brilliant paralegals, that isn’t an easy task.”

Leading by Example

Aside from her volunteer position as NFPA Region III director, McKay leads a six-member paralegal team at Glenn Rasmussen, where she has worked for almost six years. As the paralegal coordinator, she is the go-to person between the firm’s 19 attorneys and the paralegals to coordinate workflow and assist with other paralegal matters. In 2003, the firm’s managing partner handpicked McKay to devise a plan to improve the firm’s paralegal in-house program. She worked closely with Shareholder Ed Rice to undertake this project, setting monthly meetings with the firm’s paralegals to discuss roadblocks and brainstorm how to revamp the program and set individual and team goals. The end result was to give the firm’s para­legals more responsibility, provide them with more professional training and build case teams. McKay’s own efforts on the project won her a promotion. She now coordinates the workload and training of the firm’s paralegals and assists in all areas of litigation and research.

“The attorneys at Glenn Rasmussen are the best and many of them are recognized in ‘Best Lawyers in America.’ Recently, five of our attorneys were designated ‘Super Lawyers’ by Florida Trend magazine. It just makes sense that if we are going to have the best attorneys then they should have the best paralegals,” McKay said. “My job is to make certain that our paralegals have what is needed and are adequately equipped to get the job done efficiently and effectively.”

To that end, Glenn Rasmussen encourages its paralegals to attend seminars and earn certification. McKay also prepares monthly in-house training sessions that include attorney instruction for the firm’s paralegals. The sessions require McKay to plan the time and topics of discussion as well as help the attorneys prepare for the discussion. In addition, through her guidance, the firm hosts in-house Web­inars where para­legals connect to an outside vendor on the Internet and discuss various legal topics via conference calls.

Another important aspect of the program is the cross training of the firm’s paralegals. Each paralegal has a specialty such as probate, real estate or estate law. However, McKay advised the firm to train its paralegals in different areas of law so they can handle a greater variety of tasks. Although they might not be specialized in every area of law that the firm practices, they at least have a basic understanding of each area, which comes in handy if a paralegal is needed for backup. The revamped in-house paralegal program has won her accolades on every level in the firm.

“Mary is tireless,” said Greg McCoskey, president of Glenn Rasmussen. “She is an extremely hard worker and she takes pride in her work and it shows. The benefits of our paralegal program far exceed the cost. Through increased efficiency and the opportunity of our paralegals to expand their education and skills, we are reaping the rewards of our investment.”

This year, McKay asked each of the firm’s six paralegals to set professional goals. As a result, one paralegal passed NFPA’s Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam this year and another is expected to earn her PACE certification this summer.

Glenn Rasmussen encourages and pays for continuing legal education and professional designations for its para­legal staff. It was a decision also made at the insistence of McKay, who has both an RP and a Certified Legal Assistant designation and is a staunch supporter of both.

“Mary is a real go-to person at our firm,” said Sharon Danco, a shareholder in Glenn Rasmussen’s corporate finance group. “When you work with her, you know the job will get done efficiently, correctly and in a timely manner.”

Danco added that McKay is able to handle very complicated work. “Mary treats her position with our firm as a professional position, which is exactly the way we perceive our paralegals,” she said. “We want our paralegals to work side by side with our attorneys to reach our clients’ objectives. I don’t think you could find a better candidate for Paralegal of the Year.”

McKay also assists several of Glenn Rasmussen’s attorneys in their pro bono activities. “She truly distinguishes herself by being proactive,” said Peter Kelly, a shareholder in Glenn Rasmussen’s estate and trust practice group. “She doesn’t wait for people to come to her. We are very proud of her. She has always been an outstanding paralegal.”

Free Time

Somehow, between work and her NFPA director duties, McKay manages to squeeze in free time for family, church and other activities. In February, she and 11 other paralegals from across the nation were invited to review and update textbook materials for NFPA’s PACE examination. She went to New York for a training session on how to formulate questions for the exam. Afterward, she and the other paralegals on the team went to work researching, reviewing and validating questions.

Following her New York experience, McKay accepted another PACE assignment: To review and rewrite a chapter in the PACE study guide about law office management.

In addition to her NFPA activities, McKay has been a church music director for more than 20 years. She was a music director in Miami for 16 years and has been music director of her church in Tampa — the Calvary Tabernacle — since 1999. Recently, she accepted an opportunity to form and direct a new choir, drawing talent from 25 affiliate United Pentecostal churches in the Tampa Bay area. The new choir, composed of 75 singers and 10 musicians, performed at an annual camp meeting July 11 in front of more than 2,000 people. “I’m thrilled about this,” McKay said. “Great things just keep coming my way. I am so thankful to have been selected to lead this choir.”

McKay, who completed her paralegal studies in 1987 at the University of Miami, also taught for Miami Dade College’s paralegal studies program for 10 years. She still occasionally speaks at seminars for Half Moon Seminars, Estrin LegalEd’s national SuperConferences and at NFPA meetings.

Before taking on the NFPA Region III director spot, McKay was an active member of TBPA, of which she is a founding member, and along with president, she held many leadership positions within the association.

Her volunteer work ethic has inspired other paralegals according to Alex Jokay, the education chair for the Northeast Indiana Paralegal Association in Fort Wayne, Ind. Jokey said McKay influenced his resolve to increase his volunteer efforts through his paralegal association in the area of career development. McKay and Jokay met in April at a regional NFPA leadership conference in Indiana. He said at first he had no interest in volunteering. “I was dragged into it kicking and screaming,” he said. But he soon found great satisfaction in bringing together attorneys and paralegals for lectures and seminars.

So, how does McKay, a mother of three children, juggle all of her responsibilities and still keep her sanity? She sets aside time for herself. Every morning she sits on her patio at home with her husband, Phil. They talk “about anything,” drink coffee, and gaze at the lake and wildlife outside their patio door. “It’s a great way to start your day,” McKay said. “I look forward to that every morning. … Truthfully, I could never accomplish all I do [if not] for Phil — he takes good care of me and does so much for me. He is the best husband I could have ever hoped for,” she said.

McKay credits her success to those around her. “I don’t believe anyone is an island,” McKay said. “We need each other in order to achieve our best. Everyone that comes into our lives influences us one way or another. Fortunately, my life has been touched by so many great people. When they are successful, I am successful. I owe all of those people so much and my success should be credited to them.”

Runner-Up: Mary Jane Leon

In 1994, Mary Jane Leon, a legal assistant with James E. Dyer in Tucson, Ariz., at the time, was scheduling an arbitration hearing for her law firm. The rules called for the hearings to be scheduled sometime between 45 and 120 days from the date of the court’s selection of an arbitrator. It required her to literally count the days on a paper calendar, starting with the selection date and counting from 45 days (the earliest date) to 120 days (the latest date) to schedule the hearing.

“The phone kept ringing and it interrupted my counting,” Leon said. “I had to start over again. It was a pain. I remember that day thinking, ‘There has got to be an easier way.’”

One day during her lunch break, Leon went to her obstetrician’s office and asked for a pregnancy gestation calendar. She took it back to her office, used liquid paper to cover up the markings and wrote in all 365 days on each of the two circles. Then she simply lined up the dates on each circle to determine the earliest and latest dates to schedule the hearings.

“I said, ‘Wow, this is easy.’”

Since that day, hundreds of thousands of people think it’s easy, too. Leon trademarked her creation, aptly named the Circular Calendar, and now sells it to court reporters, paralegals, process servers, lawyers, real estate professionals, scientists and just about anyone who operates on deadlines. Last year, she sold more than 625,000 calendars (available at www.circularcalendar.com).

“It’s not rocket science,” Leon said of her invention. “I’m the queen of putting simple ideas to work.”

Building a Reputation

Leon, who has more than 30 years of experience as both a legal secretary and paralegal, has garnered respect for her innovation, hard work and expertise in the Arizona legal community. While operating the side business selling Circular Calendars, Leon works part time as a para­legal for Lammers & Barkley in Tucson, Ariz. She has been with the firm since 2001.

While Leon doesn’t have a degree, she took many law-related classes at Pima Community College in Tucson, and earned her CLA designation in 1995. Her first job was as a court runner, receptionist and typist in 1974 with DeConcini, McDonald in Tucson. Over the years, she has worked with more than 10 law firms and solo attorneys in the Tucson area, building a solid reputation along the way. For that, Leon was chosen by the Tucson Paralegal Association to represent it as a nominee in LAT’s Paralegal of the Year contest.

Charles Pyle, a U.S. magistrate judge in the Federal District Court in Arizona, said Leon’s Paralegal of the Year Runner-Up award is well deserved. He worked with Leon at Southern Arizona Legal Aid in the 1980s, representing low-income consumers in mostly predatory lending and fore­closure cases. He was impressed with her dedication and work ethic. They have been friends ever since.

“It was impressive to see her work,” Pyle said. “She is a real go-getter with boundless energy.”

Suzanne Rabe, the director of legal writing and an associate clinical professor of law at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, was Leon’s supervisor at Legal Aid. She described Leon as someone who is intelligent with a good sense of humor.

“Mary Jane is smart, very smart,” Rabe said. “She can handle details, and she can handle complex analytical matters. She can juggle many responsibilities at many levels and do it all well. … She is genuine and honest and fun to work with. I never got the feeling that she was just being polite because I was her supervisor. She speaks her mind, but she is so good-humored and understanding that I never knew anyone to take offense.”

Association Innovations

Leon, married with three children, has been a member of TPA for the past eight years, where she served on the board of directors and held offices as first vice president and second vice president. She applied her innovative skills at TPA as well, starting with helping to create the organization’s Web site, which she now maintains and updates. She was instrumental in getting quotes to hire a Web developer and worked closely with the webmaster to design the site. Afterward, Leon took over as webmaster.

While helping in the design of TPA’s Web site, Leon recognized a need for members to network with each other so she took it upon herself to input all the member’s e-mails onto the new Web site. It has been a hit ever since, Leon said. Members can share advice, documents, seminar information and important announcements with one click. “It’s just so phenomenal to have access to everybody’s knowledge,” Leon said. “A member can click on the list and post a question. Within 10 minutes, you can get 25 responses.”

Sue Mahon, an office manager for the litigation department at Goldberg & Osborne in Tucson, and a member and former president of TPA, agreed.“[The e-mail networking system] put the entire membership and their wealth of knowledge and experience at the fingertips of each and every member,” she said. “It has become a very fast and efficient way to get problems resolved in the workplace, especially for paralegals working for sole practitioners. These are people that quite often have no one to turn to to get an answer. But now they have a huge bank of paralegals at their fingertips.”

In addition to the e-mail networking system, Leon saw the need for a more active and easy-to-use job bank for TPA members. Before TPA’s Web site went online, Leon would periodically e-mail area law firms to promote the paralegal association. On occasion, a law firm would respond, in search of a paralegal to hire. She decided that it would be easier just to post the help wanted notices on TPA’s Web site.

Mahon, who has worked with Leon through TPA for about 10 years, said she is exceptionally smart, creative, dedicated and hardworking.

“Mary Jane is one of those people that has a very strong entrepreneurial spirit,” Mahon said. “She is always coming up with new ideas, and at times, turning those ideas into something profitable or instructive.”

Leon is the only paralegal at her firm, which has given her a flexible schedule. But when she is working in the office, her “nose is to the grindstone,” she said. Her specialties include personal injury and insurance defense, especially ERISA liens.

“In a personal injury case, just about every health care provider and insurance company is going to attempt to assert a lien against the proceeds of the settlement of the case,” Leon said. “Not all of those companies are entitled to reimbursement, and it’s an interesting process working through those situations. There are a lot of changes in this area of the law.”

As for being a runner-up in LAT’s Paralegal of the Year contest, Leon said she was surprised. “I’m kind of embarrassed,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are way more accomplished than I am. I’m very honored.” For everyone who knows Leon, it’s this humble spirit, along with a dedication to the profession and years of hard work, that make her so deserving of this award. “Even with all the kudos that have been sent her way for all she has done for [TPA], Mary Jane remains a very humble and gracious person,” Mahon said. “She has never had a runaway ego like so many do that are as involved as she is. This is one of her greatest qualities.”

Runner-Up: Michael Misenheimer

In February 2006, Christina Weeks, vice president of the Georgia Association of Paralegals, received an e-mail from Michael Misenheimer, a litigation paralegal for Sicay-Perrow, Knighten & Bohan in Atlanta, questioning why GAP didn’t have an ongoing pro bono project. She didn’t know Misenheimer, but she responded, explaining that GAP was comprised solely of volunteers, and at the time, the nonprofit organization didn’t have a pro bono director. In the same e-mail, Weeks half-seriously asked him if he would like to volunteer to be GAP’s pro bono director.

“Amazingly, he said ‘OK,’” Weeks said.

At first, she was unsure about Misenheimer, so she agreed to interview him at a coffee shop one week later. GAP has not been the same since, she said. And a friendship blossomed between the two.

“He hit the ground running, and he has helped change our image for the best,” Weeks said. “If something needs to be done, he gets it done.” Weeks was so impressed with Misenheimer that she nominated him for LAT’s Paralegal of the Year.

“Michael is the type of person who exemplifies the qualities of a great para­legal,” Weeks said. “He does what he says he is going to do and he does it in a way that exceeds your expectations. I hope that he continues to grow as a leader within the Georgia Association of Paralegals and NFPA.”

With seven years of paralegal experience already under his belt, Misenheimer completed his bachelor of arts in psychology in 2006 from Argosy University in Atlanta and a paralegal certification at the same time.

“Growing up, I always wanted a career that I knew I would be able to expand and grow as well as give back to the community,” Misenheimer said. “In my opinion, being a paralegal allows that.”

A paralegal at Sicay-Perrow since 2005, Misenheimer handles all matters in civil proceedings. His clients are corporations and small businesses. “I’m working for the bad guys,” Misenheimer said in jest. “That is why I do pro bono — I need good karma to come my way. I’m more fulfilled that way. The clients are always more thankful and grateful because they are people who can’t afford an attorney or a paralegal.”

Arthur Villarreal, case manager for Sicay-Perrow, said Misenheimer recognizes the firm’s “legal commitment to community service and enrichment.”

Villarreal added, “He has mobilized this office to act on the moral commitment to community service in his active work as director of pro bono services for GAP. The attorneys, fellow and lead paralegals, and staff of this office support all his efforts and commend his leadership within and outside the firm.”

Misenheimer obtained his first paralegal job while he was in college. At the time, he didn’t have any formal training, but he said he was so eager that the attorneys at the firm, Morrison & Associates in Gainesville, Ga., hired him in 2001. In 2003, he went to work for Kenny, Solomon & Medina in Duluth, Ga., working on Chapter 7 bankruptcy and creditor’s rights.

His career is an impressive feat considering that, up until he received his bachelor’s degree in 2006, he was a high school dropout with a GED. His decision to go into the legal field as a career was based partly on an experience he had as a teenager after his mother fell ill with congestive heart failure and needed an attorney to help with her medical claims. The attorney and a paralegal helped his mother on a pro bono basis. Misenheimer said the attorney’s free services and genuine concern made a lasting impression.

“The attorney would call and check on my mom, and she would talk to me about career options,” Misenheimer said. “That was a great inspiration.”

A Dedication to Pro Bono

As GAP’s pro bono director, Misenheimer coordinates all pro bono projects for the association. In a little more than one year, he has linked GAP members to several ongoing pro bono projects that have the legal community buzzing, including Project Liberty, the Breast Cancer Legal Outreach Program, the Legalmen Project and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer’s Foundation Living Wills Project.

“It’s good for the paralegal profession to show people that we care about our communities and we do good work,” Weeks said. “Michael is a good guy. He’s a good paralegal. He’s smart, thorough and dedicated. He makes things easier, which paralegals should do.”

Misenheimer linked GAP with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and held the first training session in January 2007 to assist with the Breast Cancer Legal Project, a program that provides low-income cancer patients with legal help in medical billing, insurance claims, divorces, child support recovery, debt relief and wrongful evictions. He organized everything with little supervision from GAP’s board of directors. “He got volunteers, set up a training session and got the volunteers to work before I even realized we were committed to the project,” Weeks said.

Rather than just coordinate the Breast Cancer Project, Misenheimer spends about six hours each month interviewing and pre-screening clients. “They really honestly need someone to talk to,” he said.

For the past six months, Misenheimer has also been an assistant pro bono coordinator for NFPA. In this position, he collects the pro bono hours from members in his region and reports them to NFPA’s pro bono coordinator.

Misenheimer also spearheaded Project Liberty, a pro bono program that offers legal aid to immigrant victims of crime such as human trafficking and domestic violence. He assists attorneys who are representing the immigrant victims as well as coordinates training sessions for GAP members to participate in the program with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer’s Foundation.

“Michael is one of the most extraordinary paralegals I know,” said Tamara Caldas, managing attorney for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer’s Foundation. “He’s not only excited about doing volunteer work but coming up with ideas and initiatives. He is just incredibly enthusiastic, creative and dedicated. Every time I turn around he’s initiating or participating in another project.”

Misenheimer said he is so determined to help out that he is planning to attend law school, and he is scheduled to take the LSAT in the fall. “I think pro bono-wise, I can do more as an attorney than a paralegal. I think attorneys and paralegals have the opportunity to give back [to] the community more than any other profession.”

Giving Back to the Community

The same year Misenheimer volunteered to become GAP’s pro bono director, he also volunteered to take over the responsibilities of the organization’s community service coordinator, who resigned.

While wearing the director of community service hat, Misenheimer organized and participated in a breast cancer walk, which raised $3,000 through GAP members for breast cancer research. He also organized and joined a toy drive where GAP members made contributions at the organization’s holiday party, collecting monetary donations and a van full of toys. Other feats include organizing a team of GAP members to help renovate a public school in West Atlanta through the city’s ServiceJuris Day, a designated day for legal professionals to make contributions to the community. For two consecutive years, he helped host a drive for the Genesis Shelter, which provides temporary housing and food for homeless families with newborn babies.

“The difference in pro bono and community service is pro bono is assisting those who would not otherwise have access to the legal system get the legal help they need, while community service focuses on giving back to the community with events such as drives for a local shelter, the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, and Toys for Tots,” Misenheimer said. “Basically, community service is not providing paralegal skills to cases but instead gives paralegals a chance to give back to the community.”

Misenheimer said he was surprised and excited to learn that he was chosen as runner-up in LAT’s Paralegal of the Year contest, but he said the credit should go to those who support him. “I don’t pretend that I am able to do the things that I do without a lot of folks in my corner to assist me,” Misenheimer said. “I have a great board of directors with GAP, a great employer, Sicay- Perrow, who allows me the time off to conduct pro bono work, and a wonderful pro bono committee who helps me come up with pro bono opportunities and assists in encouraging others to give back. They are all supportive. Then, of course, I am thankful to friends and family who sacrifice not seeing me so that I can do the things I do. Finding time for everything is a balancing act. You have to sacrifice and pick and choose what you can and can’t do, but that is life really.”

 


 

Tim Pareti is a Chicago-based freelance writer. He has written articles for the American Bar Association, Chicago Tribune and Texas Lawyer. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Texas A&M University at Commerce and a paralegal certificate from Harper Community College. He is a member of the Lambda Epsilon Paralegal National Honor Society. His e-mail address is tpareti@juno.com.

 

 

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